October 30, 2003
Mexican Jews Hail Discrimination Law
Mexican Jews are pleased that the government has begun implementing a recent law that explicitly prohibits anti-Semitic discrimination.
The Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination -- which one government official called "one of the most advanced laws of its kind" -- passed unanimously in both legislative chambers in April and was signed by President Vicente Fox in June.
The law calls for a 300-member National Council to Prevent Discrimination, which is being formed now and will begin operating in January. The council, which will have branches throughout the country, will address alleged violations of the law.
Anti-Semitism is not a serious problem in Mexico, Jewish leaders said. Still, the law is seen as key to Mexico's future as a democracy.
"This law places Mexico on a level plane with democratic nations," said historian Shulamit Goldsmit, coordinator of the Judaic studies program at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, economic or social condition, health, pregnancy, language, religion, opinions, sexual preference or marital status. It clearly states that xenophobia and anti-Semitism are forms of discrimination, and calls for equal access to education, jobs and political office.
Previous presidents had issued declarations forbidding discrimination, but they never made them into law.
Former legislator Gilberto Rincon Gallardo, who will direct the anti-discrimination council, said the council's goal is cultural reform -- something that could take two or three decades.
Rincon Gallardo ran for president in 2000 from the Social Democratic Party on an anti-discrimination platform. After losing to Fox, Rincon Gallardo founded a citizen's commission against discrimination, which spent two years drafting the law.
"This law is extremely advanced; I believe it's one of the most advanced laws of its kind in the world," he said in an interview.
Prohibiting anti-Semitism is an indispensable part of the law, Rincon Gallardo said.
"In Mexico, there is a certain tradition of looking at Jews as a form of foreigner," he said. "We want the elimination of anti-Semitism to be part of this cultural change."
There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico, mostly in Mexico City, the capital.
While they don't suffer serious anti-Semitism, the law is an important symbolic measure that could prevent future problems, said Mauricio Lulka, executive director of the Central Jewish Committee, Mexico City's Jewish umbrella organization.
"There was confusion about why anti-Semitism needed to be included," said Lulka, who was part of the citizen's commission that drafted the law. "We explained that anti-Semitism goes beyond ethnic discrimination."
Lulka and Rincon Gallardo both said the law aims less for punishment than for education -- which Lulka sees as essential to Mexico's future.
"In the past, Mexican nationalism was defined by sameness," Lulka said in an interview at the committee's Mexico City offices. "But if you don't recognize plurality and diversity, you can't be democratic."
Jews have been both welcomed and persecuted throughout Mexican history, as the country has struggled with competing desires to attract immigrants for economic reasons and to maintain a cohesive society.
Jewish settlement in Mexico dates back to the Spanish colonization in the 16th century. But Mexico's inquisition, although not as severe as Spain's, virtually eliminated the Jewish community.
In modern times, significant Jewish immigration began in the late-19th and early-20th centuries with arrivals from Europe, Russia and Syria. Jewish immigration increased when the United States restricted entry in 1924. Mexico prohibited Jewish immigration in 1933 and 1934, but then opened its borders to European refugees fleeing the Nazis.
In her book "Ashkenazi Jews in Mexico," Adina Cimet describes Mexican attitudes toward Jews in the 20th century as ambivalent.
At times the attitude "came perilously close to prejudice, and when the wave of anti-Semitism enveloped the world, Mexicans did not entirely dissociate themselves from those feelings," Cimet wrote. "They remained largely detached: Jews were not physically attacked in Mexico, but neither was there any rush to help refugees out."
Goldsmit said Jews have lived better in Mexico than in other parts of the world.
"The Jewish community in Mexico has always enjoyed complete citizenship," Goldsmit said. "Jews could build schools and synagogues, live where they wanted, practice their religion openly."
Still, she admitted, Jews often are viewed as foreigners, even when they come from families that have lived in Mexico for two or three generations.
Mexico's new law could begin to change such attitudes, Jewish leaders said.
Renee Dayan-Shabot, director of Tribuna Israelita, the analysis and opinion arm of the Central Committee, said the Senate's vote on the law was moving.
"It came time for any arguments against the law, and there was complete silence," said Dayan-Shabot, who had lobbied the government for the legislation for eight years. "It was so satisfying because this has been a long process."