Brazil’s Jewish community is the oldest in the Americas, with the first American synagogue founded in Recife in 1636 during the brief period of religiously tolerant pre-Portuguese Dutch rule. Brazil’s earliest Jews arrived in the sixteenth century, conversos or “hidden Jews” fleeing the Portuguese Catholic Inquisition. They ran thriving businesses, importing and exporting goods, including slaves. Upon the assertion of Portuguese Catholic power, this original community fled to the West Indies, New Amsterdam (now New York), and to Europe. A second wave of migration occurred during the nineteenth century with the discovery of diamond mines, drawing European Ashkenazi Jews, and with the expansion of Amazonian rubber exportation, drawing Moroccan Sephardic Jews. By World War I, the Jewish community numbered roughly 7,000, and would grow to 30,000 by the end of the war with an influx of North African Sephardim.
German and Polish Ashkenazi Jewish refugees began streaming into Brazil during the 1920’s, making up nearly half of all eastern European immigrants at this time. The following decade saw the rise of nationalist, nativist and positivist ideas about social and cultural progress. In embracing these ideals, Brazilian intellectuals deemed Jews—portrayed as non-European, impoverished communists as well as greedy capitalists—as a detriment to progress, and “Semitic” immigration was officially (though not practically) limited in 1938. The Nazi Party also encouraged anti-Semitism among the German diaspora, though it never reached the extreme seen in neighboring Argentina.
The post-Getulio Vargas era saw important and welcome changes in the government’s relationship with Brazil’s Jews. The government enthusiastically supported the creation of the state of Israel, granted it official recognition in 1949, and has maintained close diplomatic relations since. The government also loosened restrictions on the expression of ethnic identity and immigration, and Sephardic North African migrants along with Syrian and Egyptian Jews saw another influx in the 1950s. Today, Jewish Brazilians number roughly 120,000, over half of whom live in São Paulo.
Sara E. Karesh and Mitchell M. Hurvitz, “Brazil,” Encyclopedia of Judaism (New York: Facts on File, 2006), pp. 68-69.
Jeffrey Lesser, “Brazil,” The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture, eds. Judith R. Baskin and Judith Reesa Baskin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 78-79.
Jeffrey Lesser, Welcoming the Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).