Mexican Jews

In 1887, the Mexican President announced that Mexico would accept 5,000 Russian Jews into the country if they were willing to settle on uncultivated land owned by the government.

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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.

The oldest documents in the American Jewish Historical Society’s collections are trial transcripts of the Mexican Inquisition of the 1570s. For centuries, Mexico had a reputation for trying to purge Jews and Jewish influence from its culture. With the creation of the Mexican Republic in 1856, however, the Mexican government ended official discrimination against religious minorities and separated the Catholic Church from affairs of state. In 1887, while thousands in the Jewish communities of Russia were killed in pogroms and the ports of northern Europe filled with Jewish families hoping to escape to America, Mexican president Porforio Diaz announced that his administration would welcome 5,000 Russian Jews if they would settle terrenos baldios--government owned, uncultivated lands. A Mexican newspaper, El Partido Liberal, editorialized, "Would Jewish colonization increase the wealth of the Mexican nation? If so, let them come."

Concerned for the plight of Russia’s Jews and thinking it urgent to divert European Jewish emigrants from the tenement districts of great cities to agricultural settlements in less populated areas, America’s leading Jewish philanthropist, Jacob Schiff, and the Baron Maurice de Hirsch of France viewed Mexico as a promising site for Russian Jewish resettlement. De Hirsch had already created a fund to bring European Jewish immigrants to American ports such as Galveston, Texas, from which they departed to rural homes in Arkansas, Kansas, North Dakota, and other states. The fund also encouraged Jewish settlements in Argentina. De Hirsch wrote, "I must admit that the proportions which the emigration of Russian Jews has assumed, and the excessive immigration which begins to make itself felt in the United States, makes it incumbent upon us to look around for new outlets for the colonists."

(Image below: Mexican Inquisition Proceso, 1590. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)
Mexican Inquisition Proceso, 1590
Because of its government’s welcoming attitude, de Hirsch and Schiff grew optimistic about Mexico. Remarkably, de Hirsch contemplated resettling every Russian Jew to Mexico. He wrote:

No doubt if it were only a question of transporting a limited number of colonists, the moneys needed would be found . . . but having to face eventually a colonization scheme which may embrace a population of five million souls (distributed, I must admit, over a great number of years), we must take care so that capital which is in good faith invested [will receive a good return].

Schiff agreed with de Hirsch on the need to assure the viability of Mexico as a refuge and personally hired two investigators to assess the practicality of massive Jewish immigration to that nation. Three months later, Schiff received the results of the research and wrote to de Hirsch:

Just received information on wages and labor conditions which do not seem very satisfactory. All wages are very low and the competition for [jobs as] skilled labor in the lower strata of the population is rather keen. This rather speaks against Mexico.

Schiff and de Hirsch then turned their attention back to resettling Jews in the American West and Argentina.

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.