December 9, 2022
What do the World Cup and AJC have in common? Well, if FIFA is the global sporting event on par with the Olympics in its ability to connect people and nations, AJC is the global Jewish advocacy organization - connecting Jewish communities worldwide with an unparalleled global architecture made up of 14 overseas posts and 38 international partnerships.
As the World Cup’s final rounds are underway, AJC’s experts around the world share what you need to know about the eight nations in the quarterfinals, their respective Jewish histories, their Jewish communities today, and their relations with Israel.
Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America, numbering around 250,000 people and dating back to the 16th century when Spain expelled its Jews and many settled in Argentina. Since then, the Jewish population has grown to include immigrants from Morocco, the former Ottoman Empire, Russia, and Western Europe.
Buenos Aires has a long Jewish history: a Jewish community was established in the city in 1862, the first synagogue in Buenos Aires was inaugurated in 1875, and today, around 80% of Argentine Jews live in Buenos Aires - making up roughly 7% of the city’s population. The Argentine Jewish community today is very institutionalized and has good relations across the political spectrum. Argentine Jews have a very strong and vibrant culture and educational life. Much of Buenos Aires’ Jewish life centers around the neighborhood of Once and Abasto, where the top attraction is the Gran Templo Paso, one of the oldest synagogues in the country. The city also has South America’s only Holocaust Museum and numerous kosher restaurants. But as the Jewish community in Argentina has grown, so has antisemitism from a variety of sources.
During World War II, Argentina closed its doors to Jewish immigrants and harbored many Nazi war criminals after Germany’s defeat. The country’s politics continued to move to the right and during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ruling military junta arrested anyone who opposed the regime. Despite being less than 1% of the population, Jews made up around 12% of the regime’s victims. However, throughout this period, the regime allowed Jews and even Jewish detainees to emigrate to Israel because of the country’s strong diplomatic relationship with Israel, which began in 1949 and continues to this day.
At the same time, Argentina has become a hub for criminal activity by Iran’s terror proxy, Hezbollah, and Jews have become a target. In March 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 29 people. Two years later, the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 85 and injuring more than 300 – the worst attack on a Jewish target outside Israel since the Holocaust. In 2007, the official Argentine investigation concluded that Iran was responsible for the 1994 attack on AMIA and the suicide bomber who drove his car into the building was a member of Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah are also widely believed to be behind the attack on the embassy.
Despite past tensions over Iran and the AMIA bombing, including the suspicious death of Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was investigating the AMIA bombing, in 2015, Israel and Argentina currently have strong and growing ties. Under the administration of Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri, the two countries established closer ties, including a historic visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017. This trend has continued under current president Alberto Fernández, who made Israel his first foreign visit after taking office in early 2020. The visit focused on cooperation in fields such as agriculture, trade, and technology.
AJC has worked closely with the Argentine government over the years on commemorating the AMIA bombing and safeguarding the Jewish community.
In 2020, Argentine President Alberto Fernández reaffirmed his government’s commitment to bring to justice those responsible during a historic conversation hosted and broadcast by AJC.
Earlier this year, the Argentine government unveiled a collection of survivors’ portraits titled Ese Día (“That day”) by Argentine photographer Alejandra López, where both Argentine and U.S. officials pledged to continue their fight against antisemitism.
During the collection’s opening at Argentina’s U.S. Embassy in Washington D.C., Argentine Ambassador to the U.S. Jorge Argüello announced that his country too would create a position charged with combating antisemitism.
“Argentina has grappled firsthand twice with the nefarious activity of Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor,” said Dina Siegel Vann, Director, AJC Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs. “That is why it became the first Latin American country to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and why it keeps a close eye on potential threats in the Triborder Area it shares with Brazil and Paraguay.”
Indeed, Argentina has designated the entirety of Hezbollah, not just its military wing, to be a terrorist group – a move long urged by AJC. Argentina also adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. Argentina, like many countries in recent years, has seen a spike in antisemitism on social media and only isolated antisemitic incidents from the extreme right and left.
Brazil welcomed Portuguese Jewish exiles when it was a Dutch colony. The Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Americas, was established in 1636 in Brazil by Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic Jews and highlights the country’s deep Jewish history. However, when Brazil came under Portuguese rule, the Jews suffered and were heavily oppressed.
