Jewish Tours

Buenos Aires, Argentina


ARGENTINA, South American Federal Republic, general population (2004) 39,150,000; Jewish population 190,000.


The attitude of non-Jewish Argentinean society towards the Argentinean Jews as individuals and the organized Jewish community as such is characterized by a certain ambivalence. Argentine society has never been, and is not today, a single ideological entity, being divided between nationalists with extreme xenophobic views and liberals with a pluralistic attitude toward other nations and peoples. But one idea is common to most of these points of view: the need for cultural and social uniformity to shape Argentina's immigrant society. This idea, which demanded complete integration and assimilation of the immigrants into the established culture was most strongly advocated by the Catholic, nationalistic right wing. This group seized power twice in the last third of the 20th century. The army, in which this ideology is predominant, installed itself in government in June 1966 by a coup d'état, which appointed general Juan Carlos Onganía as president. In the enactment of the Statute of the Revolution, which took precedence over the constitution, the Catholic nature of the State (already affirmed in the constitution of 1853) was further underscored with the Statute declaring that the State stood for a "Christian Western Civilization." As a result, many Jews employed as civil servants in the previous government were dismissed and Jewish professors who resigned in 1966, when university autonomy was abolished, experienced great difficulties in their attempts to be reinstated. The deposition of Onganía by a military junta and the appointment of General Roberto Marcelo Levingston (1970), and his deposition in turn by General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse (1971), did not change the Catholic nature of the government.

Raised in an acute form, in connection with the elections of March 1973 that brought to power the Peronist party and the president Héctor Cámpora, was the question of the relations of the Peronist regime when it was in power (1946–55), and of the Peronists, to the Jews and to the State of Israel. On the one hand, it was emphasized that Perón had often expressed his esteem for the Jewish community in Argentina and had established strong bonds with Israel; on the other hand, it was he who had permitted the mass immigration of Nazis to Argentina after World War II, at the same time restricting the entry of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Antisemitic activities on the part of members of the Peronist party and the influence of Arab propaganda, which were a constant source of anxiety to the Jewish community in the 1960s, increased under the military regimes and reached their climax when one of the most prominent Peronist leaders, Andrés Framini, together with other Peronists, joined the pro-Arab Committee for a Free Palestine, of which Framini actually became head.

The increase in acts of terrorism and violence since 1966, culminating in the kidnapping and murder in 1970 of General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, president after Perón's deposition, was accompanied by an increase in antisemitic violence. In addition to the previous extreme right-wing organizations, such as the Guardia Restauradora Nacionalista, pro-Arab leftist organizations supported this violence and all benefited from both the open and clandestine support of the Arab League and the Syrian and Egyptian embassies in Buenos Aires. The Arab community in Argentina, numbering several hundred thousand, supported the anti-Jewish activities, if only to a limited extent. Argentine Jewry was therefore forced to confront three hostile groups, who despite all their differences were united in their hostility to the Jews and to Israel. Bombs were placed in synagogues and Jewish communal buildings.

Widespread antisemitic propaganda also spread in Argentina, attempting to blame the Jews for the economic and social difficulties of the country. A certain innovation in this widely disseminated literature were the sensational revelations of the economist and university lecturer Professor Walter Beveraggi Allende, who accused "International Zionist Jewry" of a plan to impoverish Argentina in order to detach some provinces in the South and the Andes Mountains and establish a Jewish republic there. This accusation, which was included in the new edition of the Protocols of the *Elders of Zion , published in January 1972, had an effect on the public at large and was also evidenced in a more widespread slander campaign.

In September 1973 Héctor Cámpora resigned in favor of Perón who was elected by an enormous majority. During his brief reign of office, Cámpora nominated Jose Ber Gelbard (b. 1917), a Polish-born Jew, as minister of economy, and he retained his post after Perón's election.

In those years support for the exiled Perón had come not only from the right. After almost two decades of direct or indirect military regime, leftist intellectuals and students finally joined the working masses in demonstrating support for the general, amid manifestations of recurrent violence that undermined peaceful life and created a climate of uncertainty and fear for the future. Perón himself made public his views with regard to Jews and to Israel. Before his election, and soon after meeting in Madrid with a large group of Arab diplomats, he felt it proper, in the course of a meeting (also held in Madrid) with former Israel Ambassador Jacob *Tsur and other Israeli officials, to express his sympathy for Jews and for Israel.

