A History of the Jewish Community in Argentina
By Steve Israel
The Argentinian Jewish community today numbers almost 187,000 persons. The first Jewish community in Argentina was founded by crypto-Jews (Marranos) from Spain and Portugal who fled the Inquisition in the 16th century, but these early Jewish immigrants assimilated into the surrounding Catholic society.
In the 19th century, Jews came to Argentina, first from Europe and later from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. The first to arrive were businessmen and company representatives from Europe; this was followed by a small wave of immigration from Morroco and from other countries, including the Russian Empire. In 1862, these immigrants founded the first Jewish community in Buenos Aires; however, as with the crypto-Jews, most of the immigrants from this period assimilated into the local Christian population.
The actual history of the Jewish community therefore only really begins with the large wave of immigration from Tsarist Russia in the 1880s. The massive emigration resulting from the pogroms and persecution of Jews in Romania arrived not only on the shores of North America, but also on the continent of South America. From 1881 to 1950, approximately 225,000 Jews came to Argentina, which is an average of 7,000 per year. Until the 1930s, immigration came from Eastern Europe; during the 1930s, some tens of thousands of Jews came from Germany; during the 1940s and 1950s, Jewish immigrants arrived from several countries in the Middle East, including Syria. At its peak, the Jewish community in Argentina numbered between 310,000-320,000 souls.
The figure behind mass Jewish migration to Argentina was Jewish businessman and philanthropist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch http://www.jewishgates.com/file.asp?File_ID=234 , who founded the Jewish Colonization Association (agricultural colonies), thereby offering an alternative to projects offered by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who supported immigration to Eretz Yisrael and the creation of agricultural colonies there. The JCA founded agricultural colonies in Argentina and assisted Jewish resettlement in them: about 40,000 Jews settled in these colonies at the peak of this operation, but they did not last more than a few decades and dwindled to a small remnant, as the second and third generations made their way to major urban centers, in a preference for business and academic education, over agriculture.
Today, approximately 90% of Argentinan Jews live in Buenos Aires, and the remainder are dispersed in small communities in the "Interior", like Rosario, Cordoba, and Santa Fe, with a very small population left in some of the JCA villages.
The community comprises approximately 85% Ashkenazi Jews and 15% Sephardi Jews. The East European immigrants brought with them both Yiddish culture and an interest in political activity, primarily socialist-oriented, together with a deep sense of identification with Zionism. By contrast, immigrants from Syria and the surrounding countries came with a deep-rooted Jewish tradition, their strong opposition to intermarriage and conversion of non-Jews, as well as their distance, and even alienation from Zionism.
Significant historical factors that impacted on the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from Argentina
Five major historical have events influenced many Jews to enter or leave the Argentinian Jewish community:
Persecution and pogroms:
The widespread and repeated antisemitic massacres in Russia and Romania in the late 19th century were responsible for a tremendous wave of emigration that found its way, in part, to Argentina. These immigrants effectively founded the Argentinian Jewish community.
The Shoah (Holocaust):
Argentina was inhospitable to Jewish immigrants in the years preceding the Holocaust: nonetheless, between 30,000-50,000 refugees from Hitler’s Europe are estimated to have entered Argentina by 1943. After the Second World War, 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 and Nazi war criminals, who fled Europe in order to avoid persecution. http://www.jafi.org.il/education/juice/service/week6.html http://www.jafi.org.il/education/100/people/bios/wiesenthal.html
The ‘Government of the Generals’:
Argentina was ruled by a 'junta', or military government, from 1976 to 1983, which seized power and became infamous for its cruelty to all its opponents. One feature of this terrible period was the kidnapping, torture and execution of tens of thousands of Argentinians. Well over a thousand of these were Jews, most of whom are also counted among the "disappeared" http://www.jafi.org.il/education/argentina-desaparecidos/index.html .
This same period saw the emigration of about one million liberal Argentinians to such countries as: Mexico, the United States, France and Spain, including quite a large number of Jews. Some of them returned later, when democracy was restored in 1983, but many emigrated permanently.
The Establishment of the State of Israel:
Between 1948 and 2001, approximately 50,000 Artentinian Jews came on Aliyah to Israel, mostly members of the Zionist movement, or religious Jews. Most were influenced by the Zionist and Jewish education system and Zionist youth movement programs.
Collapse of the Economy:
Argentina was hit by a severe economic crisis in 2001, which affected all sectors of society, including the Jewish community. In the hope of a better future, many Jews left Argentina, of whom 7,000 came to Israel between 2002-2003. As the economy has now stabilized, the flow has slowed down, while a small outflow continues to North America, and there has been some reverse flow from Israel back to Argentina.
