by EMILIE ANNE-YVONNE LUSE for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on JANUARY 8, 2014: 

A 2009 poster combining the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah with the "Biggest Sushi Party in the City." Sao Paolo, Brazil
A 2009 poster combining the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah with the “Biggest Sushi Party in the City.” Sao Paolo, Brazil

The study of ethnic identity is a daunting endeavor, which, if treated too simply, fails to account for the richness and complexity of human existence.

In diasporic studies especially, the researcher faces heterogeneity and hybridity that escape tidy categorization and require constant re-assessment of the object of study itself. This was the consensus of a vivid and productive workshop “The Jewish & Muslim Diasporas in Latin America: New Comparative Perspectives,” held in early October 2013 at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University, with the goal of providing “new approaches to the comparative study of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Argentina and Brazil.”

The workshop was part of a project on “Jews & Muslims: Histories, Diasporas, and the Meaning of the European,” launched by the Duke Center for European Studies in the spring of 2013 and supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Duke University Office of the Provost.

New Approaches to the Study of Jews and Muslims in the Americas

The workshop began with a methodological presentation, “New Approaches to the Study of Jews and Muslims in the Americas,” given jointly by Jeffrey Lesser, Professor and Chair of History at Emory University, and Raanan Rein, Professor of Latin American and Spanish History and Rector of Tel Aviv University. Building on a theoretical paper the two published together in Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, the two drew on years of experience researching Jews in Brazil and Argentina respectively to argue for a change in the way ethnic diasporas are studied.

Too often, they argued, scholars rely on sources and archives (community groups, religious organizations and umbrella groups) which privilege the ethnic or religious identity of the group without accounting for the variety of experiences, especially national experiences, within such groups. Alternately, study of the diaspora often focuses on how negative experiences, i.e. discrimination in the host country, shaped identity, and fails to account for the lived reality of diasporic subjects, who are just as likely to identify as nationals as they are to see themselves as part of their ethnic group.  Indeed, they might decide to stress certain parts of themselves in different contexts.”

“In this sense,” Lesser and Rein reckon in their paper, “identity might be analyzed as a coin in a pocket filled with coins of different values. Sometimes we need 25 cents and we pull out one ethnicity quarter. Other times we need 100 cents and the ethnicity coin is just a penny of the total.” Flipping through a fascinating slide show that showed a rich and hybrid visual culture in Brazil and Argentina, they presented a number of cases that trumped the basic categories that typically inform models of “ethnicity studies.”

Rein began with a discussion of the ways in which the institutionalization of memory by diasporic groups has often served to legitimize their origins in that nation, often at the expense of indigenous histories. He noted that in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Peru, many so-called “regional” museums have been founded by Japanese or Jewish diasporic organizations and as such tend to privilege the success stories of their own ethnic groups as having “modernized” the area.  Citing one Argentinian example, — the Museo Histórico Regional de Villa Clara (a museum of the Jewish diaspora in all but name) — Rein noted that the museum’s reconstruction of history, which sought to establish that the land around Villa Clara was a “wasteland” before the 1892 Jewish settlement, had angered many non-Jewish inhabitants of the region.

The reconstruction of diasporic history was more forcefully exposed in an ancient-looking photograph Rein showed that depicted an elderly “cowboy” wearing a tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, and drinking maté, the national drink of Argentina. The archival photo, which Rein had found in the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, had been given the caption of “Jewish Gaucho,” by museum officials. But while the photograph looked like something from the nineteenth century, Rein doubted this was so, since most Jewish immigrants to the Southern Cone had originally settled in urban areas.  In much the same way that Peruvians of Japanese ethnicity had linked themselves to pre-Columbian Peru by calling the Inca a “lost” Japanese tribe, the figure of the Jewish Gaucho, Rein said, was a chimera, a historical reconstruction by a diaspora seeking to make meaningful national connections — one which, in the case of this photograph, had in fact been snapped in 1984.

Rein showed another slide – a reproduction of a 2009 poster advertisement for a Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah at a São Paulo synagogue which enticed believers to attend “the biggest sushi party in the city.”  The paradox of such an image, Rein argued, was that a food associated with one dominant ethnic group in Brazil, the Japanese, was being used to promote a Jewish religious ritual.  The conflation of ethnic signifiers, Rein argued, provided an excellent example of the flexibility of ethnic signifiers attached to diasporic identity. However in both examples Rein argued, national signifiers at once confused and constituted diasporic and ethnic identity.

Diasporic Difficulties in Buenos Aires: Islamic and Jewish Case Studies

Crucial methodological questions were also addressed in the subsequent panel, through two historical case studies presented by historians Steven Hyland, Assistant Professor of History at Wingate University, and Adriana Brodsky, Associate Professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (PhD, Duke University).

Hyland looked at the so-called “Islamic” diaspora in Buenos Aires from the beginning of the 20th century onward, while being careful to point out that old world divisions between Alawites, Ismailis, Sunnis and Shiites certainly remained in the new world. His paper explored the way in which, when context served, these differences were dropped for the willing, if temporary expression of ecumenical pan-Islamic sentiments amongst the diasporic communities.

Hyland spoke at length about the Masjid Al-Ahmad mosque in Buenos Aires, whose erection in 1985 was the belated achievement of a project which had already been conceived in the mid 1930s, thanks to the joint efforts of a diverse grouping of Arabic-speaking Muslim immigrants from the Levant.