Perón received a delegation from DAIA and the kehillah in Buenos Aires, at which he restated his opposition to antisemitism and proclaimed his neutrality in the Middle East conflict.

Perón died on July 1, 1974, and was succeeded by his wife María Estela (Isabel) Martínez de Perón, who had been vice president, but she could hardly confront the difficulties of a politically divided country and keep together the mass movement that had brought Perón back to power. From the middle of 1974 until his forced resignation in July 1975, the strongman in Argentina was José López Rega, minister of social welfare and advisor to the president. Perón's death was followed by a period of complete insecurity and terror. In November 1974 a state of siege was imposed; leftist guerrilla groups (Montoneros and Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo – ERP) were outlawed, a fact that did not prevent them from spectacular acts of terror; thousands were arrested, and ultra-right paramilitary groups, allegedly supported from within the government and acting under the name Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (AAA), killed hundreds of persons, including prominent politicians, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, trade-union leaders and students. Naturally, this situation had an impact on the Jewish community; and DAIA, the Latin American Jewish Congress, and also non-Jewish organizations and publications denounced the dangers inherent in the anti-Jewish aspects of the explosive situation.

A substantial change took place on March 24, 1976, when, in a bloodless coup, a military junta seized power, deposing President María Estela (Isabel) Martínez de Perón and appointing General Jorge Rafael Videla in her place. The junta had to confront a very difficult situation, characterized by economic chaos, enormous inflation, social unrest, terror, and violence. The junta, which suspended normal political and trade-union activities, at first had the support of wide middle class and liberal circles. They hoped that this time the military would restore order in the country. But they were very quickly disappointed. The military factions which took control of the country used extreme methods of terror and completely ignored civil rights and the rule of law. Thousands of people were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered and their bodies disappeared. Under this regime, xenophobic and antisemitic discourse became common, and when a Jew was incarcerated or kidnapped, his fate was bound to be far worse than that of a non-Jew. But at the same time the Jewish community as a whole went undisturbed and was able to conduct its social activities without impediment and administer its institutions democratically. Nevertheless antisemitic actions continued together with some violence against Jewish institutions and persons. A list of antisemitic incidents during the years 1975 and 1976 was published in Argentina and in the United States, together with the testimony by an American Jewish leader. The editor of the daily La Opinion, Jacobo *Timerman , was arrested and jailed in April 1977, and even though declared innocent by the Supreme Court, continued to be held and tortured by the army. In November 1977 Timerman was deprived of his civil rights and his property was placed in state custody. He was also accused of connections with David Graiver, a Jewish financier with alleged ties to the left wing Montoneros. Jewish, professional, and human rights organizations, and the diplomats of the State of Israel repeatedly urged the Argentine government to put an end to Timerman's detention, but it was not until September 1979 that he was released to Israel. Timerman stayed there about a year and then moved to the U.S.

There was also a sequence of anti-Jewish attacks, and antisemitic pamphlets, books, and magazines continued to appear. A prominent example of the anti-Jewish literature is the magazine Cabildo, which was temporarily banned under pressure from the U.S. and Israel. The government also closed down antisemitic publishing enterprises such as Milicia, Odal, and Occidente, but the dissemination of anti-Jewish literature was not stopped. The Graiver case and other economic scandals became a theme played up by the anti-Jewish publications.

In 1979, the government published a decree to the effect that all religions, except Roman Catholicism, must register with the State in order to establish "effective control" over non-Catholic religions.

Although traditional right-wing xenophobic groups were still the main source of anti-Jewish activity, on the left, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel agitation deteriorated usually into typical old-fashioned antisemitism. Special connections were established between anti-Israel Arabs and some leftist guerrilla groups which were received in military training camps of the PLO in Lebanon. There were also indications that the Arabs cooperated with other groups to create an anti-Jewish climate.

