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Around the Jewish World Argentine Jews Head for the Exits As Country’s Economic Crisis Persists

June 19, 2002
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A gray winter weighs heavily on the streets of Argentina — a sadness that stems from living in a country suffering from seemingly unmanageable economic problems.

Exacerbated by the stunning failure of Argentina’s national soccer team to advance past the first round of this year’s World Cup, the melancholy can be heard in the country’s pizzerias, move theaters and homes.

For many of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews, the ongoing economic crisis, which thrusts an estimated 25,000 people into poverty each day, is increasingly provoking thoughts of emigration.

For one married couple, Silvia Zouvi, 41, and Daniel Pendeti, 43, the economic crisis was the last straw.

“Israel for us is the No. 1 choice, the only place that can give us the opportunity now,” Pendeti told JTA. “Although I have Spanish and Italian roots, I could not wait for four years until I could get visas and work.”

The couple and their two sons have been grappling with economic problems for several years. But the recent combination of inflation and financial devaluation ruined Pendeti’s business as an electronic materials salesman.

The family has been living without medical insurance, and Zouvi’s parents have been providing them with approximately $110 a month.

Asked about the violence in Middle East, Zouvi — a shorthand clerk and former bank employee — answered that “terrorism exists in Argentina too; it is economic terrorism.”

Their son, Guido, 13, is less sanguine about the move: “There is a war” in Israel, he says.

In fact, on the day JTA interviewed Guido’s family, the largest Argentine daily paper, Clarin, featured a front-page photograph of a terrorist attack in Israel that killed 17 people.

Despite Guido’s qualms, the family moved to Israel last week — and they are not alone.

During the 1990s, between 300 and 1,000 Argentine Jews left for Israel annually. Last year, that number increased to 1,400.

Between January and May of this year, 2,150 made aliyah, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel. In all, 5,000 to 6,000 are expected this year, according to agency officials.

Some of the push can be seen in the same issue of the paper that featured the terror attack in Israel: Clarin also featured photos of the desperate faces of Argentines standing on long lines to buy dollars, and articles about wealthy people kidnapped for exorbitant ransoms.

No matter the reason for the departure, Argentine Jews know they can find refuge in Israel.

“The threat might be anti-Semitism or misery. But what is certain is that there is a home that, despite its own difficulties, opens its generous hand to give back hope,”says Diego Melamed, the author of a recent book, “Leaving: How and Why Argentines Are Leaving the Country.”

Kito Hasson, the Jewish Agency’s Latin America representative, told JTA that Argentines who make aliyah are “impelled to leave due to the social, economical and political crisis,” like other emigrants. But there is also an ideological component — a belief in the Jewish state.

Fifty-two percent of those making aliyah are younger than 35, he says. More than 250 have children between the ages of 18 and 20 who will have to serve in the Israeli army.

“They go to build a future, not to end their days,” he says.

But not all of the Argentine Jews who want to leave are choosing Israel as their destination.

Israel “is definitely not the place I want to live in,” says Ricardo Pogarelsky, 45, who works in human resources.

Pogarelsky and his wife, Graciela, began talking about emigration in 1995, but didn’t put their words into action until 2000.

Economics didn’t play a factor, he says.

“As two professionals known in our fields, with dollars we earned during the 1990s, Argentina is a cheap place to live. We could survive with dignity,” he says. “But we do not want a country that does all it can to destroy our efforts.”

With the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, they plan to move to Guadalajara, Mexico, next July.

When choosing a destination, Pogarelsky says, he and his wife “wanted to ensure Jewish continuity for our kids,” Ariel, 8, and Tamara, 5.

“Our dream place for us in the world would have been Israel, to feel we belong completely. But the state of belligerency made us decline,” he says. “The U.S. might have been for us a big fantasy,” but the language barrier would have been a problem.

Pogarelsky’s family is typical of those HIAS sees, says Enrique Burbinski, the group’s representative for Latin America.

HIAS receives about 50 phone inquiries and 80 e-mails each day. In addition, it hosts a weekly information meeting for 150 people.

Most of those seeking advice on emigration are in their 40s and 50s, with university degrees.

“People that come to HIAS look for technical Jewish advice. They don’t have economic urgency to leave, they just have lost faith in the future of Argentina,” Burbinski told JTA. “But they still have resources, some savings. Maybe one in the couple still works. And what we do is inform them and help them choose a better place to live that ensures Jewish continuity.”

For many Argentine Jews who don’t want to go to Israel, the United States, Spain, Italy, Australia and Canada top the list.

For the family of Damian, 33; Veronica, 32; Stephanie, 6; and Maximiliano, 3; the dream became real: They arrived in Palm Beach, Fla., last February.

Veronica, who asked that her family’s last name not be used, is getting a visa to teach at a Jewish pre-school, and Damian is getting a visa as owner of a Web design company.

In Argentina, Veronica said, they got tired of corruption, of living with economic uncertainty, of investing without results.

“Our decision was related to economic problems, but also to future possibilities,” Veronica said.

Israel was not an option for them due to the intifada, she said.

After visiting the United States as tourists, they thought it was an attractive place to settle.

“It is a place that gives you back in services what you pay for in taxes, a place with opportunities, where corruption is condemned, where I am not afraid to be robbed every time I leave home,” Veronica told JTA.

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