Around the Jewish World: Threat to Jewish Group in Argentina Comes at a Time of Internal Upheaval
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Around the Jewish World: Threat to Jewish Group in Argentina Comes at a Time of Internal Upheaval

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A menacing phone call to the Buenos Aires office of an international Jewish organization earlier this month has reaffirmed the Argentine Jewish community’s need for enhanced security.

Argentina’s estimated 250,000 Jews, however, face more than physical danger.

The seventh largest Jewish community in the world is experiencing growing internal political and social crises in the wake of recent economic upheavals and unsolved anti-Semitic attacks.

The July 15 call to the office of the Jewish Agency for Israel came just days before the fifth anniversary of the bombing of Jewish communal offices in the Argentine capital.

That terrorist attack killed 86 people and injured hundreds more. Two years earlier, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 29.

Responding to the latest threat, the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body in Israel responsible for immigration, stepped up security at its offices in the Argentine capital.

But the Jewish Agency has decided that Argentina’s Jewish community should take the lead in addressing its other pressing needs — maintaining an extensive network of social services, cultural programs and day schools.

Last fall the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Association appealed to the Jewish Agency for help in shoring up its infrastructure, requesting nearly $10 million in emergency assistance for specific items.

“The explosion did not destroy only the building,” but also files and valuables, said AMIA’s general secretary, Noe Davidovich.

Constructing a new building by itself, he said, presented the AMIA with “extraordinary” hardship. The building is not yet complete.

The AMIA sponsors cultural activities such as lectures, exhibits and concerts, administers welfare services and cemeteries and funds Jewish schools that serve 40 percent of Jewish schoolchildren in Argentina, or about 20,000 students, according to one estimate.

But 1998 saw the second wave in recent decades of economic instability in Argentina.

And the failure of two Jewish-owned banks, Banco Mayo and Patricios Bank, reverberated throughout the Jewish community.

The institutions had been the primary funders of Jewish communal activities and leaders to Jewish organizations.

Jewish schools, clubs and social institutions “depended heavily on the two major Jewish banks for their daily operations and payrolls,” the Argentine journalist Sergio Kiernan wrote in a 1999 report for the American Jewish Committee on the investigation into the AMIA bombing.

The banks’ collapse “put several schools, the Israelite Hospital, an old-age home, the Aleph cable station, the FM Jai radio station” and other Jewish institutions “on the brink.”

As a result of the economic crisis, the AMIA took an unusual step in requesting funds for domestic needs from the Jewish Agency.

The Argentine Jewish community, which is ardently Zionist, has traditionally acted as a donor to Israel, contributing between $2 and $3 million to the Jewish state each of the past few years.

“The Argentine Jewish community has always been in solidarity with Israel,” said Davidovich.

Outside of North America, the Jewish Agency “is part of the backbone of world Jewish education,” providing teachers, school administrators and classroom curricula, said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice chairman of the United Israel Appeal, which serves as the conduit for American funds to the Jewish Agency.

American Jewry “is much more internally self-sufficient Jewishly than the rest of the world,” which depends on the agency and other international organizations for a variety of communal needs, Allen said.

The Argentine Jewish community already receives between $4 million and $5 million a year from the Jewish Agency for Jewish education, outreach and preparation for aliyah, or immigration to Israel.

Despite the economic crisis, however, the Jewish Agency has not seen an increase in aliyah from Argentina.

Last year, rather than sending the money requested by the AMIA, the Jewish Agency sent a delegation of its leaders and Israeli government officials to investigate the situation.

Led by Daniel Liwerant, world director of Keren Hayesod, the international fund-raising body for the Jewish Agency, and Shimshon Shoshani, the agency’s then-director general, the team found a population reeling from the bank failures and from the government’s decision to liberalize imports, which left the largely middle-class community struggling.

It also detected what it called a “leadership crisis” among Argentine Jews, “including a basic lack of faith in the present leadership.”

The report suggested that any attempt, “even partial, to `bail out’ the community will simply impede a healthy and inevitable process of matching expenditures to income,” would set a negative precedent and would create financial dependency.

“Each Diaspora community must maintain itself and its communal and educational services according to its means, and according to the willingness of its members to take on financial burdens,” the report concludes.

The report estimates that Argentine Jews spend some $200 million annually, including membership fees, school tuition and private donations, a sign of the community’s vitality.

But the delegation found a lack of philanthropic involvement on the part of some of the wealthiest Jews.

“The paternalistic donations” of the two failed banks, the report says, “had partially concealed until now the reality of a significant decrease in individual/local philanthropy in Argentina, which is an essential condition for the survival of Jewish life anywhere in the Diaspora.”

The owner of Banco Mayo, Ruben Baraja, was the head of the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations, Argentine Jewry’s officially recognized political umbrella organization.

Following the bank failure, Baraja stepped down after three years in office.

The election of his replacement and close associate, former DAIA Secretary Rogelio Cichowolsky, exacerbated existing rifts in the community.

Davidovich of AMIA said the communal leadership’s reaction to the Jewish Agency report was “that its loss had not been sufficiently understood.”

References to a “leadership crisis,” he said, are “overly broad” and do not accurately describe the complex situation.

As a result of the Jewish Agency’s funding rejection, schools have closed, support for institutions has failed and personnel have been dismissed, Davidovich said, without going into specifics.

The January 1999 report calls for a reorganization of local philanthropy and recommends several active steps to strengthen the Jewish Agency’s existing education and immigration activities.

The agency did agree to grant an additional $400,000 toward increased security measures — even before last week’s death threat.

Argentine Jewish institutions have a need for strong security, it reports, “because of the relatively high number of Jewish institutions, and because of the fear of Arab terrorists and neo-Nazi groups.”

The terrorist organization Hezbollah has been implicated in the two, as- yet- unsolved, bombing incidents.

According to the agency, the death threat came from someone speaking from a public phone who told a local employee of Keren Hayesod, “Five years ago you survived, but this time it won’t end as well.”

According to agency officials, the employee who took the call had survived the 1994 attack on the AMIA building, and the caller knew the employee by name.

In an interview, the Jewish Agency’s newly elected director general, Aharon Abramovich, declined to discuss specifics of the agency’s increased security measures, saying simply, “We have to take more precautions” and “be very careful about our activities.”

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