When Brazil adopted a constitution in 1824 that guaranteed freedom of religion, Jewish began to gradually immigrate to the country. Today, the 120,000 members of Brazil’s Jewish community thrive as Latin America’s second-largest Jewish community. Brazilian Jews are integrated into society, and synagogues, schools, and other Jewish institutions are common sites in the major cities. The Brazilian Jewish community is largely made up of proud and loud Zionists.
Brazil played an important role in the establishment of Israel. The Latin American country held the president of the United Nations General Assembly during the vote on the UN Partition Plan for Palestine in November 1947. Brazil’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Oswaldo Aranha, who served as chairman of the General Assembly, heavily lobbied for the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel.
Though the previous president Jair Bolsonaro was one of the country’s most pro-Israel leaders and opened a trade office in Jerusalem, he was criticized throughout his tenure for rhetoric that trivialized or distorted the Holocaust. In 2019, following his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, he declared that Nazism was a product of leftist ideology, even though it’s widely accepted that it stemmed from the far-right. He also said the crimes of the Holocaust can be forgiven, and in 2020, a slogan Bolsanaro used for the fight against COVID-19 was “work, unity, and the truth will set Brazil free,” which echoes the infamous Nazi inscription at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp: “Arbeit macht frei,” or “work will set you free.”
It’s unclear how incoming President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as “Lula,” will approach relations with Israel or the Jewish community. During a historic visit to Israel in 2010, he refused to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, but days later laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave in Ramallah. His government also was one of the first to recognize a Palestinian state and embraced former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious Holocaust denier who repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
AJC has maintained a presence in Brazil since 2011 and has a formal partnership with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Brazil (CONIB).
When the Organization of American States (OAS) appointed its first Commissioner for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, it chose one of Brazil's leading constitutional lawyers, Fernando Lottenberg. An outspoken advocate for promoting democracy and opposing hate speech, Lottenberg serves on AJC’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs (BILLA) Board of Trustees. For six years, he served as president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Brazil (CONIB). Earlier this year, AJC partnered with OAS to publish a handbook for combating antisemitism.
Nevertheless, work continues in Brazil to combat antisemitism, which is outlawed in the country.
According to Asseraf, AJC is working closely with Jewish institutions in Brazil to fight back against antisemitism.
“Antisemitism, often masqueraded as anti-Zionism, is being fought quite successfully by Jewish institutions, through educational programs, legal initiatives, and approximation with Israel at all levels,” Asseraf said.
Around 25,000 Jews lived in Croatia before World War II, and only 6,000 survived the Holocaust. Today, the Jewish community numbers around 2,000 Jews. There are 10 separate Jewish communities around the country - the oldest are in Dubrovnik and Split, and the largest is in Zagreb. Nine of these communities are members of the Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Communities in Croatia.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Israel recognized Croatia as an independent state in 1992, but full diplomatic relations were not established until 1997. Since then, bilateral relations have grown with Croatia exporting $44.1 million in goods to Israel and Israel exporting $30.2 million to Croatia in 2020. Croatia is an important partner for Israel both within the European Union as well as in the Mediterranean basin. When Israel was hit with one of its worst outbreaks of wildfires ever in November 2016, Croatia joined several other allies in sending firefighting equipment to the Jewish state. Israel and Croatia also negotiated a $500 million deal to sell aging Israel F-16 fighter aircraft to Croatia. However, the deal was later blocked by the United States.
“Due to the communist past of the country – when it was part of Yugoslavia - the Jewish community is mostly secular. A separate Jewish community, Bet Israel, was established in 2007,” said Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, AJC’s Europe Director, to accommodate different religious observances.
Croatia supported the adoption of all non-legally binding working definitions on Holocaust denial and distortion, antisemitism, and anti-Roma racism. However, according to Rodan-Benzaquen, issues still remain within Croatia about adequately addressing its dark past related to the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during World War II, which was ruled by the Croatia fascist Ustasha. The Ustasha persecuted Jews, Serbs, and Roma and established a series of concentration and extermination camps - the most significant being the Jasenovac camp where 30,000 Jews were murdered.
“Since Croatia gained independence in 1991 authorities have failed to adequately address the legacy of the Holocaust, trying to minimize it (rise of historical revisionism),” she said, referring to efforts to downplay Croatia’s own role in the Holocaust.
Among the outstanding issues include the restitution of Jewish property, improving Holocaust education, and addressing historical revisionism.
While England competes as its own separate country in the FIFA World Cup, England and Wales are home to approximately 271,00 Jews, two-thirds of which live in the Greater London region.
