History of the Jews in Guyana
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The history of the Jews in Guyana began in the mid-1600s, when Jewish settlers arrived in the Dutch colony of Essequibo, the forerunner of what became British Guiana and today's Guyana. In 1658, the Dutch agreed with David Nassy to establish a colony of Jews on the Pomeroon River, which flourished, becoming a prized possession of the Dutch, until its destruction in 1666 by an incursion by the English from Barbados under Major John Scott. The Jews of Pomeroon (Bowroom) fled, following the destruction of their colony, mostly to Suriname, where they were granted unprecedented religious freedoms.
By the 1930s there was neither an organized Jewish community nor a synagogue in the capital city of Georgetown. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several Jewish families immigrated to British Guiana from Arab lands to avoid persecution and expand business opportunities.
Pre 20th Century
British Guiana was part of the expanding British Empire, which included much of the Middle East. The expansion of the sugar cane industry in British Guiana allowed the British to encourage workers (initially indentured Portuguese from Madeira, and then East Indians from South India), and the expansion of the economy brought opportunities to Jews from warm lands to emigrate. Most of the Jewish migration during this period came from British controlled portions of the Middle East including what is now modern Iraq, and were erroneously identified as Assyrians and called "Syrians." Prominent among these families were affluent Jews including the Elias family from Palestine who ran several mercantile exchanges until the great fires of the 1960s burn them out. There were also several other Jewish merchant families erroneously identified as Arabs. Until the 1960s, there were close to a few hundred Jewish merchants who were categorized as "Syrians". Most of the Jews returned to the Middle East after racial resentment and political upheaval culminated with race riots of the 1960s.
Prior to World War II, the leadership of Nazi Germany discussed the possibility of exiling the German Jewish population to British Guiana. Winston Churchill had also raised the possibility of relocating up to 250,000 Jews to British Guiana, but his proposal was rejected by then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
After World War II began, the British colonial administration in charge of Guyana agreed to provide shelter for 50 Jewish refugees who escaped Europe through Spain. These refugees emigrated after the war.
Today there are a few Jewish communities in Georgetown.
Janet Jagan, an American-born Jewish woman married to a Guyanese national, served as prime minister from March 17, 1997, to December 19, 1997, and as president of Guyana from December 19, 1997, to August 11, 1999. However, Jagan downplayed her faith, telling a journalist in a 2000 interview that "Jewishness wasn't much of a factor in my life." Jagan also added that as of 2000, "There's no Jewish community in Guyana."
- Oppenheim, Samuel (1907). "An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guiana, 1658-1666: And its Relation to the Jews in Surinam, Cayenne and Tobago". Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society. 16: 95–186. JSTOR 43059606.
- Mordechai Arbell (2003). The Portuguese Jews of Jamaica. Canoe Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-9768125699.
- Francis R. Nicosia (2000). The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. Transaction Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 978-0765806246.
- Lousie London (2003). Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0521534499.
- "Guyana During the Second World War". Guyana.org. Retrieved 2013-08-06.
- J.J. Goldberg (April 1, 2009). "Guyana Leader Was Always Her Own (Jewish) Woman". The Forward. Retrieved 2013-08-06.