Living in the shadows of the volcanos surrounding Lake Atitlán, the picturesque heart of Guatemala’s tourist trail, the Tz’utujil Maya of the village of San Juan La Laguna long ago became accustomed to mixing with foreigners from across the globe.
But one group stood out from the backpackers passing through the area, and even the communities of Western dropouts who have made their homes around the stunning lake. These are the Lev Tahor, an ultra-orthodox Jewish group, whose 230 members first began moving to the village from Canada six years ago.
Growing mistrust between the aloof, black-clad outsiders and the Tz’utujil – who, like the rest of Guatemala’s downtrodden Maya majority, remain traumatised by centuries of abuse by white outsiders, culminating in the genocidal 1960-1996 internal conflict – has now exploded into action.
Last week, at a meeting of San Juan La Laguna’s elders, the village decided to expel Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart” in Hebrew. To ensure that the message got home, they told the group that its water and electricity would be cut off.
Fearing violence, Lev Tahor promptly upped camp and moved temporarily to the capital, Guatemala City. The group is now looking for a new place to settle in the scenic but troubled Central American nation.
“I don’t understand why they don’t want us. We’re doing nothing bad here,” said Rabbi Uriel Goldman, one of Lev Tahor’s leaders. He insisted that his group, which is so strict it refuses to recognise the state of Israel, which it declares has no spiritual validity as it now exists, had been on friendly terms with most locals.
But one of the San Juan La Laguna elders, Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, accused members of Lev Tahor of avoiding contact with villagers and even refusing to greet them. “We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs,” Mr Cholotio said.
The episode is just the latest in Lev Tahor’s turbulent three-decade history. Dogged by allegations of child neglect, the group shuns modern trappings such as televisions and computers, and its interpretation of what is kosher is so rigid that its members only eat food that is prepared at home.
Founded in Israel by the Hassidic Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s, Lev Tahor moved to New York in the 1990s and saw its numbers boom. But Helbrans was convicted of kidnapping a young disciple and eventually deported back to Israel.
The rabbi then moved the group to Canada, first staying in Quebec and then Ontario. Members eventually upped sticks and began moving to Guatemala after more accusations of child neglect, including claims of underage marriages, refusing children access to doctors and not educating them in line with Canadian law. Several Lev Tahor youngsters remain in foster care in Quebec.
Now Lev Tahor’s expulsion from San Juan La Laguna has triggered national consternation in a deeply Christian country unaccustomed to the historical sensitivities of dealing with a Jewish minority.
“They [Lev Tahor] can be considered the unexpected side-effect of religious freedom, and no one knows why they decided to come to Guatemala,” wrote Mario Antonio Sandoval, columnist on the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre.
“Discrimination and racism turn out to be, with utter clarity, an attitude denied but practised by all, and, worst of all, unconsciously. If we don’t like them, as a society, we won’t allow them to be here. But first we must admit to being racist, including the [Maya] Indians, themselves always victims of racism.”
Wanting to leave Canada behind may have been understandable. But why Lev Tahor’s members chose Guatemala, with its history of bitter racial strife, as their new home is less clear. In recent years, as in the neighbouring Mexican state of Chiapas, this has included bloody confrontations between the Catholic majority and the burgeoning number of Evangelical converts.
As tensions began to simmer, the Guatemalan authorities tried to improve relations between the villagers and their new neighbours, and the government’s human rights agency even oversaw talks between the two sides. But to no avail.