The first Jews to arrive in Chile together with the Spanish conquistadors were so-called Conversos - forced converts to Catholicism who secretly practiced Judaism. These early Jewish settlers originally left Spain to escape the Inquisition, which had not yet reached the Americas. One such Converso, the physician Francisco Maldonado da Silva, publicly declared himself a Jew and was burned at the stake in auto-da-fé in 1639.
During the 19th century, European Jews from Germany and France began to arrive and settle in Valparaiso. As time went on, they established themselves throughout the country. For the first three decades of the 20th century, Sephardic Jews from different parts of the Ottoman Empire began arriving in Chile, as did Russian Jews fleeing the anti-Semitic policies of the Tsar.
The community grew significantly during this period. Between 1907 and 1930, the Jewish population of Temuco, one of the main destinations for Jewish immigration, increased from 14 to 300 families, and a number of Jewish organizations, such as the Israelite Macedonian Center of Temuco, were established. In addition to the Sephardim, 900 Jews of Polish, Russian and Ukrainian origin made their way to Temuco, which was the first Chilean city to have a synagogue.
The Sociedad Unión Israelita de Chile, the first Jewish center in the country, was established in 1909. Following the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Zionist activity expanded in Chile, and several Jewish organizations flourished, later joining together as the Congress of Jews in Chile.
Jewish immigration was restricted for much of the 1930s, and only between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews were able to enter Chile between 1933 and 1940. More severe immigration restrictions kept Chile closed to additional refugees during the years of the Holocaust. Following the end of World War II, a small number of survivors of Nazi concentration camps were allowed to enter the country. In October 2017, Chilean diplomat Samuel del Campo, who served as chargé d’affaires at the Chilean embassy in Bucharest, Romania in 1941-1942, was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for saving more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.
Despite pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic attitudes on the part of government officials, the Chilean Jewish community remained stable during World War II. The Banco Israelita, established in Santiago in 1944, became one of the country’s major financial institutions.
Jews are integrated into Chilean society and participate actively in the country’s public life. Miguel Schweitzer Speisky and his son, Miguel Schweitzer Walters, served, respectively, as Minister of Justice and Foreign Minister in the Pinochet regime; José Weinstein Cayuela subsequently served as Minister of Culture from under President Ricardo Lagos; Karen Poniachik Pollak was Minister of Mining and Energy under President Michelle Bachelet; and Marcos Libedinsky Tschorne was president of Chile’s Supreme Court.