Jews, Colonialism and Whiteness: The Latin American Case

Dr Martina Weisz, a research fellow at the Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, discusses the place of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese colonial project, which started immediately after the momentous expulsion of the Jews from these countries, in the late 15th century.



This season of the Tel Aviv Review is made possible by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which promotes humanistic, democratic, and liberal values in the social discourse in Israel.


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1 comment on “Jews, Colonialism and Whiteness: The Latin American Case

  1. Greg Pollock says:

    This interview notes that believing Catholics descended from Spanish Jews (Conversos) were nonetheless singled out for persecution, even unto death, accused of innate conspiracy against the ruling order. I don’t find this surprising for two reasons. First, pedigree was a constant means of legitimization at the time, even unto determining candidates for the Crown. Blood attainder was not just a racial matter: one could find that an unsavory ancestor destroyed career prospects, not inevitably, but contingently–as political competition intensified, pasts were brought forward to gain allies against a target and ostracize such from gathering allies in reply. One’s pedigree was a weakness or strength, but weaknesses could be ignored, even when broached, depending on micro politics.

    It is very difficult to attack this process openly. People with good pedigrees will see it as an attack on their social and political inheritance, so those questioning pedigree use will find themselves ostracized as well. Thus defending a Converso against a generic Jewish pedigree charge risks attacking a primary tool of the aristocratic game. Crucial, then, becomes the nature of the blood attainder, and here Jews meet the second reason against them.

    Buddhism and Islam both have very successful long lived founders. Judaism is inherently closed by pedigree from female descent in the Old Testament, its founder, such as he was, living long as well. Christianity has a founder that dies, sent to Roman justice by a Jewish elite that wanted him gone. There is, then, an inherent sense of being wronged in Christianity, and Jews are the unfortunate target, especially as the Vatican in some sense took over Rome, leaving no Romans to persecute. A generic blood taint against Jews is then easy to defend, rapidly conflated with the wronged God, flipping ostracized and elite in vindication. This is really not so different that condemning someone’s ancestor for trying to take the Crown or such.

    There is a natural, strong tendency to view macro history as a force in itself. But actual people have to either promote or acquiesce in whatever tendency one has abstracted from the historical flow. This is not to say they know the connections their roles have with the past, or the implications for the present, let alone a future beyond their deaths. But nonetheless they must bear the process on their backs, so to say, and I think anti-Semitism against Conversos is born by the very palatable need for pedigree attack and defense well beyond questions of true Catholic belief and Judaism as such. If pedigree was unimportant generally, then, as the interviewee notes, the Christian emphasis in equality before God (putting the Pope et al aside) could have been expected to play a more protective role for the charged Converso.

    Colonialism as well naturally attaches to legitimization by pedigree. Power colonizes, so those subjected will have inferior pedigrees by loss, as was the case in say Spanish history at home. As well, colonization provides a generic superior pedigree for all coming from the home country, a predecessor for nationalism. Just as colonialism produced nationalisms in response in Latin American and Africa, so too it seeded the idea of nation in the colonial powers, just as wars within Europe did, both cases allowing the definition of local superiority at the expense of outsiders, win or lose.

    A personal note of memory. Having Nazi ancestors is to this day bad. I rented a room in a house in Bonn, a nice, bit weird but who isn’t, family, the grandmother there as well, she migrating from East Germany post war before it became impossible. In my room there was a bookshelf. Not able to sleep one night, nosey me began looking through the shelves. I found some old photo albums. Nothing overtly Nazi. But then, in an old book I found a photograph of the deceased grandmother’s husband, young man running onto a field in athletic costume with the extended hand Nazi salute. As well there was, I gathered, an award certificate with the swastika. Kept for memory of grandpa but hidden. Is it possible to differentiate valuing the prowess of grandpa from that salute? Certainly not for public consumption.

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