You are here

Brazilian Jews face difficult choices

Brazil is renowned for its carnivals, beaches and soccer stars, but a new study suggests this Latin-American country should be on Israel’s radar for other reasons as well. According to policy researchers at the Haifa-based Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, if they had to choose just one country, Brazil is where Israeli officials engaged in aliyah promotion should be focusing their efforts.

Not only because Brazilian Jews have more reason than ever to leave their country, say the authors of this soon-to-be-published study by the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research, but also because Brazilian Jews possess skills very much needed in Israel.

“The Jewish communities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are tight-knit, young, connected to Israel and less assimilated [than other Jewish communities in the world],” write the authors in their 55-page study, an advance copy of which was obtained by Haaretz. “In addition, these communities have a relatively high share of professionals, like high-tech experts and doctors, whose skills are in high demand in Israel.”

The study notes that younger Jews and those who marry within the community are more likely to make aliyah. Conducted by institute researchers Ilia Zatcovetsky, Ayelet Raveh and Dr. Daphne Getz, the study explored the potential for aliyah from 12 cities with substantial-sized Jewish populations in the following countries: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, France, Ukraine and Russia.

The United States and Canada were not included because aliyah from those countries is outsourced to Nefesh B’Nefesh, a private organization that caters specifically to English-speaking immigrants. The findings were based on responses to questionnaires, as well as telephone and face-to-face interviews, conducted between 2018 and 2020. In addition, the authors made use of existing databases, in some cases information that was hitherto unpublished. The full report is expected to be released in the coming days.

According to the findings, at least half of Brazil’s estimated 90,000 Jews (almost all of whom live in either São Paulo or Rio) are younger than 34, with the overwhelming majority of the adult population holding at least one academic degree.

The dire state of the Brazilian economy, combined with high crime rates and growing anxiety over personal safety, have left many Jews questioning their future in the country, the study notes, especially given the recent uptick in antisemitic incidents.

The report does not mention the coronavirus crisis, but Brazil was one of the countries hardest-hit by the pandemic and is still far from recovery – which could provide further incentive to emigrate. “The Brazilian-Jewish community should be seen as having significant potential for aliyah and should even be marked as the preferred target of a ‘focused aliyah’ policy,” the authors write.

They note, however, that leaders and representatives of the Brazilian-Jewish community who were interviewed for the study listed several obstacles to relocation to Israel. Chief among them was a lack of Portuguese-language information and services for immigrants, and difficulties encountered in obtaining professional certification. “A solution to these problems should generate an increase in aliyah from Brazil,” the researchers state.

Aliyah was down from almost every single country in the world last year because of the pandemic, which mandated restrictions on travel. According to Jewish Agency figures, 522 Brazilian Jews moved to Israel in 2020 – a drop of 20 percent from the previous year. In addition to the mainstream Jewish community, the study estimates that a further 4 million Brazilians might qualify as “Bnei Anusim” – descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions more than 500 years ago. Bnei Anusim, however, are not eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

According to the study, an estimated 30,000 Bnei Anusim in Brazil have already converted to Judaism. Neighboring Argentina is not regarded by the authors as having significant potential for aliyah. Reasons for this include the much higher rate of mixed marriages in that Latin American country.

However, aside from Mexico, where the numbers were significantly smaller in absolute terms, Argentina was the only country in the world to post an increase in the number of Jews who left it for Israel last year. A total of 567 Argentine Jews made aliyah in 2020 – an increase of 23 percent from the previous year, according to Agency figures.

Judy Maltz