Scandals shake Perus tiny Jewish community

lima, peru | The first lady of Peru, Eliane Karp, is Jewish. So is the country’s second vice president, David Waisman. And under former President Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvian economy was supervised by a Jewish finance minister, Efrain Goldenberg.

Yet the nation’s 3,000-member Jewish community — an island of wealth in the midst of 25 million poor people — has been shaken by various scandals that have resulted in the imprisonment of some of its most prominent members.

Combined with general economic and political uncertainty in Peru, the scandals have led to the decline of the community in recent years.

The most serious scandal involves the loss of more than $40 million by 100 to 200 Jews who had invested their life savings in the Panama-based offshore holding company of Banco Nuevo Mundo, or BNM.

The company’s six directors, all of them Jewish, sold millions of dollars in promissory notes to Jews and various Jewish organizations — including a retirement home — advertising annual interest rates of 10 percent or higher. Yet these notes became worthless when the Peruvian government, investigating allegations of impropriety, closed BNM.

“It was a big blow for the community,” said Herman Blank, vice president of Union Israelita del Peru, an Ashkenazi congregation that represents around 50 percent of Peru’s Jews. “Some people say they were completely wiped out, that they lost all their savings. We are really worried about what’s happened, and we hope that some money can be recovered.”

Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of Sociedad Israelita de 1870 said BNM’s directors were warned three times by Peru’s superintendent of banking that the company needed to increase its capital.

“The bank was closed in December 2000,” he said. “Since then, not one cent has been reimbursed to the investors,” while “the bank’s shareholders have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to their lawyers.”

In June 2001, Bronstein said, he and two other Lima rabbis issued a psak din, or decree, excommunicating all six directors for failing to accept responsibility and return the money.

“According to Torah law and halachah, the shareholders were responsible and must give back their savings to those who lost money,” he said. “We also established that, as the shareholders did not do their part, they were not to participate in any ceremony or minyan. Should any of them die, they can be buried in the Jewish cemetery, but in a separate section.”

Meanwhile, Fujimori, who fled the country amid allegations of corruption, lives in exile in Japan, while Goldenberg is the subject of a government probe investigating the alleged mismanagement of $140 million in state funds.

Goldenberg, who resides in Lima, declined to be interviewed about the allegations, which remain unproven.

The current president, Alejandro Toledo, is among the most unpopular heads of state in Latin America — polls show his approval rating at around 11 percent — though he is struggling to reduce poverty and clean up corruption in his administration.

In the midst of this chaos, Peru’s Jewish population — which in the 1970s numbered 6,000 — continues to shrink.

“The community grows smaller every day because of the economic and political situation,” said Eric Topf, a prominent Lima architect and past president of B’nai B’rith Peru, which has 80 mostly elderly members. “People don’t encourage their sons and daughters who were sent to college in the U.S. and Israel to come back.”

Jews have lived in Peru since the earliest days of the Spanish Inquisition, though the first Jewish wave of immigration in modern times peaked around 1875.

Following a war between Chile and Peru from 1879-1883 that devastated the Peruvian economy, Jews fled to other countries, and the community nearly disappeared.

The second wave of immigration began in the 1920s, when Jews from Europe and North Africa came to Peru in search of economic opportunity. That lasted until the onset of the Holocaust, when immigration was closed to Jews.

Of Peru’s 3,000 Jews, Topf said with some exaggeration, “2,999 of them live in Lima,” where the Union Israelita del Peru has approximately 500 member families.

Most of the remaining Jews are split between the Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita Sefaradi and the Sociedad Israelita de 1870, with about 200 families each.

In addition, Lima has a small Bet Chabad. Lately, the Lubavitchers have begun sending matzah and other kosher food from New York and organizing annual seders in Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital that has become a magnet for Israeli backpackers hiking the Inca Trail and visiting the “lost city” of Machu Picchu.

There also are two small groups outside Lima that have strong ties to Judaism. One, the B’nai Moshe, consists of converts from Christianity. Several hundred of these so-called “Inca Jews” have made aliyah, most of them moving to the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh.

The second group comprises about 170 descendants of Moroccan Jewish immigrants who live in the Amazon jungle port of Iquitos, and who are seeking recognition by Lima’s Jewish establishment.

Despite the recent scandals that have placed the Jewish community in a negative light, Blank said he’s seen no real increase in anti-Semitism.

“It’s true that some newspapers and TV stations have identified the people involved as Jews,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say the scandals generated more anti-Semitism than before. Jews are emigrating to the United States or Israel because of the political and economic situation here. It doesn’t have anything to do with anti-Semitism.”

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