Israel connections

5 Jewish facts about Guatemala’s new Hebrew-speaking president

Bernardo Arévalo studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and spent four years as a senior official in his country’s embassy in the Jewish state

Presidential candidate Bernardo Arevalo and running mate Karin Herrera wave at supporters from a balcony after preliminary results showed him the victor in a presidential run-off election, in Guatemala City, August 20, 2023.  (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Presidential candidate Bernardo Arevalo and running mate Karin Herrera wave at supporters from a balcony after preliminary results showed him the victor in a presidential run-off election, in Guatemala City, August 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

JTA — Guatemala elected a new president on Sunday: Bernardo Arévalo, a center-left former congressman and son of a former president.

In an election that was marred by controversy — and included the government’s disqualifying of multiple opposition candidates — Arévalo was able to emerge victorious by running on an anti-corruption platform. He defeated Sandra Torres, a former first lady who many Guatemalans view as corrupt.

Decades-old statistics put the Jewish population of Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country, at about 900. But despite that small number, Guatemala’s president-elect has a unique history with Jews and Israel.

Here are five Jewish things to know about Arévalo:

1. Arévalo is the son of Juan Jose Arévalo, who became Guatemala’s first democratically-elected leader in 1945. On May 14, 1948, under Juan Jose Arévalo, Guatemala became one of the first countries in the world to recognize Israel. After leaving office, the elder Arévalo then served as ambassador to Israel.

2. While his father was serving as Guatemala’s ambassador to Israel, Bernardo Arévalo studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, receiving a bachelor’s degree there in sociology. While at Hebrew U, Arévalo also studied the history of Christianity in Latin America. He recently stated that he still has friends from his time studying in Israel.

3. Like his father, Arévalo worked at the Guatemalan embassy in Israel. From 1984 to 1986, he was first secretary and consul. Later, from 1987 to 1988, he served as minister counselor. Speaking of his time in the country with local media, he said: “Israel is a country for which I have great affection. I lived 10 years of my life in Israel. They were very important years.”

4. The president-elect speaks Hebrew. A TikTok video of Arévalo conversing with an unidentified man in Hebrew went semi-viral earlier this month, garnering more than a quarter of a million views and nearly 30,000 likes.

5. Despite speaking fondly of his time in Israel, Arévalo does not support all of the positions of the current Israeli government. In May 2022, Arévalo met with officials at the Palestinian embassy in Guatemala. After the meeting, he posted on the platform then known as Twitter: “Today we met with the Ambassador of Palestine and we reiterated that the solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is the creation of a state for each people, within the framework of international law and peace negotiations with multilateral support.”

Arévalo went on to criticize former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales’s 2018 decision to move Guatemala’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying the move “violated international law” and would not help resolve the conflict. However, it is currently unclear if the president-elect plans to move his country’s embassy back to Tel Aviv or maintain the status quo.

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