Salvadoran Jews regret decision to move embassy, but understand


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — El Salvador’s Jews are disappointed that their country has decided to move its embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, but say it won’t affect their relations with the government or with the country’s large Palestinian community.

El Salvador announced the move in late August, only 10 days after Costa Rica did the same thing. Since the early 1980s, the two small, Central American nations had been the only countries that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.


In an interview in San Salvador last week, Foreign Minister Francisco Lainez told JTA that “we thought it was important to be in compliance with U.N. resolutions asking for all countries not to have their embassies in Jerusalem.

“We had actually made the decision before Costa Rica,” Lainez said, though he refused to say exactly when that decision was made. “When we announced our decision, we let the Israelis know, and although they would have liked us to stay, we did it with respect to all parties involved.”

He added, “We believe that Israel has the right to live within internationally recognized, secure borders … but we didn’t want to make the announcement while the war” in Lebanon this summer “was still going on. Our decision had nothing to do with Costa Rica.”

Hardly anyone buys that idea.

“It did not happen in a vacuum,” said Ricardo Freund, president of the Comunidad Israelita de El Salvador, the country’s main Jewish organization. “Everybody knows that the two were related.”

Rene Leon, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, readily concedes that his country closed its Jerusalem mission only after Costa Rica did so. He said it was a “very painful decision” for President Elias Antonio Saca, who despite his Palestinian origins had vowed not to move the embassy out of Jerusalem.

“I think the Israelis understood that it was very difficult for El Salvador to be the only country in the world not in compliance with the U.N., and that we would have been subjected to bashing at the international level,” Leon told JTA.

He added that El Salvador’s decision was “entirely political,” and that “it was not a calculated decision to open up business relations with the Arab world,” as some Jews in Central America and the United States have charged.

“Of course I’m not angry with Saca,” said Claudio Kahn, a Salvadoran businessman and past president of the Jewish community. “We have about 60,000 Palestinians here, and every time we changed presidents, the government was pressured by local Palestinians to move the embassy.”

Kahn reserves his anger for Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, whom he calls a “son of a bitch” for ending that country’s long pro-Israel tradition — a sentiment shared by most of Costa Rica’s 4,000 Jews.

“The Arabs financed his campaign in Costa Rica, and the first thing he said he would do was move the embassy to Tel Aviv,” Kahn said.

He noted that unlike Arias Sanchez — who shocked Jews at home and abroad with his announcement — Saca met for an hour privately with Jonathan Peled, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to El Salvador, before announcing his decision.

According to Freund, 120 Jews live in El Salvador, a crowded, impoverished nation of 6.7 million people.

Most of them are Ashkenazim whose grandparents came from Germany or France, and virtually all of them belong to the Comunidad Israelita de El Salvador. Few Jews here keep kosher; the ones who do import kosher meat and other food items from nearby Guatemala.

Pablo Berman was hired in September 2005 to be the community’s spiritual leader. The Argentine-born rabbi said he has yet to encounter anti-Semitism in his adopted country

“I’ve been here for a year, and nobody ever gives me problems,” Berman said. “On the contrary, people come up to me and ask me why I wear a kippah and what it means. There’s a lot of interest in Judaism.”

Berman said Salvadorans seem to have deeper sympathy for Jews and Israel than for the Palestinians — despite the large Palestinian Christian presence and the recent construction of a “Palestine Plaza” in downtown San Salvador, as well as a monument to the late PLO chief Yasser Arafat along the city’s Jerusalem Avenue.

“The Salvadoran people are very pro-Israel, especially the evangelicals. You see Jewish symbols all over the street,” he said. “The Salvadorans are very friendly and very interested in knowing Jewish traditions. People call every day, asking if we offer classes in Hebrew and Jewish cooking.”

Freund, who was married at the Salvadoran Embassy in Jerusalem in 1988, said the Jewish community still maintains excellent relations with both the Saca government and with local Palestinians — despite the embassy flap.

“If anything it will be good for us, because this has been a constant source of irritation and aggravation,” said the businessman, who owns a chain of do-it-yourself home improvement stores. “The Palestinian Arab community of El Salvador had been insisting for years that we move the embassy to Tel Aviv. Now that will no longer be the case.”

Ironically, those most likely to be inconvenienced by the embassy switch may actually be Palestinians.

“I was always proud, as a Salvadoran and as a Jew, to have our embassy in Jerusalem,” Freund said. “But the ones who used our embassy’s consular services in Jerusalem were mainly Palestinian Arabs who lived in Bethlehem. They had it easy. Now they’re going to have to travel to Tel Aviv. It will be much more difficult for them.”