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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Despite Schiff’s negative assessment, the Diaz government persisted in its hope to attract Jewish settlement to Mexico. Diaz offered to donate an island off the coast of Mexico as a semi-autonomous Jewish colony. Writing in his newspaper, El Sabado, in 1889, Professor Fernando Rivas reflected his nation’s official position:

We do not know why Jews would remain in any country where they are suspected, hated and persecuted. Why not emigrate to his generous America where hospitality invites them . . . Mexico opens its ports to European, Asiatic or African immigration with neither racial nor religious distinction. Here the Church is independent of the State and there is absolute liberty of religion . . . Let the persecuted leave the inhumane lands and come to the land where the Eternal has planted the Tree of Liberty.

Despite such generous offers, the organized North American Jewish community expressed continuing reservations about Mexico as a place for resettlement. Rabbi Martin Zielonka of El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border, wrote, "The establishment of a [Jewish] colony in this desert territory would be the same as exile . . . [and] I question very much whether the Jews of Europe could readily adapt themselves to the agricultural conditions of the eastern lowlands. Social worker Maurice Hexter thought Jewish immigrants would face "the impossibility and danger of competing with peon labor" and "the danger of banditry in the countryside."

Equally tellingly, Jewish hesitation arose in response to the Mexican Catholic Church’s open hostility to a massive influx of Jews. In 1889, a Catholic political party representative characterized the possible introduction of non-Catholic immigrants from Europe "a social crime." Rabbi Zielonka observed, "The hand of the Inquisition still hangs heavy over Mexico and the word ‘Jew’ is only whispered here and there."

Despite these concerns and impediments, some 9,000 Eastern European and German-speaking Jews emigrated to Mexico between 1887 and the 1930s, where they and their descendants have lived in peace and relative prosperity. One can wonder, with the wisdom of hindsight, whether Schiff, de Hirsch and other organizers of Jewish rescue--had they been able to predict the fate awaiting Russian Jewry in the 1920s and 1930s--might have accepted the Mexican government’s offers and taken their chances with Mexico’s weak economy and its church’s attitude toward Jews.


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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.