Economic Profile, Occupations and Professions
Many of the earliest Jews in Argentina were farmers inn the Jewish agricultural settlements that developed at the end of the 19th century. Fairly soon, however, most Jews had moved to the cities, where the early Jewish city dwellers were peddlers and day labourers, soon developing into traders, shopkeepers and artisans. Large numbers have remained middle-class traders and shopkeepers but in the 20th century, they were augmented by a largely professional second or third generation who made their mark in Education, the legal profession, and cultural fields such as: art, films and music as well as journalism.
The Argentinian economic crisis in 2001 also affected Jewish economic stability. Many middle-class families found themselves struggling to make a living, and many self-employed professionals became unemployed. In 2003, the Argentian economy began to recover slowly, and the situation of the Jewish community improved, but it has not recovered its former prosperity.
Among the synagogue-going Jews of Argentina, the population is divided between Jews who belong to Orthodox synagogues and those connected with the Conservative stream and there is also a miniscule Reform movement. In addition, many Jews define today themselves as completely secular.
The overall tone of the community is Orthodox, and most synagogues are affiliated to Orthodox Judaism. However, in practice, a number of these synagogues are closer to the Conservative movement. In Buenos Aires alone, there are 50 Orthodox synagogues, five Conservative synagogues, and one Reform Temple. There is also a small Haredi presence, including the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and a few others.
The congregants of these synagogues, it should be noted, do not necessarily identify with the respective streams on an ideological basis. What drives many of them, it seems, is a search for a sense of community that they find within their frameworks.
In the context of discussing synagogue affiliation, it is important to understand that - unlike the situation in some other national communities where the principal means to identify as a Jew is through religious affiliation and membership in a synagogue - the situation in Argentina has long been more about affiliating through organizations with a particular cultural and political definition. Organisations such as the Jewish socialist Bund have lasted far longer than in almost any other places in the Jewish world and left-wing political frameworks within the Jewish community have made their mark socially and culturally.
Education & Culture
Traditionally, there has been a very strong and vibrant cultural and educational life within the Jewish community. In 1999, some 50% of the age group went to Jewish day schools - a very large percentage for any Diaspora country. Today, the numbers and the percentage are lower. There are currently about forty Jewish schools (of which, some thirty are in Buenos Aires), with some 16,000 students, but this is a downward trend.
In cultural terms, the community has developed many vibrant institutions, many of which were connected, in one way or other, to Zionism and Hebrew culture, both of which have left deep marks on the community. There are many competent Hebrew speakers in the Jewish community, as a result of the educational process through which many have passed, such as Bamah – the Jewish Educator House – and Ebraica – the Jewish Community Center. Zionist youth movements are also strong in the community, although they were affected by the recent economic difficulties; they survived the crisis and continue to be an important influence on Jewish youth in Argentina.
The early generations spoke Yiddish or Ladino, but the second and third generations moved comfortably into Spanish. A 1991 survey counted more than three hundred Argentinian Jewish writers from the beginning of the twentieth century, but the Yiddish press already disappeared in the 1970s.
The 2001 economic crisis hit the Jewish community badly, leaving many people destitute. At least 20,000 Jews are in need of welfare – or about 10% of the community - and the number is increasing all the time. Pensioners and the elderly are especially hard hit, as the value of pensions is eroded and basic needs and services become more expensive.
The community has its own welfare organisations, including the very large Argentina Jewish Mutual Aid Society (AMIA). But the crises of recent years have left the official community unable to cope on its own, and two other important players have moved into the vacuum. One is the local organisation “Tzedaka”, established by some of the wealthy members of the community, but outside of the official community framework; the other is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has increased its investment in welfare projects in Argentina in recent years. Both organisations do an enormous amount of welfare work, from distribution of food packages and medicines, to help in the housing and employment field.
There has been considerable assimilation in the community. The current estimate for the whole of Argentina stands at about 45% of all marriages.
There are cases of intermarriage recorded in the Jewish agricultural colonies in the early years of the twentieth century, but the numbers went up greatly among the native-born second and third generation. The numbers of out-marrieds today are very high, especially in the smaller provincial towns outside of Buenos Aires.
Physical Security and Antisemitism
The Jews of Argentina have experienced many periods of relatively recent Antisemitism, and the resultant feeling of insecurity accompanies many Jews today.
