1. Who are the Jews in the national community? Where did they come from? How many are there? What is their geographical distribution within the country?
There are nearly 200,000 Jews in Argentina today. They form by far the largest community in Central and South America. The present community dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. In fact secret Jews came to the country several hundred years earlier, escaping from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, but they all seem to have been absorbed into the outside community.
The founders of the current community were Ashkenazi Jews who came from Western Europe (especially France) in the second part of the nineteenth century, when Jews were allowed in without legal persecution. However, most of the community traces itself back to the Eastern European immigration from the late 1880s onwards. Some of these Jews settled in the agricultural settlements that formed an important basis of the early community. Within a generation, many of these settlers had made their way to the towns, settling in the immigrant ghettos and tenements of the big towns, especially Buenos Aires. However, even today, there are small Jewish communities, including farmers, in some of the settlements.
Another element in the Jewish population consists of Sephardi or Eastern Jews who came from Turkey, Syria or North Africa around the turn of the last century. The population is currently divided between approximately 85% Ashkenazi and 15% Sephardi or Eastern Jews. Around 90% of Argentinian Jews live in the capital city of Buenos Aires, with the rest living in relatively small communities such as Rosario, Cordoba and Santa Fe.
As mentioned, many of the earliest Jews in Argentina were farmers on the Jewish farming settlements that developed at the end of the nineteenth century. Fairly soon, however, most Jews had moved to the cities and if the first of the city dwellers were peddlers and day laborers, they soon became traders, shopkeepers and artisans. Until recently, a large proportion of the community had remained middle-class traders and shopkeepers; however, a largely professional second or third generation who have made their mark in such cultural fields as art, films, music and journalism, has now augmented the population.
Among the synagogue-going Jews of Argentina, the population is divided between those belonging to Orthodox synagogues and those connected with the Conservative stream. The Conservative movement has been active there for several decades, with a large, dominant synagogue in Buenos Aires. The Reform movement also has a minuscule following. It should be noted that the congregants of these synagogues do not necessarily identify with the respective streams on an ideological basis. It seems that many of them are searching for a sense of community, which they find within these frameworks. There is also a small Haredi presence, which includes those who identify with the Lubavich movement and a few others, but their numbers are very small.
In this context it is important to mention that, unlike the situation in some other national communities where the principal way of identifying as a Jew is through religious affiliation and membership in a synagogue, the situation in Argentina has long been different. The identity of most Jews in this community is connected more with cultural and political definitions. Organizations such as the Jewish socialist Bund have lasted far longer than in almost any other place in the Jewish world, and left-wing political frameworks within the Jewish community have made their mark socially and culturally.
Traditionally, there has been a very strong and vibrant cultural and educational life within the Jewish community. There are currently about forty Jewish schools (some thirty of which are in Buenos Aires). The collective student population of these schools numbers some 16,000. Five years ago, it was estimated that around forty to fifty per cent of the Jewish children attended Jewish day schools, a very large percentage for any Diaspora country. Today, the numbers and the percentage are far lower. However impressive these statistics remain in themselves, it is essential to see them in the context of the general downward trend. The current situation results largely from the fact that many parents have taken their children out of the system in recent years either because of economic difficulties or because of security fears. (Both of these themes will be explored below). Some schools have closed and many more are threatened with closure by the current economic crisis. In this respect, the situation is very serious, but does not necessarily reflect a decline in Jewish identity and identification with the community and its institutions.
In cultural terms, the community has developed many vibrant institutions. Many of them were connected in one way or other with Zionism and Hebrew culture, both of which have left deep marks on the community. There are many Hebrew speakers in the native community as a result of the educational process through which many have passed. Until recently, Zionist youth movements were strong in the community although they too have been affected by the community’s current difficulties.
In terms of the language of the community, the early generations tended towards Yiddish and Ladino, but the second and third generations moved comfortably into Spanish. Buenos Aires was one of the last places in the world to boast a Yiddish daily newspaper, although the Yiddish press essentially disappeared in the 1970s. The community has produced many writers. A 1991 survey counted more than three hundred Argentinian Jewish writers from the beginning of the twentieth century.
There has been considerable assimilation in the community. Cases of intermarriage were recorded in the Jewish agricultural colonies in the early years of the twentieth century, but the numbers greatly increased between the native-born second and third generations. Current rates of intermarriage are very high, especially in the smaller provincial towns outside of Buenos Aires. There the Jewish population simply seems to be too small to allow a satisfactory choice of marriage partners and the results of this situation are obvious.
