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Four El Al planes were sent to Lima to repatriate more than one thousand stranded Israelis

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Jack Falkon on the bima with his son at his bar-mitzvah at the Sociedad de Beneficencia Sephardi in Lima in 2017 | Photo: Jack Falkon

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Earlier this month, I came across an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), that said 37 members of the Jewish community of Peru had been whisked out of the country on an emergency aliyah flight to Israel.

The article stated that they were fleeing “street riots that have broken out as a result of a scarcity of food and medical supplies,” necessitating an urgent flight to bring Peruvian Jews to safety. Currently, Peru has seen 288,000 infections and nearly ten thousand deaths related to coronavirus. (Peru’s population is about 32 million, three million fewer than Canada’s – that at press time, had about eight thousand fatalities.)

Things were looking positive for Peru leading up to the pandemic, and its strong fiscal policies and economic growth took millions out of poverty in a country where one out of every five people live on only C$135 a month.

President Martín Vizcarra announced the first confirmed case of Coronavirus on March 6, but with only 200 ICU beds in the country at the time, the government shortly after implemented one of the region’s strictest lockdowns, which included sealing its international borders, prohibiting domestic travel and closing all nonessential businesses.

Peru was one of the first South American countries to institute a strict lockdown and close its borders, even ahead of European countries like France and the UK. Just three days after the March 16 nationwide lockdown, Israel sent four El Al planes to Lima to repatriate more than one thousand of its stranded citizens.

During the repatriation effort, the local Jewish community helped cover the food and accommodation of many stranded Israeli travelers waiting for their flights home.

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Peru’s lockdown proved particularly challenging for a country where 70 percent of its economy is informal, with most citizens living hand-to-mouth without a social safety net. To make things even more challenging, 60 percent of Peruvians do not have a bank account, and 44 percent do not have refrigerators at home, thus the need for frequent and crowded visits to the bank and market.

Faced with the choice of staying indoors and not working or starving, many took their chances and were infected. During the strictest stage of the lockdown, only one member per household was able to venture out to buy food and essential items, with men and women allowed out on alternating days.

Peru’s GDP declined by 40 percent in April compared to the same time last year, and its economy is slated to shrink by 12 percent this year – the worst of any South American country. Last month, 31 per cent of Peruvians reported having lost their jobs since the beginning of lockdown.

Yom Haatzmaut celebration in Hebraica at the local JCC in Lima | Photo: Jack Falkon

Peru’s Jewish community is composed of just 2,300 members, 95 per cent of whom reside in the capital city of Lima. The community peaked at 5,000 members in the 1970s, but almost half emigrated during the years of the Military Junta and the Shining Path’s subsequent guerilla war.

The Jewish population is divided between the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Conservative congregations, and around 85 per cent of Jewish children attend Lima’s Jewish school, Colegio León Pinelo. Although very small in size, the Jewish community has played an outsized role in the country’s government. Examples in the past 20 years of high ranking political figures of Jewish descent include the President, Second Vice-President, three Prime Ministers, First Lady, Foreign Minister, and Finance Minister.

To ascertain how Peruvian Jews are faring in one of South America’s worst-hit countries, I spoke to Jack Falkon, spokesperson for the Human Relations Committee of the Jewish Association of Peru.

Peruvian delegation to the last Panamerican Maccabiah in Mexico | Photo: Jack Falkon

He was disturbed by the JTA article, which he says was riddled with inaccuracies about the situation for Jews in Peru, starting with the fact that there has not been rioting on the streets of Lima. He says that 34 of the 37 passengers in the JTA article were Israeli residents of Peru being repatriated, and in fact, only three of the passengers were Peruvians making aliyah.

Falkon says that the local Jewish community, which has lost two members to the pandemic, has adapted as best it can to the new reality.

Synagogues have moved their services and shiurim to Zoom, and the 330 students at the Jewish school are learning online. Jews have rallied together and formed volunteer groups to shop for the elderly, deliver free food and medicine to the needy, and provide mental health services. Despite being predominantly middle and upper-middle-class, parents at the Jewish school who have lost income or their jobs due to the pandemic can access communal loans to cover their children’s tuition.

“I hope that the situation in Peru will get better quickly and that we will see the number of people in our hospitals go down,” says Falkon. “I also hope that we will rebuild our economy and start thinking about the public health system in a different way.”

Boston-born Dan Brotman is an American/Israeli/South African entrepreneur, activist and writer currently based in Johannesburg. During his almost decade in South Africa, he co-founded one of the country’s leading global business immersion companies, served as Executive Director of the South Africa-Israel Forum and managed Media & Public Affairs for the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. He is a regular commentator in the South African media on issues related to the Jewish community and public policy. His column in TheJ.ca focuses on stories in the Jewish world outside of North America and Israel.

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We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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