The Jews of Argentina: Not Strangers in the Land

With the dawn of democracy in Argentina, this country’s Jews have plunged into a struggle to work out a question they have not actively discussed in the past half-century: how involved should Jews be as a community with the general society and its pressing concerns?

And, in trying to determine the degree of their involvement with Argentine society, Jews are also engaged in a debate on a related and equally controversial issue: what kind of communal structure is most appropriate for their relationship with the general society: monolithic or pluralistic; speaking with one voice (as it has done officially until recently) or many?

The flashpoint for this debate is an issue that has engaged all Argentineans since the 1983 elections that brought Raul Alfonsin and his Radical Civic Union Party to office after the nightmare of terror under the eight-year junta rule ended: How “invested” should they be in the new democracy, given the fact that all elected governments of the past 50 years have been overthrown by coups? How much support should they lend to it, and how should this support be expressed?

Amalia Saionx de Polack, president of Argentine WIZO and vice president of the DAIA (Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas), the officially recognized political umbrella organization for Argentine Jewry, told a delegation of North American Jewish journalists and communal leaders who recently visited the country under the auspices of Aerolinas Argentinas (the government airline) that “For the first time, Argentina is trying to implement a democratic system. The country is a social laboratory. People who come from the roots of a Spanish-Catholic-Indian system (which did not tolerate) a lot of different opinions are trying to grow up and be a democratic country.”

BACKGROUND OF THE DEBATE

The debate on how far to go in support of the new democracy takes place against the backdrop of political developments that appear to place it at risk. These include the dissatisfaction of the armed forces with the trials of officers who perpetrated human rights atrocities during the reign of terror, and the pressure the military has placed on the government to be done with such trials; and Argentina’s severe economic crisis.

Both of these elements go hand in hand, because an unresolved economic crisis could destabilize the regime to the point where the armed forces would have the support of some sectors of the public for taking over, as has happened so many times in the past.

A 36-year-old man who said he had lived only one-sixth of his life under democracy told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at a Latin American Jewish Congress meeting with the North American delegation that “the entire community is very shaky No one knows what will happen next month.” Argentine Jews, in interviews with JTA, spoke of “a pervasive sense of unease,” and of feeling nervous, fearful and “psychologically depressed.”

While all Argentineans live with this sword of Damocles hanging over them, Jews especially feel its presence consciously and acutely. While the junta did not touch any Jewish institutions during its reign, many Jews remember all too well that Jews constituted a disproportionate number of the estimated 30,000 desaparecidos (people who were “disappeared” and are presumed murdered), and that Jews who disappeared or who were imprisoned were subjected to worse mistreatment than non-Jews.

A CONTENTIOUS ISSUE

The question Jews are struggling with, therefore, is not whether to support the new democracy — which the overwhelming majority do — but how far to go in expressing their support. The continuum of opinion ranges from that of the leaders of DAIA, which is careful and cautious whenever a communal response is called for, to the vibrant Hebraica community center, which takes out newspaper ads in support of democracy and human rights and whose members march with those of the Conservative Comunidad Beth El and the small and militant Jewish Human Rights Movement (JHRM) in public demonstrations.

Given the wide range of opinion in the community as to how far to go in support of democracy, the various Jewish institutions in Argentina differ sharply, as well, on the question of pluralism inside the community. While all parties to the debate argue that their approach lends itself best to the Jewish survival, the different groups have different hierarchies of worries.

The older DAIA leaders and their supporters worry primarily about what would happen physically to the Jewish community if it backed democracy to the hilt and then it was overthrown. Said Polack at the meeting with the American Jewish delegation:

“We mustn’t give opinions that might be used against the community. We don’t have the security that in three, four months, the political scenery won’t have changed.” The impression from the remarks of Polack and other DAIA leaders was that there was a kind of “border” for their support of democracy, beyond which they would not go.

Asked about this, Herman Schiller, president of the JHRM and editor of the controversial and outspoken Spanish-Jewish weekly Nueva Presencia, told JTA that “that border is that they are preparing for the return of the junta. If they thought the junta wouldn’t return, there would not be such a border.”

Schiller and other young and liberal elements in the community worry as well, about what would happen to Jewish life if democracy were overthrown. Rabbi Baruj Plavnick, who took over the pulpit of JHRM founder Rabbi Marshall Meyer at the Conservative Comunidad Beth-El, said “Under the junta, there was no creativity, we were a dying community. If there’s no democracy, the Jewish community is finished.”

WORRIED ABOUT THE JEWISH YOUTH

They also worry about what will happen to the community if Jewish youth who seek to be involved in Argentine life and its concerns, including democracy and human rights, do not see the community actively dealing with these issues. With assimilation being rampant, their question is, can we put our communal life in jeopardy by losing our youth through default? Said Paul Warsawsky, an attorney active in human rights causes:

Filmmaker Aida Bortnik, who wrote the film script for the Oscar-winning “The Official Story,” which dealt sensitively with the aftermath of the reign of terror, told JTA how she “began to know I am a Jew” when death threats forced her into exile in Spain in 1976. Feeling herself “part of Argentina but also very much a Jew,” Bortnik is active in Alfonsin’s Radical Party.

She said that when she and her non-Jewish husband visited Israel in 1984, where they were deeply moved by meeting Jews “who came to build the dream” and former ghetto resistance fighters, she was asked repeatedly why Argentine Jews are “so compromised with the Radical Party and democracy. I was told this is dangerous and could be a bad influence if things go bad. But I feel we have no other way.” She continued:

“In exile, I experienced and learned what kind of life I want for myself and those after me, and the responsibility of being an intellectual — to be in the middle of what’s happening. I learned that if we don’t fight for elemental rights, we can’t have a democracy.”

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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