The history of Jews in England dates back millennia, with evidence of a Jewish presence during the Roman period. Jews once again were recorded in England during the 11th Century with William the Conqueror, where they faced increasing persecution during the Middle Ages until the Edict of Expulsion in 1290 under King Edward I. The modern Jewish community can trace its origins back to 1656 when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to live in England again.
During the 19th Century, Jews gained more rights, including the right to sit in Parliament. Waves of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century and later fleeing Nazism in the 1930s and 40s bolstered the number of Jews in the country.
Few countries played a more impactful role in the creation of the modern State of Israel than England. From the 1917 Balfour Declaration to the creation of the British Mandate of Palestine following World War I, to the 1939 White Paper, and ultimately to the British withdrawal in 1948, the English figured prominently in the development of the modern state of Israel.
The United Kingdom recognized Israel in 1949 and has long been seen as one of Israel’s foremost allies. The British government has a longstanding policy of supporting a two-state solution. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been a vocal supporter of Israel, calling it a “beacon of hope” and has been strongly opposed to boycotts of the Jewish state. What’s more, the UK launched free trade talks with Israel in July 2022.
“The UK's special relationship with the U.S. is seen on both sides of the Atlantic as a strategic one, and the bilateral relationship with Israel is one that is very important as well. AJC has a very close connection with Israel-U.K. friendship groups at Parliament and with the U.K.’s Envoy for British-Israeli trade,” Rodan-Benzaquen said.
Today England is home to a thriving Jewish community, with 400 synagogues and 100 Jewish day schools throughout the U.K. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and his predecessor the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are leading figures not only of Jewish life in the country but of the entire nation. The Jewish community is thriving but also changing.
“While there is a very strong secular Jewish identity in England, the Haredi community is growing. What is interesting to watch is the relatively recent stronger cooperation between the mainstream community and the Haredi community to work together to maintain and grow Jewish life in England,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, managing director of AJC Europe said.
“The Jewish community in England is Europe's second largest. It is a strong and vibrant community, but at the same time, antisemitism continues to be a major issue, including in the mainstream. Even after Jeremy Corbyn has stepped down as leader of the Labour Party, antisemitism continues to be an issue on the far left, but also more and more on the far right and of course within Islamist circles in England- and even sometimes in mainstream discourse.” said Rodan-Benzaquen.
According to the Community Security Trust (CST), the main British antisemitism security organization, antisemitic incidents hit their highest level ever in 2021 with 2,255 anti-Jewish hate incidents across the country, a 34% increase from 2020.
Rodan-Benzaquen said that AJC works closely with its partners, amongst which the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to work with the British government and AJC’s long-time friend Lord John Mann, the government’s advisor on antisemitism.
The history of Jews in France can be traced back to the Roman era. France saw an increase in the population of its Jewish community during the early Middle Ages as a result of immigration from Italy and Spain. Medieval Jewish scholar Shlomo Yitzchaki, known today as Rashi, was a French rabbi who wrote his famous commentaries on the Bible and Talmud.
France became the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jewish population during the French Revolution. Despite this, antisemitism still remained a large problem as evidenced by the Dreyfuss affair in the late 19th century.
Bolstered by Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, there were about 300,000 Jews in France on the eve of the Holocaust. During World War II, the Nazis invaded and occupied northern France, while the Nazi-allied French Vichy government controlled the southern half of the country. Around 70,000 French Jews died in the Holocaust.
Following the war, further Jewish immigration occurred from Eastern Europe. Moreover, during the 1950s and 60s, around 300,000 Sephardic Jews moved to France from North Africa as the country’s colonial empire collapsed. This influx shifted the demographics of France’s Jewish community from mainly Ashkenazi to now being majority Sephardic. Today, France’s Jewish population is estimated to be around 500,000 with most French Jews residing in Paris and its suburbs. However, there are significant Jewish communities in Marseilles, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, and Strasbourg.
France and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1949. During the years after Israel established its independence, France was one of the country’s closest allies and supporters. Both countries shared a strategic interest in countering pan-Arab nationalism. France provided Israel with critical military hardware, including the Mirage fighter jet, which played a crucial role in Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
However, relations between the two allies began to sour after the French defeat in Algeria in 1962. This event pushed France to take a more conciliatory approach to Arab countries and later to institute an arms embargo on the region, something that severely impacted Israel during and after the Six-Day War.
