The Jews of Argentina: Not Strangers in the Land

(Part Five In A Series)

“Half the board of the Hebraica Community Center thinks Argentina is very anti-Semitic. The other half says, ‘You’ve never been to Poland’.”

This comment by Alberto Senderey, Hebraica’s executive director, illustrates but one of the differences of opinion currently being expressed among the Jews of Argentina, a country with a long and fearful record of anti-Semitism.

The debate in the community on “how far to go” in supporting the democratic government of President Raul Alfonsin is directly related to these differences in evaluating the extent of anti-Semitism in Argentina as well as determining how Jews are perceived by non-Jews. It is related, as well, to differences in evaluating the strength of the democratic government given the fact that this is the first time in 30 years that there have been 3,000 uninterrupted days of democracy.

Argentine government leaders, Jewish and non-Jewish, officially claim there is no problem with anti-Semitism at present. Vice President Victor Martinez told a delegation of visiting North American journalists and communal leaders at a meeting in the Parliament building that “you are facing a brand-new Argentina. There is no racial or other discrimination — anybody can work freely and make investments.”

Marcello Stubrin, a young Jewish Deputy whose great-great-grandfather settled in an agricultural colony in the Santa Fe province, said at the meeting that “the government is fighting for human rights and against problems like anti-Semitism, which exist underground in societies like ours, (led) by enemies of the government.”

ANTI-SEMITISM IN THE MILITARY FORCES

It is generally acknowledged, however, that there are deep anti-Semitic sentiments held in the military forces, the Church, and the Peronista movement, whose Justicialista Party has made a comeback in this month’s elections. The question is, how much influence do these institutions have today in shaping public opinion in relation to the Jews?

Every month, there’s a rightwing ceremony taking place calling for the freeing of the generals convicted of human rights atrocities during the junta’s reign of terror. There are shouts of “end the radical synagogue” — a reference to the Jews Alfonsin appointed to his Cabinet — Bernardo Grinspun, Minister of Planning; Roberto Schteingart, Undersecretary of State for Information and Development; Manuel Sadovsky, Secretary of State for Science and Technology; and Marcos Aguinis, Secretary of Culture.

But many Argentine Jews feel the vast majority of the population does not harbor anti-Semitic feelings and views.

Screenwriter Aida Bortnik, an active member of the Radical Party who spent several years in exile because of death threats during the junta’s reign, believes that “there’s no popular anti-Semitism here. But the military and the church use it; they regard Jews as dangerous people. And the influence of Nazism was very strong in the past.”

The military, a young leader in B’nai B’rith Argentina told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, learn at their academy that “Jews are ugly, they all have money, and they rob the poor.” Another young Jew told JTA that “there are many streams in the military but all are anti-democratic,” adding, “there is an anti-Semitic element in the military” as well. Argentina, he said, has “a 50 year fascist history and deep Catholic sentiments, part of which is anti-Semitism. These are not easy to eradicate.”

Herman Schiller, whose newspaper Nueva Presencia fought for human rights during the reign of terror, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the junta tried to popularize anti-Semitism at that time, but did not succeed. Now, he said, anti-Semitism has become “unfashionable” because “the people have a great hatred for the military. They know what the military did to the Jews” — a reference to the estimated 1,500 Jewish desaparecidos (disappeared persons; presumed murdered). “They know the Jews are not the enemy. Now there is no hatred of the Jews.”

A Jewish professional in his 40′s believes the military has been “discredited and does not have public backing.” There’s a general consensus, he said, that “the brutality and the lunacy” of the junta were “unforgivable.” However, he does not believe that this feeling constitutes an “immunization” against future military regimes.

WINDS OF CHANGE

Some Jews believe that the Church was also discredited because, with a few exceptions, it supported the junta during the reign of terror. The official tendency during the junta was to stress Catholic values.

Despite the political power of the church even today, many Jews hold with Paul Warsawsky, an attorney active in human rights causes, that Argentina “is a secular country with baptized but not practicing Catholics. There’s a strong current of secular thinking in Argentina. “Still, the Constitution mandates that the President must be a Catholic.

Even in the Peronista movement, which some describe as “feelings in search of an ideology,” and which has been influenced by the military, there are some winds of change blowing. A young Jewish provincial leader said there is a new faction of youth who wish to separate the movement from its fascist basis and initiate a middle-class program.

Schiller, who is president of the Jewish Human Rights Movement, said that a symbol of the changes is that the Peronist CGT (General Confederation of Labor) recently started a human rights group, which invited him to speak.

Bortnik believes that there is “no prejudice” against Jews because “everybody is so mixed.” And, indeed, there is a high rate of intermarriage among Jews, estimated (there are no statistics) at between 25 and 50 percent.

The screenwriter, herself married to a non-Jew, believes that most Argentines do not think of the Jews as a religion but “as a people or race.” Senderey holds an opposite view: Jews, he said, “are the only organized minority. Most non-Jews see Jews as being of the Jewish religion. To people with a Catholic background, this is strange.”

Jacobo Fiterman, appointed by Alfonsin to head the public works department of the Buenos Aires municipality, feels non-Jews “don’t understand why Jewish parents feel so terrible if a child marries a non-Jew, and why Jews, if they don’t feel at home here, don’t go to Israel.” Fiterman, a former president of the Zionist Federation whose father was active in the (left Zionist) Poale Zion, continued, “We’re very far from explaining to people what it means to be a Jew.” He believes there is no real understanding of pluralism on the part of the Argentine public.

A meeting of the North American delegation with elected provincial officials in Cordoba, where the Constitution was amended last April to allow a non-Catholic to be elected governor, confirmed the existence of a melting pot (integration) rather than tossed salad (pluralism) approach to ethnic groups.

Cordoba Vice Governor Armando Grosso told the delegation that Argentina is “a cradle of races. There is coexistence between the different nationalities.” Cordoba Education Minister Roberto Peyrano added that “because of racial integration, we never say of a prominent person that he is a Jew or a Catholic but an Argentinean.”

This he continued, was the reason that neither the contribution of Jews nor of any other ethnic group is cited in the school textbooks, although he recognized that “the Jewish community has given Argentina great values in culture and polities.” Jorge Serejsky, who represents B’nai B’rith on the Pedagogical Congress which is working on educational reform, was asked by this reporter whether he planned to suggest introducing material about Jews into the curriculum.

His answer: “The time is not yet ripe.”

(Tomorrow: Part Six)

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