[The fall meeting of the Board of Governors of The Jewish Agency for Israel opens today in Buenos Aires. In addition to on-the-ground coverage, eJewish Philanthropy, through a series of posts, will be taking a look at not only Jewish life in Argentina, but through-out Latin America. To begin, here’s some background.]
History of the Jews of Argentina
The history of the Jews of Argentina goes back to the days of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, when Jews fleeing persecution settled in what is now Argentina. Many of the Portuguese traders in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata were Jewish, but an organized Jewish community developed only after Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1810. At that time, Jews from France and other parts of Western Europe began to settle in Argentina.
The number of Jews migrating to Argentina increased in the late 19th century due to the efforts of Baron Maurice de Hirsch. After the death of his son and heir, de Hirsch devoted himself to Jewish philanthropy and alleviating Jewish suffering in Eastern Europe. He developed a plan to bring Jews to Argentina as autonomous agricultural settlers. This plan meshed with Argentina’s campaign to attract immigrants. The 1853 constitution guaranteed religious freedom, and the country had vast, unpopulated land reserves. Under President Domingo F. Sarmiento, a policy of mass immigration was introduced that coincided with the violent pogroms in Russia in 1881.
Buenos Aires Jewish Community
The Buenos Aires Jewish community was established in 1862, and held its first traditional Jewish wedding in 1868. The first synagogue was inaugurated in 1875. The Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who settled in Argentina became known as “rusos” (“Russians”) by the local population. Some settled in major cities, but mnay acquired land through the Jewish Colonization Association and established small agricultural colonies (“comunas”) in the interior of the country, especially in the provinces of Santa Fe and Entre Rios. By 1939, half the owners and workers of small manufacturing plants were foreigners, many of them newly arrived Jewish refugees from Central Europe.
Despite some anti-Semitism, Jews became involved in most sectors of Argentine society. Still, they were unable to work in the government or military, so many became farmers, peddlers, artisans and shopkeepers. Cultural and religious organizations and a Yiddish press and theater opened in Buenos Aires, as well as a Jewish hospital and a number of Zionist organizations.
Today, approximately 182,300 Jews live in Argentina, down from 310,000 in the early 1960’s. Most of Argentina’s Jews live in Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Rosario. Argentina’s Jewish population is the largest Jewish community in Latin America, the third-largest in the Americas (after that of the United States and Canada), and the seventh-largest in the world. The current Jewish population is 80% Ashkenazi, a unique development for a Latin American country.
Over the years, Jews in Argentina came to play an important role in Argentinian society, but anti-Semitism reared its head from time to time. In January 1919 in Buenos Aires, pogroms fomented by the police as a response to a general strike targeted the Jews and destroyed their property. In the strikes aftermath, civilian vigilante gangs (the Argentine Patriotic League) went after agitators (“agitadores”), claiming scores of victims, including numerous Russian Jews who were falsely accused of masterminding a Communist conspiracy.
When Carlos Saul Menen was elected president in 1989, his Arab origin and Peronist philosophy worried the Jews; however, Menem appointed many Jews to his government, visited Israel a number of times, and offered to help meditate the Israeli-Arab peace process. Menem also ordered the release of files relating to Argentina’s role in serving as a haven for Nazi war criminals. A law against racism and anti-Semitism was passed in the Argentinian parliament in 1988.
Despite Menen’s sympathetic policies and a democratic regime, the Jews of Argentina were targets of two major terrorist attacks during his decade of leadership, both of which remain unsolved: the Israeli Embassy was bombed in March 1992, killing 29 people, and in July 1994 the Jewish community center (AMIA) in Buenos Aires was bombed as well, killing 85 people and wounding over 200. The attack is said to have been carried out by Hezbollah, but Iran to this day refuses to cooperate with the Argentinian government or with Interpol in bringing the perpetrators to justice. The community’s archives were partially destroyed in the bombing and the event left many emotionally scarred.
courtesy Jewish Agency for Israel