With regard to assimilation in terms of loss of subjective Jewish identity, here too the numbers have increased significantly in recent years. Up-to-date surveys show that many Jewish students are not concerned with their Jewishness.
6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?
Leaving aside the original reasons that brought the Jews to Argentina (especially the pogroms and economic difficulties of the Eastern European community in the late-nineteenth century), three major historical events influenced many Jews to enter or leave the community. While the country was inhospitable to Jewish immigrants in the years preceding the Holocaust, nonetheless, between thirty and fifty thousand refugees from Hitler’s Europe are estimated to have entered Argentina by 1943. Ironically, this stream dried up almost completely in subsequent years as Jewish immigration was entirely stopped (although Argentina became one of the warmest havens for ex-Nazis).
A second factor that greatly affected the community was the military government - the ‘government of the generals’ - whose power lasted from 1976 to 1983. One feature of this terrible period was the kidnapping and torture of tens of thousands of Argentinians. Well over a thousand of these were Jews, most of whom were never found. This same period saw the emigration of about a million liberal Argentinians to countries such as Mexico, the United States, France and Spain, including quite a large number of Jews. Some of these people later returned when democracy was restored in 1983, but many left permanently.
A third event that affected the community in terms of emigration was the establishment of the State of Israel. Since 1948 many tens of thousands of Jews are believed to have left Argentina and made aliyah. There are signs that the recent crises (see below) have paved the way for many more immigrants to Israel.
7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?
One of the most persistent realities of Argentina over at least the last half-century is that of economic instability. For decades, the national economy has been teetering on the brink of crisis and has sometimes plunged the country into economic chaos. By no means the first, the present period is clearly another such example.
In the early 1990s, the government under President Carlos Menem took determined steps to gain control of the country’s runaway inflation. Linking the local currency to the dollar, they managed to break the fierce inflation; in so doing, however, they created an especially strong peso (the local coin), which kept local prices very high and encouraged cheap imports, especially from Brazil. These steps were detrimental to the middle commercial class of traders and shopkeepers in which many Jews had found their place.
In addition, some of the main banks under Jewish ownership, in which both the Jewish community and many individual Jews had invested their savings, went bankrupt. For many of the Jews in Buenos Aires in particular, the combination of these factors was disastrous and sent them tumbling down an economic ladder that had never been stable to begin with. The situation has not improved in recent years, and many of community members have needed financial support of one kind or other. The bottom line is that the numbers of Jewish poor in the Argentinian community has skyrocketed in recent years. Large numbers of families that, not so long ago, belonged to the comfortable middle class, either as professionals or as business people, have fallen into poverty. Professional status is no longer seen as the key to economic stability. The phenomenon of the unemployed among former professionals is widespread, undermining the basic social-economic-educational strategy that most families had adopted to ensure a better future.
The community has its own welfare organizations, including the very large, central Argentina Jewish Mutual Aid Society (AMIA), an Ashkenazi body. Recent crises have left the official community unable to cope alone, however. Two other important players have moved into the vacuum: one is the local organization ‘Tzedaka’, set up by some of the wealthy members of the community but outside of the official community framework; the other is the American Joint Distribution Committee, which has increased its investment in welfare projects in Argentina in recent years. Both organizations carry out an enormous amount of welfare work, spanning a range of activities from distribution of food packages and medicines to help in the fields of housing and employment.
The present situation is extremely serious. At least 20,000 Jews are in need of welfare - about 10% of the community - and the number is constantly increasing. Some estimate that the figure is much higher. There are thousands of homeless. Pensioners and the elderly are especially hard-hit as the value of pensions has eroded and basic needs and services are becoming more expensive. The welfare institutions in the community are trying their best to help, but the feeling is increasing that, without the mobilization of the entire Jewish world, it will not be possible to deal adequately with the crisis. The Joint and the Jewish Agency are moving staunchly into the vacuum, using much larger sums than they have done previously.
International Jewish aid to Jewish communities in distress is not new, of course; but in the Argentinian case a factor is operating that has rarely been seen before. Until recently, the community had an image - and a self-image - of vibrancy and success. The current unhappy situation of this community, due to external economic and social factors, is part of a wider context. The poverty level is very high throughout Argentina: in a sense, the entire country is fighting the same battle. However, there are some aspects that are specific to the plight of the Jewish community.
