Peruvian Amerindian neo-Nazi party takes root

Peru’s Jewish community has urged authorities to stop the activities of a nascent neo-Nazi party headed by an anti-Semitic Amerindian.

According to The Guardian, the Jewish community of Peru said in a statement that it rejected the “open expression of anti-Semitic racism” of the Andean Peru National Socialism Movement—a far-right group that is currently attempting to gather enough signatures to be registered as a political party.

Authorities needed to “take the necessary measures to halt the incitement to racial and religious hatred,” the statement reportedly said.

The Lima-based La Republica daily reported this month that the group had six members and that its founder, Martín Quispe Mayta, has called for the expulsion of the country’s Jewish community.

According to Mayta, the group has 70 volunteer activists. He said he founded the movement after reading Adolf Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf,” in his youth, and Henry Ford’s “The International Jew.”

“Hitler turned against the real enemy, the Jews, who killed millions and who poisoned millions,” Mayta is quoted as telling La Republica. He posed for the paper with five other party activists while wearing a Nazi uniform.

Asked about the Holocaust, he reportedly called it “a lie of the Jewish press” and added, “The gas chambers never existed.”

Fewer than 5,000 Jews live in the country, according to the Guardian.

Visiting Peru’s Would-be Jews

Chan Chan is the world’s largest mud city. Lying just
outside the town of Trujillo, on Peru’s northern coast, Chan Chan’s high
earthen walls feature pre-Columbian carvings paying tribute to the civilization’s
many gods.

In 2001, I ventured to Peru, not just to visit the ruins of
great ancient cities founded by the Incas and their predecessors, but to meet
nearly 200 Inca descendants who have found Judaism in recent decades.

Groups of native Peruvians, who were religious Christians,
began practicing Judaism after they came to believe that it was impossible to
follow biblical laws without adhering to Jewish ritual.

Prospero Lujan, at 70 an elder statesman among the “Inca
Jews,” escorted me to Chan Chan one afternoon. I asked him why these Peruvians
would take an interest in Judaism, when Peru’s own ancient cultures built such
splendid monuments.

“Where are they and their gods now?” he replied, referring
to their destroyed civilization.

Prospero’s past may be Inca, but his future is in Israel.
Next month, Prospero will fly to Israel on a chartered plane full of new
Peruvian converts making aliyah. Two groups of Inca Jews were converted and
made aliyah before 1991. The remaining community in Peru struggled for more
than 10 years to gain the attention of Israel’s chief rabbinate. The rabbinate
initially promised to return soon to Peru to convert more people, but reversed
course after several earlier converts “defected” to a more secular lifestyle in

The Inca Jews finally prevailed in November 2001, when an
Orthodox beit din (Jewish court), came to Peru from Israel and converted
Prospero Lujan and 83 others. I reminded Prospero that war-torn Israel is no
paradise, but he was unfazed, feeling the Promised Land will rejuvenate him.

“I will never be afraid again. When I am 80 in Israel, they
will think I am 40,” he said. “Spiritually, I feel young. Practicing Judaism
has totally renewed me.”

The new converts’ enthusiasm is matched by the disappointment
of approximately 80 Inca Jews the beit din left behind.

Ester Guerra, who immigrated to Israel with the first groups
in 1991, recently called me in the middle of the night, having heard that I am
a friend to the Peruvian communities. The family of her brother, Lucio Guerra,
was one of those wishing to convert with the rabbis last fall. The rabbis
passed over Lucio’s family.

“Please do something,” Ester begged. “I am all alone here in
Israel, and it is destroying me. You know my brother Lucio’s family, how
religious they are.”

When I was in Peru, I visited the Guerras in Cajamarca, a
town over 8,000 feet high in the Andes, six hours inland from Trujillo. As we
spoke, Lucio’s wife, Marina, prepared a fish lunch with hot peppers, baked
yucca and rice. The Inca Jews generally eat only vegetarian food and scaly
fish, because they cannot get kosher meat.

Lucio formerly drove a cargo truck, but was forced to become
a garbage truck driver for the municipality to avoid working on Saturdays.

“My old job was better-paying, but we have to look toward
spiritual goals before material concerns,” he explained. Lucio tries to support
his family of six on approximately $175 a month.

The Guerras’ children, in navy and white school uniforms,
ran in from their morning classes just as lunch was ready. Everyone performed a
ritual hand washing and said the Hebrew blessing over rice. As we ate, I talked
to Eliel Guerra, 10, about life in Peru’s public schools.

“Our teacher makes us pray the Catholic way,” he said. “When
she called on me to lead the prayers, I looked the other way, and she pulled me
to the front and hit me twice on each hand with her tablet.”

The Guerras do not know why they were denied conversion last
fall by the beit din. Ester thinks it may be because Lucio does not lay
tefillin — which he cannot afford to buy.

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, a member of the beit din in Israel,
said the failure to use tefillin would not itself be a reason for denying a
conversion. However, Birnbaum would not say why any particular family or
individual was denied conversion last fall.

Rabbi David Mamou, the head of the beit din, said he hopes
to organize another group of rabbis to go to Peru about six months after this
group of 84 people has been “successfully absorbed” — though it’s not clear
exactly how that determination will be made.

“We have opened a door and we hope to continue forward,”
Birnbaum said. “Another 10 years of inaction will not pass.”