Under French President François Mitterrand during the 1980s, relations warmed again, with Mitterrand visiting Israel and addressing the Knesset in 1982. However, relations again dipped under former French President Jacques Chirac who was supportive of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Today, both countries enjoy a close bilateral relationship, especially in areas of defense and energy. France has been a strong advocate for Israel within the European Union and for the recent revival of the Israel-European Union Association Council, which aims to grow cooperation between Israel and the EU.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been outspoken in raising awareness of growing antisemitism and xenophobia. During a recent visit to a memorial at a Holocaust deportation camp in southern France, Macron said that it was time to “open our eyes” to resurgent antisemitism, and that France needs to be “the voice of humanism.”
As the world’s third-largest Jewish community and the largest in Europe, French Jews are a vibrant and thriving community. There are over 20 Jewish day schools alone in Paris, including elementary and high schools, as well as religious seminaries. French Universities offer a wide variety of Jewish Studies options including courses in Yiddish, Ladino, and Hebrew. Moreover, there are Jewish libraries throughout Paris, including the Medem Library, which is the largest Yiddish library in Europe. Jewish newspapers, magazines, radios, and other television programs are also well-established in France.
AJC is engaged with French Jewish life and works closely with the Jewish community on addressing concerns such as antisemitism, building a stronger Jewish identity, and creating bridges with other Jewish communities throughout the world.
According to Anne-Sophie Sebban Bécache, AJC Paris Director, AJC is working with the Union des Étudiants Juifs de France (EUJF), a French organization that assists Jewish students, to create a stronger sense of belonging among Jewish students in the diaspora.
During a recent visit, AJC CEO Ted Deutch held a meeting French Jewish students at Sciences Po where they shared their experience with campus antisemitism.
Indeed, the French Jewish community is facing antisemitism from the extreme right, from the extreme left, from Islamists, and from some parts of the French Muslim community
“Our most recent survey of antisemitism in France demonstrates the overrepresentation of these pockets in sharing antisemitic prejudices,” said Sebban Bécache, AJC Paris Director.
Aside from overt forms of antisemitism, the French Jewish community also contends with antisemitism that is deeply rooted in French society at large that the French still have difficulties identifying, recognizing, and condemning. There is a general acknowledgment that antisemitism is an issue in France but difficult to identify what is antisemitic and what is not, according to Sebban Bécache.
At the same time, the French Jewish community also faces the politicization of antisemitism and a significant amount of Israel-related antisemitism. This is particularly felt among young Jews at university and at school, where most French Jews (60%) first experience antisemitism.
The Jewish community of Morocco is one of the oldest and largest in the Arab world. At its peak – just prior to World War II – the community numbered around 250,000 people. In Morocco, the Jewish community's special status as "people of the book" has been protected by the Moroccan King in his role as the "commander of the faithful."
Today, the Moroccan Jewish community is around 3,000 people, and their importance to Moroccan culture and history remains central to the country's identity. In the preamble of the new Moroccan Constitution, it states, "Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan-Hassanic [saharo-hassanie] components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences [affluents]."
In 2010, under the patronage of King Mohammed VI, Morocco began restoring hundreds of Jewish cemeteries across the country to protect and promote Morocco's Jewish history. Additionally, many other symbols of Jewish life throughout the country have been restored. By request of the Jewish community, the historic Jewish quarter in Marrakech, the Mellah, was restored and reopened in 2019 to serve as a symbol of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
Moroccan- Israeli ties are deep and growing. In 1994, with the start of the Oslo Process, Morocco and Israel first established liaison offices with one another. These offices were closed in 2000 with the collapse of the Camp David Accords and the start of the 2nd Intifada. In December 2020, Israel and Morocco announced that they were reestablishing relations and signed an official joint declaration. Since December 2020, trade between Morocco and Israel has increased by 200%, and tourism is expected to increase from 50,000 Israelis visiting Morocco currently to over 200,000.
In Israel, an estimated 700,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan ancestry. This special bond has ensured that Moroccan-Israeli ties go far beyond economic and political importance and heavily focus on shared culture and identity. During the official signing ceremony reestablishing ties between Israel and Morocco, Meir Ben Shabbat, the then National Security Advisor of Israel and an Israeli of Moroccan descent, spoke in Moroccan Arabic, which emphasized the shared ties between the two countries.