8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?
Compared with the situation in many other Western countries, the Argentinian Jews have experienced many periods of relatively recent anti-Semitism. As a result, many Jews there feel insecure. The first key outbreak of hostility to the Jews followed the outbreak of the Russian revolution. This was a time of violent labor unrest in Argentina, and blame was placed largely at the feet of the Jewish radicals and socialists. Attacks on Jews broke out, peaking in the Buenos Aires pogrom of January 1919. This seminal event caused many Jews to question the faith that they had placed in the government up to this time. The 1930s were also a bad time for the Jews. Military intervention in civilian life led to many anti-Jewish measures and the country was involved in a downward spiral of chaos and unrest, conditions that never bode well for a Jewish population in the Diaspora.
The mid-fifties were difficult once again, but the situation worsened after Israel’s capture and abduction of Adolf Eichman in 1960 and his trial in Jerusalem the following year. Assaults on Jews became widespread and bombings of Jewish buildings and institutions were common. Governments came and went, but the attacks on the Jews continued, often condoned by the government. By the mid-sixties, Argentina was a world center of anti-Semitism. Figures for 1967 show that, out of 313 incidents of anti-Semitism recorded worldwide, 143 occurred in Argentina.
The rise of the military regime in 1976 showed an increase in activities against Jews. The regime was dedicated to crushing liberal and radical unrest and used the most brutal methods to suppress any opposition. As mentioned earlier, the regime claimed well over a thousand Jewish victims, and recent evidence suggests that the Jews suffered harsher torture than other prisoners. When the regime was toppled and democracy restored in 1983, the Jews’ security situation improved immeasurably.
In the early 1990s, however, two serious terror attacks against the local Jewish population and Israel shattered the community’s fragile feeling of security that had built up over the last decade. In 1992, the Israeli embassy was bombed, with a loss of some thirty lives and in the summer of 1994, the AMIA building, the center of the Jewish community institutions, was blown up at the cost of about a hundred lives. President Carlos Menem had previously appeared as a friend of the Jews and had shown outrage when a synagogue was desecrated, but in these cases no progress was made in the investigations. Consequently, the Jews’ distrust of the integrity of the police and the state has begun to grow stronger.
In general, the Jews of Argentina have suffered very badly over the past fifty years. There is no question that they are anxious and concerned about the future in this regard. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the current crisis has not, as yet, been expressed in terms of anti-Semitic outbreaks among the local population.
All the main problems of the community have been outlined. Economic crisis - both individual and, to a large extent, collective - has been a key factor in community life for decades. The present national crisis, however, has considerably increased feelings of fear and uncertainty. The Jewish community is sliding downhill economically and socially, with increasing numbers of Jews facing poverty and economic ruin. One result is that many Jews are withdrawing from active participation in different institutions of the Jewish community (schools, synagogue activities, social and cultural activities) because they simply do not have the economic means to continue to be involved in the costly activities of the community. Marginalization of substantial sectors of the community due to economic factors, rather than assimilation and alienation, are relatively new problems and offer very difficult challenges for the future of the community. In addition to all of these problems, the anti-Semitism which seems so endemic in Argentina has done little to reassure the Jews that better times are ahead and to make them feel more confident about their future.
Assimilation and intermarriage have taken a heavy toll on the community. To make things worse, a number of top community officials have been discredited in economic scandals and bank closures in recent years, which has left many in the community distrustful of its official leaders. At this particular juncture, the community faces a number of very large problems. Taken individually, they would be challenging; taken together, there are many that may find them overwhelming.
10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?
The community presently numbers under 200,000. A generation ago it was over 300,000. Some of the numbers have been lost to aliyah, while others indicate emigration to Western countries. Much of the decrease in numbers represents assimilation and intermarriage. One of the apparent truths of Jewish demographics is that, when a community is in difficulty, it is sometimes a prelude to a fresh gathering of strength in social and cultural terms. Despite some signs, it is too early to say whether such a cultural and social renaissance is about to occur. There are certainly signs that many Jews want to leave Argentina, either for Israel or other destinations.
Part of the answer to this question depends on which of these trends prevails in the community. Will the centrifugal tendencies leading to more people leaving the community - either through assimilation and intermarriage or through emigration and aliyah - be offset by the forces that could lead to a tighter community, bound together by a sense of common destiny in difficult times?
Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA)
Latin American Jewish Congress