Behind the Headlines out of the Dark Tunnel

This is a superb, proud city, easily the most cosmopolitan, after New York, in the Americas, and its Jewish community of more than 200,000 possesses the vitality and sophistication of the city it so proudly inhabits. It also shares the socio-economic woes of the new democracy that dawned in 1983 after the long night of the generals.

Despite prior estimates of twice the amount, the actual number of Argentine Jews, including the 50,000 residing outside Buenos Aires, appears to be a bit less than a quarter of a million, still one of the largest communities in the diaspora. The vast majority are Ashkenazi, but the 10 percent who are Sephardic (primarily Jews who originated in Aleppo, Syria) are Orthodox and tightly organized.

On the economic scale, 15 to 20 percent are well-to-do, and about the same number are poor, suffering from high unemployment and a bare subsistence level. The 60 percent comprising the middle class are finding it more difficult to maintain their status and are being forced to eliminate many of the comforts of life.

A serious problem for many is the inability to afford membership in Jewish clubs, and expensive Jewish schools for their children, who are now attending the excellent public schools in increasing numbers.

A STAGGERING PARADOX

A staggering paradox is that the government of Israel has been forced twice in recent years to disburse $1 million to the Buenos Aires community to prevent the closing of the schools, and negotiations are now in progress for an extra $750,000 subsidy from hard-pressed Israel.

Another anomaly is that the wealthier Argentine Jews refuse to support basic Jewish institutions and stand by silently, while Israel must dig down deep into its nearly depleted treasury to bail out a far-distant enclave.

A major problem, according to Dr. David Goldberg, president of the DAIA (Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas), the representative body of 130 institutions, is that only one-third of the community is involved in supporting Jewish clubs, schools and other organizations. Most Jews, he feels, use the synagogue for secular and social purposes. Upper middle class and wealthier Jews, instead of aiding their less fortunate co-religionists, spend enormous sums on ostentatious weddings and bar-mitzvahs.

AN ISRAELI STRONGHOLD

Rick Segal, born in Buenos Aires, formerly with the Tel Aviv Sheraton, and now manager of the Buenos Aires Sheraton, reports that his hotel often seems an Israeli stronghold, for hardly a weekend goes by without two or three elaborate Jewish “simchas”.

Indeed this reporter heard the loud and infectious strains of Yiddish and Israeli folk songs and dances resounding throughout the public rooms. One culinary note: the bagels and challah at the breakfast buffet were distressingly delicious.

Prominent among Jews in high office are Cesar Jaroslavsky, majority leader of the House of Representatives; Dr. Adolfo Gass, President of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee; Dr. Bernardo Grinspun, Secretary of Planning; and top officers of the Central Bank. There are 15 to 20 Jewish Deputies in Parliament.

It had to be borne in mind, said Goldberg, that Argentina is 90 percent Catholic, and that there is no separation between church and state.

“Our community,” he added, “not only here, but in the cities of Cordoba, Mendoza, Rosario, and throughout, operates within the framework of a Catholic nation, but our relations with the Church are improving slowly.”

PLO ATTEMPTING TO OPEN AN OFFICE

The PLO is attempting to open an office similar to the one it has in Brazil. The DAIA is marshalling Jewish forces to oppose such an eventuality. There are some one million Argentinians of Syrian or Lebanese descent, but they have not been organized into a cohesive entity to speak out on Mideast affairs.

A JEWISH PROLETARIAT

Israel’s Ambassador to Argentina, Dov Schmorak, points out that this is one of the very few Jewish communities with a proletariat, that “12 to 14 percent live below the poverty line.” Organized Jewish life here, he asserts, has not been very helpful to the 20,000-30,000 in this category.

The AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina), the central Ashkenazi community, has tried to assist them. A daily sight at its headquarters on Pasteur Street is a long line of able and healthy young men and women waiting their turn to see if a job is available. The aliya department stands ready, says Schmorak, to help them leave for Israel, but few are willing to begin a new life in a far-off land without some funds to provide a viable head start.

ACTIVITIES BETWEEN ISRAEL AND ARGENTINA

There has been an extremely close relationship between Argentine Jews and Israel throughout the years, declared Schmorak, and he alluded not only to the many kibbutzim organized by Argentinians, but to the current and intensive traffic between the two nations, the cultural exchanges, and the medical and technical contributions, such as solar energy, made by Israel to this South American country.

He hoped that an agreement already worked out in principle for El Al Israel Airlines and Aerolineas Argentinas to share flights between the two countries would be put into effect by the government of Raul Alfonsin. Schmorak deplored the fact that the considerable Argentine interest in Israel is not reflected in its attitudes in international organizations such as the United Nations, where its voting pattern with regard to Israel has not improved with the recent change in government.

There had been considerable discussion of a state visit by President Alfonsin to Israel, but the trip has been postponed. Schmorak considers a meeting between Argentinian and Israeli leaders to be crucial and a turning point, when it takes place, in the history of relations between the two nations.

When asked what he considers as his most important achievement as he prepared to return to Israel after a period of five years as Israel’s top representative, Schmorak’s response was swift and unequivocal: it was saving the lives of Jews detained by the previous reg- ime, whose leaders are currently on trial in a Buenos Aires court. There was nothing he could do about the “desparacidos,” those who were picked up in their homes, most often in the middle of the night, and who were never seen again. During those years, the waiting-room of the Embassy was full of wives, mothers, and grandmothers of those who had “disappeared.” They were there to seek information concerning their loved ones and begged him to help.

Schmorak knocked on every government and police door, he said, but to absolutely no avail. Where he was much more successful was with known Jewish prisoners, who were beaten and tortured far worse than the non-Jewish detainees. He recalled that in 1982, Israel Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during a visit, presented the authorities with a list of 400 Jewish prisoners and urged their release.

Schmorak intervened in hundreds of cases and he was able to obtain their release, only with the Generals’ stipulation that each Jew be taken directly from the prison to the airport, given a one-way ticket and placed on a plane with Israel as the ultimate destination.

He reported that with the change in government to a budding democracy, and when all the remaining prisoners were freed, there were no Jews among them, because of the Embassy’s previous efforts and success in getting them safely to Israel.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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