The Falklands (Malvinas) War against Great Britain (April–May 1982) and the consequences of Argentina's military defeat marked the beginning of the end for the regime installed by the military junta in 1976. During the hostilities in the south of Argentina, rabbis traveled to the war zone to serve as chaplains for the Jewish soldiers. In the following year, sectors of the community publicly supported the protests concerning the victims who had been arrested and disappeared during the repression practiced by the military junta. Nunca Más ("Never Again"), the report prepared by CONADEP (National Commission for the Missing Persons) published in 1985, revealed a special degree of atrocity in the treatment and torture of many Jewish citizens figuring in the dreadful lists: of the 10,000 to 15,000 "missing persons," about 1,500 were Jews. Some of the survivors testified to the pictures of Hitler and the antisemitic watchwords that formed the "habitual decor" of many torture rooms.

The establishment of a democratic regime after the free elections at the end of 1983 represented a relief for most Argentineans, including the Jews, many of whom became active participants in the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), a party traditionally aligned with the middle classes.

From 1984 a new pluralistic attitude towards the different components of Argentinean society started to be felt, which gradually recognized and legitimized the right of the Jews, as an organized community and as individuals, to be different while part of Argentine society.

Raúl Alfonsín, a progressive and charismatic president, surrounded himself with many figures prominent in other spheres of life: Rabbi Marshall Meyer and Professor Gregorio Klimovsky joined CONADEP (chaired by writer Ernesto Sábato); Bernardo Grinspun became minister of the economy and Mario Brodersohn district secretary; Adolfo Gass obtained a seat in the Senate, Marcelo Stubrin and César Jaroslavsky (the latter, head of the district bank) entered the Chamber of Deputies and Jacobo Fiterman, ex-president of the Argentinean Zionist Organization, became secretary of public works in the Buenos Aires municipality. In the field of education and culture, traditionally a Catholic enclave, Marcos Aguinis became minister of national culture. Manuel Sadosky was minister of science and technology, and Oscar Shuberoff was appointed rector of Buenos Aires University. The Jewish Human Rights Movement was established, and the General San Martín Cultural Center of the City of Buenos Aires, seat of a hitherto unknown pluralism, inaugurated a Jewish Culture Sphere.

It may well have been this Jewish participation in public life that led Monsignor Antonio Plaza, spokesman of the most right-wing sectors of the Argentinean bishopric, to declare in March 1987 that "the government is full of Jews." A fresh antisemitic campaign throughout the initial democratic years of this regime, spoke of the "radical synagogue," a reference to the Jewish community's alleged influence. At the same time antisemitic incidents reappeared, probably as an instrument to discredit the democratic regime.

The trial of the leaders of the military junta, at the initiative of Alfonsín and many Argentineans, petered out as support for the government began to wane and economic problems worsened. The failure of the new economic plan and the return of inflation were accompanied by the opposition of the Peronist central trade union, which organized 14 general strikes during the Alfonsín regime.

The first counterattack by the army's "hardliners," led by the "carapintadas" (Aldo Rico and Mohamed Ali Seineldín, who had fought in the Falklands-Malvinas War), took place in April (Holy Week) 1987 and assumed the character of a military coup, that the civilian president had great difficulty in putting down. Successive concessions to the military disregarded the danger of institutional failure and put an end to trials of soldiers for human rights violations. The renewed insurgency of the "carapintadas" groups in 1988, although failing to obtain their objective, extended their base of support with sectors of the extreme right such as Alejandro Biondini's Nazi group. The precarious situation was further destabilized by the confused events of January 1989, when several score soldiers of the "Todos por la Patria" Movement, a heterogeneous national-Marxist group, influenced by surviving sectors of the guerrilla movement of the previous decade, tried to take by assault a military barracks at La Tablada (a province of Buenos Aires) and were wiped out after many hours of combat.

These episodes indirectly affected the Jewish community, since the "carapintada" sector leader, Colonel Mohamed Ali Seineldín was a fanatic Catholic and an avowed antisemite.