“AJC has been traveling to Morocco for over 30 years. During that time, we have advocated for stronger U.S. – Morocco ties, Muslim-Jewish understanding, and the importance of advancing Israeli-Moroccan relations for the entire region,” said Benjamin Rogers, AJC Director, Middle East and North Africa Initiatives.
Earlier this year, an AJC-led group of nearly two dozen Jewish and Muslim young professionals from Morocco, Israel, and the United States concluded ten days of consultations with senior government, civil society, and diplomatic officials in seven cities throughout Morocco and Israel.
The delegation praised the rapidly growing opportunities to advance deeper engagement and exchange among the next generation of Americans, Moroccans, and Israelis.
Long known for its tolerance of other faiths, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the Netherlands since the 15th century when Jews fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Further Ashkenazi Jewish immigration occurred in the following centuries as the Jewish community enjoyed a level of economic and social integration in the Netherlands not seen elsewhere in Europe at the time. Jewish merchants played a major role in Dutch trade and the Dutch-led period of global economic expansion that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Around 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands on the eve of the Holocaust. Despite the freedom and tolerance long enjoyed by Dutch Jews, many Dutch collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of the country, in which some 100,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Israel and the Netherlands have long enjoyed warm ties. The Netherlands voted in favor of the UN Partition Plan in 1947 and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949. During its early years, the Netherlands was strongly supportive of Israel, establishing its embassy in Jerusalem (later relocated to Tel Aviv) and providing emergency support to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Today the Netherlands is home to around 30,000 Jews, with another 10-15,000 people with Jewish ancestry.
As is the case in many Western nations, antisemitism remains a major concern. The Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI), a Dutch-based organization and an AJC partner that combats antisemitism, documented 135 incidents of antisemitism in 2020. While this was a 25 percent decline from 2019, the organization said that the COVID-19 pandemic and underreporting likely played a role in the decrease.
According to AJC’s Rodan-Benzaquen other antisemitic issues including “conspiracy theories linked to George Soros, Geert Wilders’ far-right political party, and jihadism are all major concerns for Dutch Jews.”
“We maintain a close dialogue with CIDI and support the efforts of Eddo Verdoner, the national coordinator to combat antisemitism,” said Rodan-Benzaquen said.
Additionally, the Netherlands was the first European country to have banned the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah in its entirety in 2004. AJC works to promote the Netherlands’ model to fully ban the Lebanese terror group within the European Union.
Jews have lived on the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal – for more than a millennium. When Portugal became the destination for around 100,000 Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, the kingdom only agreed to admit them for a fee and then transported them elsewhere for an additional price. Those who could not afford the fee became slaves to the Portuguese nobility. By 1497, Portugal followed Spain’s lead and issued a royal decree requiring Jews and Muslims to convert or leave the country.
However, Portugal has made intense efforts to make amends for its history during this time. During World War II, Portugal remained neutral, and Portuguese diplomats also risked their lives to issue visas to thousands of Jews. One of those diplomats was Portuguese consul-general Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who served in Bordeaux, France. Portugal recognizes Aristides de Sousa Mendes as a national hero and Israel recognizes him as Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific title awarded by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Later, Portugal was the only European country that allowed U.S. planes to use its military bases to transport weapons to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Unlike most Western countries, Portugal did not establish diplomatic ties with Israel until 1977 following the Carnation Revolution, which overthrew the authoritarian “Estado Novo” regime in 1974 and paved the way for a democratic government.
Today, both countries enjoy warm relations. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the country in 2019, where he sought to deepen collaboration in a variety of fields such as defense, cyberterrorism, entrepreneurship, and agritech.
More than 10,000 Portuguese Jews live in Israel, making the Jewish state home to the largest Portuguese immigrant community in the Middle East. Since becoming United Nations Secretary-General in 2017, former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres has worked to counter anti-Israel bias and stated that “Israel must be treated like any other member state.”
Today, there is a thriving yet small Jewish community in Portugal, half of which lives in Lisbon where AJC’s international partner, Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa (CIL), is based.
In 2015, Portugal enacted a law of return, offering the descendants of Jews who were expelled in the 15th Century the opportunity to apply for Portuguese citizenship without needing to establish residence in the country.
“Portugal’s efforts to come to terms with the unfortunate chapter of persecution and expulsion of Jews several centuries ago is admirably embodied in its law to grant Portuguese citizenship to the descendants of those Jews who were forced into exile,” said Dina Siegel Vann, Director, AJC Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.