December 28, 2001
Community 'scared' as economy unravels; Israel braces for aliyah.
Steve Lipman - Staff Writer
Hernan Leonoff saw a frightening sight on CNN one night last week - his store being ransacked. Leonoff and his father Armando own Optical Shop, a major eyeglasses supplies business in downtown Beunos Aires. Anti-government rioters, frustrated over the country's continuing economic crisis, were breaking into and looting scores of stores in the Argentine capital last Thursday, and Optical Shop was one of the main targets.
Leonoff saw it happening live. But it wasn't safe to leave his home in a Buenos Aires suburb.
"It was awful," he said. "They stole everything - every frame, every machine." They even took the desk where the store's security device was mounted.
The downtown Optical Shop, one of 40 in a national chain, might be rebuilt, Leonoff says. But he's not staying in Argentina.
"My plans are to move to Florida, after March," he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview Wednesday.
His father also is thinking of leaving his homeland and moving to Florida.
And most of Leonoff's Jewish friends, middleclass businessmen, hope to emigrate, he said.
Following a decade of disastrous national economic decisions, exacerbated by last week's riots and change of government, Argentine Jews, whose community of 200,000 constitutes the seventh largest in the world, are packing their bags.
Argentine Jewry has not been singled out for discrimination by the government or general population, but as prominent business leaders and professionals, they are among the first victims of the country's declining economy.
"Members of the Jewish community are the test case of these [governmental economic] policies, as they were on the front line of these policies and measures," said Bernardo Kliksberg, head of the Inter-American Initiative for Social Capital, Ethics and Development at the Inter-American Development Bank.
"Jews are not having a good time here," Leonoff said. With a soaring unemployment and bankruptcy rate, "they don't have the money, they don't have the jobs. We don't have many prospects."
For many, who have lived through a decade of anti-Semitic terrorism and a two-year-long economic crash, Israel looms in their future.
Jewish Agency representatives in Buenos Aires reported that applications for aliyah interviews have risen dramatically since last week, when the government of President Fernando de la Rua collapsed in the wake of the clashes between police and demonstrators, and the destruction of homes and stores.
"Many Jews are interested ... hundreds" in making aliyah, but it is too early to tell if a large wave of Argentine Jews will actually leave in coming months, said Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency, Israel's quasi-governmental body responsible for aliyah. "I do not see a huge increase."
However, other Jewish Agency officials, according to Haaretz, predict thousands will come. One estimate puts the figure at 3,000, double the 2001 figures, which was 30 percent above the 2000 total.
The Jewish Agency and Israel have offered a special package of economic benefits - including a grant of $2,500 per family and a heavily subsidized mortgage - for Argentine Jews who settle in Israel.
"We are very encouraged by this decision - it is the first time that this government has agreed to give special help to immigrants from the West, and we see it as a significant first step in the government recognizing the importance of encouraging aliyah from Western Europe and America," Chesler told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from London.
In the past the most attractive benefits were made available to Israel's immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Ethiopia.
A group of 65 Argentine olim, the first immigrants to arrive in Israel following the outbreak of violence in Buenos Aires, were greeted Tuesday at Ben-Gurion Airport by Jewish Agency officials and Absorption Ministry Director-General Ronen Plot.
"I am worried for the future of this Jewish community," said Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, who worked for three years in Argentina.
"There has been some improvement in the situation over the last 48 hours, but we do not expect the situation in Argentina to be calm," Mike Rosenberg, director-general of the Jewish Agency's immigration and absorption department, said early this week.
The Jewish Agency offices in Argentina went on high alert last week, remaining open till midnight with all vacations cancelled.
"We are trying to help. We don't want to take advantage" of the emergency situation to pressure Jews into settling in Israel, Chesler said.
Jews historically have moved to Israel, and to pre-statehood Palestine, during periods of social and economic unrest at home.
Chesler dismissed reports that Israel is preparing for a massive rescue effort to bring Argentine Jews en masse to Israel. "We are not talking about ‘rescue efforts - right now I don't see such conditions."
Because of a rapidly increasing inflation rate, the worst there in more than a decade, an estimated quarter of the Jewish community is now classified as under the poverty level - a situation addressed last week at a seminar in Buenos Aires - and some 1,700 Jewish families have lost their homes to creditors. More than 4,500 Jewish pupils have dropped out of the country's Jewish school system, and the number of Jews requesting welfare assistance from the Jewish community has risen from 4,000 to 20,000.
Membership at synagogues and social clubs and other Jewish organizations has declined in the last few years, said Jorge Burkman, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith District 26 in Argentina. "Our contributions have diminished," Burkman said.
He says many Argentinean citizens are preparing to leave; he reports long lines at the visa sections of several European consulates.
The first Jews to leave, Burkman said, will be the retirees with limited resources who are attracted by Israel's financial offer, middle-aged parents who will use their savings to move, and youth who will be sent by their families for high school and college study in Israel.
Before Sept. 11, most would have chosen to settle in the U.S., he said. After the terrorist attacks here and in Washington, Israel - with easily available visas - has become a more-attractive option.
The Argentine press has covered Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's invitation to Argentine Jews, Burkman says. "You can read about it in general newspapers.
"In each family there is at least one person who has left or is leaving," he says.
"We are prepared for emigration or for supporting the community" that decides to remain in Argentina, through educational and cultural programs, Chesler of the Jewish Agency says. "Israel and the Jewish people will not neglect the Jews of Argentina."
Chesler, who attended last week's economic seminar co-hosted by the Latin American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said he found Argentina's Jews "very upset" by the recent crisis, but added, "They are very upset for a very long time." A succession of Argentine governments were under international pressure to find and prosecute the persons responsible for terrorist bombings at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 (29 people died) and at the AMIA Jewish community building in the capital in 1994 (86 deaths).
"Before the bombing we felt very secure," said Hernan Leonoff, whose great-grandfather immigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century. "The problem is the bombing. The problem is the economy. The problem is the riots. The problem is the insecurity.
"We are all scared," he said, adding that his family optical business faces the closing of a few stores and the layoff of at least 15 employees in the next year.
Leonoff estimates that 20 to 30 percent of Argentina's Jews will leave. "Every responsible person should think about moving. We don't feel as safe as we used to."
JTA contributed to this report.
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