Impressions of a Land in Turmoil: Argentina
by Ben G. Frank
BUENOS AIRES - Argentina has imploded and with it its Jewish community.
A recent visit to this economically besieged land shows that people are not dying in the streets, they are not victims of shootings, of terrorist bombs or curfews or air raids. They are casualties in an economic war in this country of about 36 million, whose name, Argentina ironically means "silver."
Worse than the Great Depression of the 1930's in the U.S. and mired in financial disaster, the capital Buenos Aires reels from blows of bank failures and inflation to the extent that the price of a "basic basket" of groceries has risen by up to 50 percent since the start of the year.
Visitors can already see children rummaging through garbage cans for food or begging in the streets of this vast metropolitan area of about 12 million persons.
You can observe the despair in the deeply troubled, strained looks on their faces which shout out to you "where am I going to get the money to pay the rent or mortgage," in the silence at the dinner table where the food is often obtained from what we Americans call food stamps or a nearby welfare soup kitchen or a synagogue for a food package of dried pasta and rice; in the fact that the rabbis told congregants not to get dressed up for the first communal Seder because many people would feel embarrassed at their worn clothes and did not have money to buy new ones for the holidays; in the fact that community leaders had to offer bus fare to many families to even come to the festive evening.
Imagine in the 21st century having to give one out of every four Manhattan Jews a subway token to come to a communal Seder where for the first time in this once affluent community, the Passover dinner was served with paper plates and plastic dishes; and, where Rabbi Dario Feiguin, of Communidad Amijai synagogue likened the present crisis to the Jews wandering in the desert and now are wandering and have to "go through poverty, unemployment and social unrest."
In this economic war, the decline is continuing unchecked. The emotional toil and stress is everywhere. Argentina, once the third largest economy in the world, is now reduced to an economic meltdown. In American terms, it is as if one quarter of American Jewry lives below the poverty level, as if nearly every American Jew has lost his life savings in a devaluation that saw the peso go from one peso equals one dollar to three pesos to the dollar and even as high as four, and back down to three. It is as if the stock portfolios of Jews in the U.S. are suddenly worthless, that his or her investments are gone, and all this caused by Argentina going bankrupt.
Walking through a shopping mall like "Abastos" in Buenos Aires reminds one of former Iron Curtain countries where there was nothing to buy. In Argentina's case, many factories are silent, and most stores don't have funds to buy new merchandise, and that means nothing to sell, which means nobody is buying and that equals layoffs and more despair. Too many boarded-up stores with glaring "liquidation" signs dotting the landscape.
The words "I used to," is the most common phrase the visitor hears on the streets, an Argentine Jewish woman told me. "I used to go out to eat several times a week. I used to go shopping for clothes. I used to go for a month's vacation in the resort of Punta del Este. I used to go to the theater. I used to, I used to, I used to, I used to," she went on.
Argentina was considered the cr�me-de-la-cr�me of South America, the third largest economy on the continent. Jews were prosperous here in a land which 100 years ago welcomed them, where many found refuge during the Hitler years; where they populated such neighborhoods an "Once," and then moved to Palermo, to Belgrano, to Belgrano-R. Many live in homes as beautiful and as groomed as affluent Jewish suburbs in the U.S. and it is all slipping away from this community of 200,000.
"We can't let these people suffer," says Steven Schwager, chief operating officer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), adding, "they are people like us. They ended up in Argentina because their (immigrant) boat went someplace different."
Two agencies have rushed in to the fore. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency. The former to alleviate the suffering with financial aid, food, medicine, with an unemployment office trying to get new jobs for the unemployed; the latter to help those who want to leave for Israel, get there, get adjusted and settle in. Substantial offers of money, free health insurance, housing, job training are made by the Jewish Agency. Last year 1,461 Jews made aliyah. This year, 4,000 to 6,000 Jews may leave. Despite it all, and unless the social discomfort breaks out into violence, most Jews probably will not leave. A young, attractive, well-educated Argentine put it this way: "I have traveled around the world. I lived in several cities, and every time I come home, I said, this is where I want to live, my family, my friends, my culture are here... and I am staying."
While Jews are going to Miami, Spain, Canada, their relatives and friends are here and someone has to take care of them. Nearly half of Argentina's Jewish children attend Jewish schools. But for now, things have gotten so bad that hundreds of families have threatened to pull their school children out of the private Jewish schools, because they can't pay the tuition. This school system was the gem of this strong, Zionist oriented Jewish community. This writer saw flyers which said, "do not cancel your membership, do not pull your child out of schools, we will help you." As it has done in Russia and before that in Eastern Europe and before that with North African Jews moving to France, and before that with Jews who survived the Holocaust and found themselves in DP camps, JDC, or "the Joint" as it is affectionately called, is Argentina in the 21st century where Jews are suffering not because of pogroms, anti-Semitism, expulsion, fascism or communism, but because of a failed economic policy in a country cursed by government corruption, mismanagement, adventurism, and arrogance.
The JDC staff has been enlarged and the Jewish Agency has rushed in large numbers of shlichim, Lubavitch is on the scene, too, as are other organizations. Constantly heard in this beautiful city of Buenos Aires, this Paris of South America, this city with its wide boulevards and verdant parks, this European city crowned with cafes, is that it will take years to straighten out the destroyed Argentine economy.
Like their fellow Argentine neighbors, Jews here know that the bottom has not yet been reached. As a school teacher in Buenos Aires told me, "it will only get worse." "I don't know how those people are going to live," added an American Jewish woman.
American Jews will decide how much pain their brothers and sisters will endure.
Ben G. Frank, the author of "A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe" and "A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine," is now working on a new book to be called "A Travel Guide to Jewish Caribbean and South America." (Pelican Publishing, Gretna, LA).
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