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Un-chosen people? The Jews of San Juan la Laguna

29 May 2014

[additions and changes as of 31 May 2014 in italics… with strikeouts of deleted material]

As reported in Voz Iz Neias? (an Orthodox Jewish news site):

Misael Santos, a convert to Judaism, has lived in San Juan La Laguna for six years and says for the past six months he, his family and other Jewish residents have experienced verbal abuse and racist insults from the community. The anti-Semitism reached heights when community members requested the approximately 30 Jews leave the village.

Mayor López ordered a Jewish registry to be created, said Santos, allegedly to keep note of tourism in the town, but the Jewish community became wary of the registry and the reasons behind its creation. That, in addition to physical violence – including stoning and throwing explosive devices – against Jewish community members sparked the investigation against the mayor.

San Juan la Laguna is a community of about 4000 divided into a various k’iche and tz’utujile speaking neighborhoods. One can assume that Mayan communities in Guatemala follow roughly the same social patterns as those across their northern border. As such, they are traditional communes as much as modern political units, managing to incorporate imported concepts (like elective mayors and political parties) on their own terms. Even in minor things like clothing, there tends to be a consensus on what is, and isn’t worn, even if members of the community are wearing non-traditional, “western” garb.

Religion — being essential to identity — is seen as communal, with religious dissenters often viewed as a threat to the value system of the entire people. While innovations, accepted by the entire community, are permitted, dissent is not. But, rather than resort to bloodshed, the dissenters are generally asked to leave, or driven out.

In Mexico, such communities are covered under the constitution by a guarantee that they may continue their self-goverance through traditional “usos y costumbres”. This creates some anomolies in the law… Oaxacan communities that vote by consensus despite other constitutional guarantees of a secret ballot, or in property rights cases (in one, a woman from the community lost her land, after obtaining a divorce in the United States and marrying an outsider without community approval). Still, there have been a series of incidents in which religious dissenters have been harrassed and forced to flee… often Protestants. Typically, a dispute starting with Protestants objecting to paying for an annual fiesta honoring a patron saint — either because they are teetotalers and see the fiesta as an excuse to get drunk (which they usually are), or because it’s a “Catholic” ritual — escalate into things like cutting off the dissenters from the community electrical system or occasionally violence against the dissenting family.


Photo: Prensa Libre (Guatemala)

Although Guatemala, like Chiapas is about 40% Protestant, Protestantism is often seen as a foreign import, specially a U.S. import, making Protestants suspect as sell-outs to foreign interests, or the pawns of outsiders. Which is sometimes true. And although reported in the foreign press as a political dispute, much of the violence in Mayan communities is, at heart, religious.

While there are a few traditional Jewish Indigenous communties, and I know of one Islamic Mayan community, Jewish Mayans are new to me.

[added 31 May 2014:  “Guanaguare”, written by a M.t. Levi Greer Walker of Panajachel, Solola, Guatemala, has two posts on this community that paint them in quite a different light than I do.  Posts  here and here Mr. Santos, the Mexican convert who moved to San Juan from Mexico Guatemala City is presumably somehow related to the k’iche or tz’utujile community [although Greer Walker says only that he is Guatemalan and had a Jewish grandparent . Several foreigners, initially from Mexico, but later from Canada, Israel, Bulgaria and elsewhere joined him, again according to Greer Walker].  Besides being a foreigners, and dressing in a way that would stand out in this community (the San Juan Jews apparently are members of Lev Tahor, an ulta-Orthodox group that in trouble with Canadian authorities and seeking to move to Guatemala)*, they seem to have become a tourist attraction. As Tova Dvorin writes in Arutz Sheva:

Santos and one other Jewish family moved to the small town from Mexico city about six years ago, he said. But trouble really began after he began a synagogue, drawing Israelis and Jewish tourists alike to the Guatemalan heartland.

“About seven months ago, visitors came to celebrate the Jewish New Year here,” he stated. “A Mexican family stayed for five months. Were only two families in all, but then a public official began showing signs of discontent with the people here.”

How much experience the community had with foreign tourists is left unsaid, but apparently, the customs of the foreign Jews, or rather, the quasi-religious tourists coming to visit this small community (and possibly to emigrate) were seen as insulting by the local community:

The Times of Israel’s Natalie A. Schachar writes:

… [San Juan] mayor Rodolfo López told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “But every community, and especially ours, as indigenous Mayans, has very special customs and traditions and we have to defend our rights.”

Residents have filed complaints with the municipality that the community of ultra-religious Jews have used a public body of water as a mikveh (ritual bath), practiced unhygienic rituals like kaparot (where a chicken is swung around a rabbi’s head before being slaughtered), and made disparaging comments about immodesty to tourists.

According to the mayor, the indigenous population has also been suspicious since a Canadian couple accused of child abuse reportedly moved to San Juan La Laguna with their six children.

Interstingly, The Times of Israel story’s link reads not “Residents …want Jews to leave” but
“Is a small guatemalan town expelling its jews”… suggesting to me that the story was changed after its first posting, and the most sensationalist claims are being questioned. Most foreign reports begin with the claim that the Mayor ordered Jews to register with his office… which does sound “pogramish”… but apparently was just that the mayor was checking immigration papers of the outsiders coming into his “Mayan” town. Given Lev Tahor is being investigated in Canada for “child abuse and neglect, psychological violence, forced marriages of underage girls and not complying with the required nationwide school curriculum”, and the Canadian authorities have been in contact with Guatemalan authorities regarding some Lev Tahor members wanted for various crimes in Canada, the mayor’s request seemed reasonable [Assuming the new residents of San Juan ARE Lev Tahor.  If they are simply being tarred with the same brush, being assumed to be connected with the shadowy “cult”… but nothing that would change my thesis that the reported anti-Semitism is not at the heart of the reported incidents, but rather the by-product of the deep distrust within traditional communities towards outsiders]. 

