Meet the Jews of darkest Peru

Their 'Moses' was Segundo Villanueva, a Catholic who converted to Judaism and then found his own Land of Canaan on the bank of a tributary of the Amazon

October 20, 2022 12:57

We say “America” as in the “United States of”. But when Amerigo Vespucci lent his name to the New World, it described both Americas, north and south, though no one then knew how far they extended.

There are Jews south of the border, too. I have noticed that many American Jews, and I mean United States of American Jews, respond to the idea that there exist such creatures as South American Jews with the same astonishment with which they respond to the presence of a real, live English Jew.

A frown as they imagine an exotic hybrid, its plumage and habitat. Visions of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, doffing his flat cap to reveal a discreet kippah, Princess Diana, directing a powdered flunkey to bring forth another platter of chopped liver, or, directing their gaze down Mexico way, phantasmagorical visions of Hava Nagila played on those Peruvian panpipes by Jews in brightly coloured ponchos.

This last one though is not quite a phantasmagoria. There is a growing Jewish community in Peru. Most of its members are converts whose zeal and love of Zion put most native-born Jews to shame. The Moses of the Bnei Moshe of Peru was Segundo Villanueva (1927-2008), an erstwhile Catholic from a village six hours’ walk from the city of Cajamarca, or three hours if you have a horse.

When Segundo read the Bible for himself, he decided that, unlike the Godfather movies, the first release was better than the second. The Land of Canaan, he thought, resembled the world of his forefathers: sibling rivalries, property disputes, agricultural festivals, and plenty of goats.

Like Moses, Segundo, who changed his name to Zerubbabel Tzidkiya, had a speech impediment and a brother who joined him in the wilderness but had ideas of his own. In 1967, they walked into the jungle and settled on the bank of a tributary of the Amazon. They called their settlement Hebron, so presumably it was on the west bank of the tributary.

In 1989, Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu sent a beit din to Peru. Hundreds of Bnei Moshe have undergone Orthodox conversions and made Aliyah, mostly to the settlement of Elon Moreh, near Nablus. Perhaps they felt it was time to live near Shechem, seeing as they’d already done Hebron. The full and inspiring story of the Bnei Moshe is in Graciela Mochkofsky’s The Prophet of the Andes.

Another recently-told South American Jewish story, which isn’t so much full or inspiring as fictionalised and appalling, is the Amazon TV series Yosi, The Regretful Spy. The title might suggest a children’s book by Sigmund Freud, perhaps narrating the misadventures of a little boy at the keyhole of his parents’ bedroom, but it is even worse than that.

José Pérez changed his name to Yosi when he converted in Argentina in 1988. Yosi was a seeker after Jewish knowledge.

Unfortunately, he was seeking it on behalf of Argentina’s military and secret police who wanted to corroborate the existence of the Andinia Plan, the antisemitic fantasy that Argentina’s Jews, who mostly live in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, intended to colonise the remote region of Patagonia, on the border with Chile.

As usual, there is a genuine historical precedent for this malign fantasy. In this case, it is the legacy of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the 19th-century philanthropist whose solution to the predicament of the Jews under Czarist Russia was to ship them to Argentina, his thinking being that it was easier to buy a country wholesale than build one retail.

Add Argentina’s rich history of fascism and clerical paranoia, and you can see how Argentina’s police and military convinced themselves that the Andinia Plan was real. Some of them also convinced themselves that they should help Hezbollah blow up the AMIA community centre in 1994, killing 85 Jews and injuring over 300. One of Yosi the spy’s regrets is that he now believes that his handlers passed his reports to the terrorists.

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor, a Washington Examiner columnist and a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute

October 20, 2022 12:57

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