The first major outbreak of hostility to the Jews followed the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917. This was a time of violent labor unrest in Argentina, and the blame was placed largely at the feet of the Jewish radicals and socialists. Attacks on Jews broke out and these came to a climax in the Buenos Aires pogrom of January 1919.
After the Second World War, Argentina became a haven for Nazis and Nazi war criminals, and Antisemitism worsened after Israel’s capture and abduction from Argentina of Adolf Eichman by Israel in 1960, and his trial in Jerusalem the following year. Assaults on Jews became widespread and bombings of Jewish buildings and institutions was common, often condoned by the government.
By the mid-1960s, Argentina had become a world centre of Antisemitism. Figures for 1967 show that out of 313 incidents of Antisemitism recorded world-wide, 143 occurred in Argentina.
The rise of the military regime of the Generals in 1976 showed an increase in activities against Jews. The regime was dedicated to crushing the liberal and radical unrest and it used the most brutal methods to suppress the opposition. As mentioned the regime claimed well over a thousand Jewish victims, and evidence of recent years suggests that the Jews came in for harsher torture than other prisoners. When the regime was toppled and democracy restored in 1983, the security situation of the Jews improved immeasurably but in the early 90’s, two major terror attacks against Israel and the local community, shattered the feeling of fragile security that had built up over the last decade. In 1992, the Israeli embassy was bombed, with the loss of some thirty lives; in the summer of 1994, the AMIA building, the centre 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 no progress was made in the investigations, and Jewish distrust of the integrity of the police and state has grown strong in the ensuing years.
All in all, the Jews of Argentina have suffered very badly over the past fifty years. There is no question that there is anxiety and concern among the Jews of Argentina regarding what the future might bring. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the latest crisis has not manifested itself in terms of antisemitic outbreaks among the local population. Given the history of Antisemitism towards the Jewish community, however, it is easy to understand their underlying concern on this point.
The Community Agenda
Economic crisis, both individual and - to a large extent -, collective, has been a major factor in community life for decades. The present uncertainty in the country, however, has, increased the fear and uncertainty considerably. The Jewish community is sliding downhill economically and socially with larger and larger 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.
Assimilation and intermarriage have taken a heavy toll on the community and many young people cannot find a Jewish life partner, especially in communities outside Buenos Aires. At this particular point in time, the community faces a number of very large problems.
Finally, Antisemitism, which has cast a shadow over the Argentinian Jews over the years, continues to be a threat to the community, despite the relative calm of recent years.
The Future of the Community
The community at present numbers about 187,000. A generation ago it was over 300,000. Some of the numbers have been lost to Aliyah, while others represent emigration to western countries, but much of the drop in numbers represents assimilation and intermarriage.
To a large extent, the community's future is also linked to Argentina's economic situation and Antisemitism. If the economy continues to improve to the status quo ante, it would be reasonable to assume that most of the Jewish community will prefer to remain in Argentina, and preserve their Jewish identity through the various frameworks and options in the community.
The Connection to Israel
The Jews of Argentina have long held a strong interest in Zionism. The first Zionist organization was set up in the Jewish agricultural settlements in 1897, and from there its influence spread to other parts of the community. The cultural and political character of the community expressed itself largely in a strong Zionist orientation and an education system that emphasized both Zionism and the learning of Hebrew as a spoken language. Tens of thousands of Argentinians have made Aliyah since the founding of the state of Israel and some 50% of all Argentinian Jews are believed to have visited Israel.
The Jewish Community's Contribution to Argentina
Jews have attempted to make a strong contribution to freedom, civil rights and democracy in a land where the regime has often been oppressive and hostile to liberal ideas. Apart from that, the Jews have contributed strongly in certain cultural fields, especially literature (where the partly Jewish Jorge Luis Borges, strongly involved with Jewish themes in his writing, became know as one of the significant writers of the 20th century), as well as writers Yisrael Zeitlin, Alberto Gerchunoff, and the poet Carlos Grunberg. In general, it is important to note that the Jews have played a significant role as an educated middle class in a country often plagued by instability and economic crisis.
http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/lajsa/2004%20site.html [from http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/lajsa/ 2004]
JPPPI: http://www.jpppi.org.il/main_projects/project.asp?fid=390&ord=1 [pp. 12. 29]
E. Zadoff, A Century of Argentinean Jewry: In Search of a New Model of National Identity (2000),
World Jewish Congress www.worldjewishcongress.org [book]
Socio-demographic study in Spanish: http://www.meida.org/epja-Libro.html