It may have been badly reported, or the mayor may have actually used the words “all Jews must register” (or something similar, perhaps in K’iche) and perhaps the reported anti-Semetic harrassment that followed (according to the Orthodox papers, including fliers calling for the expulsion of “Christ killers,” the usual references to Hitler and stones being thrown at Lev Tahor migrants, followed by reports that the Mayor is being indicted for “inciting genocide”) are true… anti-semitism isn’t unknown in Latin America… but it may be overblown (or, given Lev Tahor’s reputation, completely bogus) reactions to what seems less and less another example of a conflict between traditional “usos y custombres” and religious dissent, and more a case of a small town finding itself inundated with unwanted guests.

*  It should be pointed out that for some Jews, Lev Tahor is considered Jewish in the same way that Baptists think about Westboro Baptist Church:  i.e., a fringe group that gives the religion a bad name.


Tova Dvorin, Small Guatemalan Town Uses Nazi-Esque Tactics to Expel Jews” Arutz Sheva (26 May 2014)

Natalie A. Schachar, “Residents of small Guatemalan town want Jews to leave,” The Times of Israel, 28 May 2014

San Juan La Laguna – Guatemalan Officials Open Investigation Against Mayor For Inciting Violence Against Jews“, Voz Iz Neias? 28 May 2014

San Juan La Laguna” (Wikipedia)

Karla Zabludovsky, “Members of a Jewish Sect Lev Tahor Flee Canada for Guatemala” Newsweek, 31 March 2014

(and previous Mexfiles posts)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Hugo permalink
    29 May 2014 6:20 am

    The communities in the Western part of the Lacandona rainforest consist mainly of people from the traditional highland communities. Generally these people had to leave their communities in the 80s and early 90s after converting to protestantism one way or another. The traditional civil-religious cargo system in their original communities is closely tied to caciques that are PRI and often control the sale of soft drinks and alcohol. The converts represent a threat to traditional dominant elites which is the reason why the reaction has been so strong (rape, burning down of homes, etc). The zapatistas began among these isolated communities in the Western part of la Lacandona where they found fertile ground. Since PRI had the state administration these communties had basically been left to fend for themselves and received no outside support.

  2. Peter Melvoin permalink
    29 May 2014 10:27 am

    Fair treatment, Richard.

  3. 29 May 2014 11:56 am

    Hugo: I agree, though overlooked is that the communities moving into Lacondonia often are in conflict with the Lacondon people themselves… who in a further twist… are usually Evangelical Protestants, their conversion by the SIL (Summer Institute of Languages) back in the 1950s often seen as a plot by foreign investors to obtain access to resources in the region. I first realized how complicated the entire religious issue is among the Mayans when I ran across Evangelical Christian Mayan Marxists… selling rosaries!

    Peter: Thanks. this was one of those “til three in the AM” posts, having initially run across the story in a conservative U.S. source, and most writing on the story spinning it as simple Latin American anti-semetism. It’s entirely possible that some of the cruder forms of anti-Semetic propaganda did make its way into San Juan la Laguna, but the claims are from people whose credibility might be reasonably questioned.

  4. Monica permalink
    29 May 2014 12:54 pm

    Please look up The Accidental Talmudist for more information. There are Lev Tahor Jews in Panajachel, which is a town across the lake from San Juan La Laguna, where Toiras Jesed Jews live. In fact, there are several Jews living in that área, though the majority live in Guatemala City. Some people want to pin this problem on the Catholic Church, when in reality, the lake basin is full of Evangelical churches (Pentecostal). For example, in a town of 500 people, there are at least 10 different Evangelical churches, with blaring loudspeakers that have services until midnight in some cases, never mind that there might be 3 people on stage and only 2 attending the service. Here too, we have radical groups that come up with strange ideas, especially when they fear they will lose followers.
    During the 30 years of Civil War in Guatemala, religión became a major component in how the war was fought, with dirty tactics coming from both sides. In fact, one of our presidents during that era “regaled” us with his Evangelical rants every Sunday night on all 4 local TV channels. He also happens to be the one on trial for genocide / crimes against humanity.
    Guatemala in general is not anti Semitic. In at least the 2 major cities, Jewish families are very much appreciated and have always been an important part of society. In the rural área however, sometimes there is xenophobia, even directed towards mestizos.
    As for using the Lago de Atitlán for ritual purposes, many of the older Mayan women bathe there topless, which is simply one of the customs. Apparently the Toiras Jesed men have been taking these ritual baths at 4:30 AM, when no one else is even awake. If you need to wake up at that hour to spy on your neighbors, I suppose the problem is yours, not your neighbor´s.

  5. 29 May 2014 8:06 pm

    Monica: I’ve vaguely familiar with that site ( but a link to the articule your referencing would be welcome.

  6. Monica permalink
    30 May 2014 11:00 pm

    It´s not an article; it´s a post on Facebook. The most interesting part of it are the 300+ comments: everything raging from outrage to racism to proclamations of it being the end of the world. In fact, your article is referenced in the comments.

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