The Peruvians want to believe the rabbis, because they
cannot bear the thought of waiting another decade.

“Now we are waiting for the opportunity offered publicly by
the beit din to return to Peru,” said Aquiles Lujan, Prospero Lujan’s oldest
son, who also was passed over by the beit din in November. Aquiles has become
the new president of Trujillo’s community.

“We also remain at the mercy of men of good will and kind
actions to make possible the return of the rabbis,” he continued, stressing the
role that world Jewry can play — both with funding and advocacy — in helping
the remaining Inca Jews convert and move to Israel.

Under Israeli law, no rabbis other than Mamou’s group can
help the Peruvians realize their dream of immigrating to Israel.

Malka Kogan, an attorney at Israel’s Interior Ministry,
explained, “The State of Israel’s rule is to allow a man to immigrate who
converted in a congregation where he lives.”

But what if the man is like Lucio Guerra or Aquiles Lujan,
without an authorized local congregation willing to help?

“Then the chief rabbi’s office must convert him before we
can bring him to Israel,” Kogan said.

No matter how long that takes. Â

Bryan Schwartz, an Easton, Pa.-based lawyer, is completing his first book, “Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World’s Most Isolated Jewish Communities.”

Freedom for Lori Berenson

Franklin Roosevelt’s remark that Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo “may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB” is a reminder that defending universal human rights may be a good American party line, but it is somewhat tainted by the support given to loathsome regimes in Chile, Guatemala and South Africa. It’s Lori Berenson’s singular achievement that she has unwittingly injected Peru’s Alberto Fujimori into that mix.Fujimori had crushed the Shining Path terrorists (not to be confused with Tupac Amaru) and destroyed the Peruvian drug trade. Yet his government has been sharply criticized by human rights organizations as well as by the State Department.

Baruch Ivcher Bronstein, for example, is an Israeli who arrived in Peru in 1970 and started a TV channel that critically covered corruption and human rights violations. Ivcher, reported J.J. Goldberg in a comprehensive article in the Jerusalem Post, was assailed by Fujimori and his military brass as “the Jew Ivcher” and charged with being an Israeli spy. He had his citizenship rescinded and his TV station taken away.

“If I’d waited another day, they would have tried me for treason and put me before a firing squad,” he said after fleeing to Miami.

Peru’s wealthy and self-absorbed organized Jewish community never protested except for a respectful letter asking that his citizenship be restored. They’ve been silent about Berenson, the former MIT student who was arrested in Peru in 1995 and charged with being a leader of the left-wing Tupac Amaru rebels, helping them plan an attack on the Peruvian Congress – allegations she has always denied. In 1996 she was convicted by judges wearing ski masks in a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

An unusual collection of defenders from all points on the political spectrum have lined up on her side, concentrating on her grotesque trial and cruel sentence and asking that she be allowed to return home.Orthodox Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, who operates privately in diplomatic back channels and who played a major role in rescuing Natan Sharansky from his Soviet jailers, has taken up her cause. Greenwald has visited the now 30-year-old Berenson four times and expects to return soon to Peru. He believes she will be let go eventually, perhaps for time served.

Dr. Todd Meister, an anesthesiologist studying to become a rabbi at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, recently organized a week of Torah study dedicated to securing her freedom. In nearby Rockville, Md., Conservative Rabbi Howard Gorin drafted a resolution on her behalf that was passed by the Rabbinical Assembly. This was echoed by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan and his brother, Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of Lima, together with Rabbi Josh Salzman of American Jewish World Services, recently visited her. Salzman described her as “extraordinary” and as someone who “seems to be rediscovering her Judaism in jail.”This is not to say that her imprisonment and the severe conditions under which she has lived for most of the time (solitary confinement) comprise “a Jewish issue per se,” said her mother, Rhoda, who, with husband Mark, has mounted a relentless campaign.

“Lori was not arrested because she was Jewish,” she says, “but Jewish ideals are what brought Lori to Central America and Peru,” places where destitution, distress, joblessness and exploitation of the poor are facts of life.

Nor is it a Jewish issue to 221 Republican and Democratic representatives and 43 senators who in July wrote President Clinton asking him to push for her freedom.

Berenson was transferred recently to a maximum security women’s prison closer to Lima to be retried on new, though still serious, allegations, even though the charge that she was a leader of the rebels has been dropped. If found guilty she could be given 20 years.

It’s hard to believe the trial will be fair. “If there is one serious problem in Peru,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, “it’s a lack of rule of law.” The State Department agreed, noting “serious concerns about the openness and fairness… in cases related to terrorism in civilian courts.”

Following Peru’s recent presidential election, the Clinton administration seems to have lowered its voice, since Fujimori is seen as a valued partner in Washington’s latest military intervention in Colombia. But if there is any hope for Berenson’s freedom, it is Peru’s need for renewed tourism, massive investments and American influence with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Milton Viorst has argued for “presidential clemency” for Jonathan Pollard in these pages. “The issue,” he wrote, “is secret evidence, the abuse of trial procedures and prejudicial sentencing.” I agree. Lori Berenson has suffered from the same abuses and more.

Through private diplomacy or outright pressure, it’s time the U.S. had the courage to demand she be allowed to go home, for time already served or any other fair formula that can be devised.

Murray Polner is a former editor of Present Tense magazine. This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.