Hyland explained that the effort was jointly initiated by groups of Alawites, Ismailis, Sunnis and Shiites seeking to unify the Islamic community in Buenos Aires, but he also identified an important external force which, in the 1950s, had galvanized a moment of “brief ecumenicism:” the funds and efforts of the Egyptian Minister Plenipotentiary to Argentina (hired by Egypt’s monarch-on-the wane, King Farouk).

With spirits high, a cornerstone was laid in May 1950, but, as domestic politics soured for Farouk, his mind turned to more pressing issues. Indeed, Hyland noted that the motivation for this aid was more likely a foreign policy initiative than a charitable one, and that Farouk’s sudden sympathy for the Buenos Aires diaspora was possibly an attempt to outpace another pan-Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood: “Secular Arab nationalism was the glue that organized the mosque- a cultural effort, not a religious one.” Farouk, Hyland implied, had mobilized the diaspora when he felt threatened at home.

In 1952, when Farouk was overthrown by the Egyptian generals, culminating in the period of Gamal And al-Nasser’s secular Pan-Arabic rule, all chances of continued support for the mosque vanished. Lack of funds and renewed divisiveness amongst Buenos Aires Muslims halted building efforts indefinitely, and it was only in the mid 1980s that these efforts were re-initiated in earnest.

Presenting a case study parallel in time and place, but focused on communities of Sephardic Jews in Buenos Aires, Brodsky’s talk echoed many of the issues surrounding the diasporic identity that Hyland had alluded to, providing a rich comparative model. Brodsky spoke on the formation of institutions by Sephardic Jews in Buenos Aires, and the ambivalence that various Sephardim communities felt about creating an official Consistorio, that is, a ruling body (an institutional form invented by Napoleon) that would not only link the Jewish communities and synagogues with respective states in Argentina, but also function as a council of rabbinical law and a cultural center for the Sephardic Jewish communities in the country.

Brodsky explained the politics surrounding the nomination of a Rabbi to lead the Consistorio (Sabetay Djaen), who was not Argentinian but a highly esteemed Romanian Rabbi.  Though initially applauded, the choice was misguided. Djaen’s strong personality and his failure to reckon with differences within a very diverse community of Sephardim Jews, forced divisions between them into the foreground. Shopkeepers in the Moroccan Sephardic community, “somewhat distanced from strict religious observance,” were unhappy with Djaen’s critique of their opening their businesses on the Shabbat (Sabbath day), and pamphlets criticizing his leadership were circulated. In return, an anonymous article in an Ashekenazi newspaper stated that the Sephardim who rejected Djaen were ungrateful, “not displaying a love for learning, for spiritual matters or even love for the sages” nor a desire for help from those who would “push them along the wide road of progress.”

Overall, the perception that Djaen’s clerical authority was an imperious one  “led to the withdrawal of economic support on the part of some of the participating Sephardi communities….” and the dissolution of the Consistorio body. The question of representation raised by this story is important.

As Brodsky puts it:

“… the reasons that explain its failure have to do with the changes brought about by immigration and the impossibility of recreating communities as they had existed in the Old World. The stories of these failed organizations show the difficulty in deciding who would be the one speaking on behalf of all Sephardim, and even whether it was important or necessary to speak in one voice.”

In their comments on the papers, Gilbert Merkx , Director of International and Area Studies at Duke and Director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, and Malachi Hacohen, Director of the Center for European Studies, both at Duke University, stressed the perils and rewards of studying Jewish and Muslim diasporic populations in Latin America and elsewhere.  They showed how examination of the similarities between case studies provided future directions for research.


Emilie Anne-Yvonne Luse is a 2013-2014 Research Scholar with the Duke Center for European Studies. She is a PhD Student in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies. Her dissertation, on French nationalism and art criticism between the two world wars, examines the ambivalent place of Eastern European Jewish émigrés in Interwar historiographies of French modern art.  

The Jewish & Muslim Diasporas in Latin America: New Comparative Perspectives workshop, held October 7, 2013, was part of the Duke University Center for European Studies’ initiative on “Jews & Muslims: Histories, Diasporas, and the Meaning of the European” which explored new comparative global approaches to the study of Jewish and Muslim communities.  The initiative, supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Duke University Office of the Provost, was sponsored by the Duke Center for European Studies, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

Detailed Description of the workshop panels: 

Panel 1:  “New Approaches to the Study of Jews and Muslims in the Americas”

Jeffrey Lesser, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History; Chair, History, Emory University

Raanan Rein, Sourasky Professor of Latin American and Spanish History, Vice President, Tel-Aviv University 

Paper distributed: “Challenging Particularity
Jews as a Lens on Latin American Ethnicity”

Moderated by Gil Merkx, Director, DISC; Director, International and Area Studies and Professor of the Practice, Sociology, Duke University

Panel 2: “Diasporic Difficulties in Buenos Aires: Islamic and Jewish Case Studies”

Adriana Brodsky, Associate Professor of History, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Paper: “The Limits of Community: Sephardim and their Central Institutions, Argentina 1920-1950”

Steven Hyland, Assistant Professor of History, Wingate University

Paper: “A Solemn Expression of Faith: The Islamic Communities and the Failed Attempt to Erect a Mosque in Peronist Argentina”

Moderated by Malachi H. Hacohen, Director, Center for European Studies, Fred W. Shaffer Associate Professor of History, Political Science and Religion Duke University


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