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The Jews of Argentina: Not Strangers in the Land

October 1, 1987
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The central struggle Argentine Jews are involved in, says Conservative Rabbi Baruj Plavnick, is that “until now our community has been either/or either you’re Orthodox or non-religious; either Zionist or (Jewishly) uninvolved; either Argentinean or Jewish. We want to find ways to be both Jewish and Argentinean.”

Many young Argentine Jews, Plavnick among them, feel that for them to be “both Jewish and Argentinean,” they need a communal structure which addresses the problems of Argentine society as Jews. They warn, in the words of Hebraica Community Center executive director Alberto Senderey, that “if we don’t express opinions about the whole society, the youth will have no option but to go to other parties” outside the community.

Attorney Paul Warshawsky, who is involved in human rights causes, feels that Jewish youth want “to enter into engagement with current problems.” But the official communal structure, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “has not succeeded in putting before the youth a coherent and moral behavior pattern.”


Discussions about the current policies of the DAIA, the officially recognized political umbrella organization for Argentine Jewry, tend to segue very quickly and easily into bitter criticism of what it did and did not do during the junta’s reign of terror to help save the estimated 30,000 “desaparecidos” (disappeared), among the 1,5000 Jews — and into the horror stories that everybody has to tell about their own relatives and friends who disappeared at the time.(These are documented in “Nunca Mas: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared,” New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.)

Many continue to accuse the DAIA of not being supportive of the parents of disappeared children. Matilda Mellibowsky, whose daughter Graciela was a 29-year-old translator at the Ministry of Economic Affairs at the time she was kidnapped in the middle of the street on the Sabbath, September 21, 1976, said, “they should have turned the world upside down” to save the desaparecidos.

Graciela’s father, Santiago Mellibowsky, said many parents were told by the DAIA, “you didn’t give your children a Jewish education and that’s why they were kidnapped.” Jacobo Fiterman, a former president of the Zionist Federation, said the DAIA’s attitude toward the desaparecidos was that “they must’ve done something.”

He and many other Jews pointed out, however, that many of the young Jews who disappeared were apolitical — psychologists, teachers, doctors and scientists. The latter include the five Jewish members of the 11-member Atomic Energy Commission, among them 26-year-old Daniel Bendersky. His parents, Fany and Jose Bendersky, are involved with an effort to create a Museum of the Desaparecidos.

There were also people kidnapped for ransom, an estimated 30 percent of whom were Jews. One of them, banker Osvaldo Sivak, still has not returned even though his family paid the ransom.

Said Rabbi Efraim Rosenzweig of Cordoba, “Many people closed their eyes. They didn’t want to see what was happening, like in Nazi Germany.” Hans Levin, head of the German Jewish congregation in Cordoba, said this behavior was especially painful for Jews like himself, who lost 95 percent of his family in the Holocaust.

A former official of the DAIA told JTA of his unsuccessful attempts to get them to take action. “If the junta had demanded from them lists of Jews, they would have turned them over,” he said.

DAIA president Dr. David Goldberg, queried about the charges, told a visiting North American delegation of Jewish journalists and communal leaders that “the Jewish community did a lot but not enough. Even with one disappeared, one death, we could say we did not do enough. But was more possible?”

Asked by this reporter whether the DAIA had undertaken since 1983 an evaluation of its actions, he said it had been tried once, unsuccessfully — “immediately there was the passion, the accusations, the differences.” An analysis must be done responsibly and such a “cold analysis” was not possible now, he said.

Filmmaker Aida Bortnik believes that “in Latin America, to look at the past and to try to understand it is very dangerous.” She attributed the poor reception Jews gave to her latest film, “Pobre Mariposa” (Poor Butterfly), which deals with anti-Semitism in Argentina in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to their not wanting to be reminded of their bad experiences in that period.

Contrasting the behavior of the DAIA with regard to the desaparecidos, which they refrain from evaluating, and its present involvement with strictly “Jewish” issues, Warshawsky said.

“The Jewish community cannot use a double standard regarding Jewish and non-Jewish issues and expect to have the youth (remain) in the community. There’s no sense in fighting for Soviet Jewry when they are killing people two meters from your own home.”

Jewish youth, being more sensitive to social injustice, tend to look outside the community for what they cannot find inside it. “Every day, we’re closer and closer to assimilation,” said Fiterman, an engineer who now heads the Public Works Department of the Buenos Aires municipality. “No one sends a message as to why to be a Jew. All we have is our roots.”


The DAIA has for the past half-century seen as its mandate defending Jews against anti-Semitism and upholding Jewish dignity. It has considered its fulfillment of this mandate a success precisely because of its refusal to “interfere” in the domestic politics of Argentina.

“This has elements of a Greek tragedy,” Warshawsky told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “You cannot expect the Jewish community to be engaged in general problems the way they should be, but you cannot expect the Jewish youth to have a double standard.”

There are young communal leaders, however, who do not share Warshawsky’s pessimism and who feel the community should be expected to be involved with the problems of the country. They seek to break out of the mental ghetto the community has been enclosed in now that democracy has made possible the open expression of views and ideas and active participation in the society’s struggles.

What young leaders like Plavnick, the rabbi of Comunidad Bet El, Conservative Rabbinical Seminary Rector Daniel Fainstein, the officials at the Hebraica community center, and Jewish Human Rights Movement (JHRM) president Herman Schiller seek is to create a way for Jews to be Argentine Jews, committed to both their Jewishness and their nationality, not simply Jews who happen to be living in Argentina.

“We are looking for Jewish identity, commitment to the Jewish tradition, openness to the world, and interaction between universalism and particularism,” said Fainstein. A similar sentiment was expressed by Hebraica executive director Alberto Senderey: “We’re a pluralistic institution interested in Argentine affairs, giving its opinion in defense of Jewish ethics and the interests of the Jewish people.”

They seek, in short, to create a “new Argentine Jew” who is “not dichotomized” between these two parts of his or her identity, but rather, has made a synthesis between them; and a new Jewish community, which is also both Jewish and Argentinean and does not feel that one has to be committed only to one or the other identification.

Schiller’s statement of the impetus for the JHRM defines the goals of all these “new Jews” of Argentina: “We are trying to give a new character to Jewish identity,” he said. “We are struggling so that people will know that we have an involvement in the society, in its daily life, that we are part of the society, and can hold up Jewish pride that we fight for democracy. We want everyone to know that we are not strangers here.”

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