In November 1985 the Nazi war criminal Walter Kutschmann was arrested, but the extradition demand was delayed by legal appeals and Kutschmann died in prison in August 1986 without having been sent to Europe. In March 1986, a group of participants in a public meeting of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) made antisemitic remarks that were later repudiated in a document issued by the Labor Central's governing board. The year 1987 saw continued anti-Jewish attacks, this time on the Sephardi Congregation and the AISA cemetery in Ciudadela. The Jewish community organized a mass demonstration at the central Houssay Square in Buenos Aires (November 1987), with the participation of Argentinean political, trade union, and religious leaders, to demand the speedy ratification of an anti-discrimination law to penalize any expression of antisemitism (this was achieved in the following year).

The social problems continued to increase. In early 1989 President Alfonsín fell victim to an "economic coup" engineered by the financial sectors, which unleashed a hyperinflation that culminated in pillaging of the supermarkets, general disturbances, and the early surrender of power (in July 1989) to the president-elect, Carlos Saúl Menem. The new president, who came from a Syrian Muslim family (although a convert to Catholicism), was very aware of the prejudices regarding his personal history (closely linked with the Argentinean Arab community), and to the prejudices of sectors of his "Justicialist" (Peronist) movement, which in the past had combined a degree of populism with a certain authoritarian tendency. His public acts soon allayed anxieties in these respects: he personally participated in the event organized by the Jewish community at the Congregación Israelita de la República Argentina synagogue to denounce the desecration of the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras in France. Nazi war criminal Joseph Schwamberger, commandant of a concentration camp in Poland (arrested in Córdoba in 1987), was extradited in 1989 to stand trial in Germany. In 1992 Menem announced the decision to "open the Nazi archives" to the investigators, a political measure of great significance (since Eichmann, Mengele, and dozens of other Nazi leaders resided in Argentina or had entered the country in the post-war period, under Perón's benevolent acquiescence) but with few practical results: the files now revealed contained carefully expurgated newspaper clippings, with almost no documental value. The Argentinean Foreign Ministry was pressured by the press and political figures to hand over the documents that certainly exist on the immigration of the Nazi criminals from Europe to Argentina.

The centenary of Jewish Settlement in Argentina (1889–1989) was celebrated by various events in the capital and in the rest of the country, with the participation of political authorities. In 1991, various celebrations marked the first centennial of the arrival of Jewish immigrants to Colonia Mauricio (Carlos Casares).

In general politics, Menem executed a dramatic volte-face when he pardoned the soldiers condemned for human rights violations and allied himself with representatives of business and financial sectors in order to commence privatization of state enterprises and introduced stringent economic regulations. Denouncing the failure by members of the Menem government to fulfill commitments, Colonel Seineldín headed a bloody "carapintada" uprising in December 1990 that ended with the defeat of this nationalist and antisemitic sector. While a ministerial reshuffle transferred science and education posts from Jewish to Catholic personalities participating in the new power alliance, no signs of particular discrimination were revealed and important posts went to personalities such as Moisés Ikonicoff (minister of planning), Enrique Kaplan (director of protocol), Néstor Perl (governor of Chubut), and Carlos Corach (presidential adviser). Argentinean citizens of Jewish origin participated together with their compatriots in various administrative and political posts, with some tacit restrictions in the armed forces, diplomacy, and the higher levels of the judiciary.

Jewish cemeteries were once more desecrated in 1992, in the province of Buenos Aires. A bus taking Jewish school-children on a holiday trip came under fire in the province of Córdoba. In certain football clubs, groups of fans set fire to flags bearing swastikas and chanted anti-Jewish slogans. The fluctuations in antisemitism would seem to reflect an inherent tension between xenophobia and prejudice with the cosmopolitanism and culture expressions of Argentina's liberal urban society. Sociological studies carried out in Argentina have shown, for decades, the presence of a strong element of latent anti-Jewish prejudice, the magnitude and intensity of which grow in relation to the deterioration of the economic situation. At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, Chinese and Korean immigrants, particularly in Buenos Aires, have in some cases replaced the Jews as the traditional scapegoat for Argentinean popular xenophobia. At the end of the 1990s their place was taken by immigrants from Bolivia.

Nevertheless, the new official and also popular pluralistic trend in Argentine society continued. In 1992 a public opinion survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee and DAIA revealed more pluralistic attitudes among interviewees. For instance, 69% of respondents considered it better that Argentina's inhabitants had diverse origins, customs and religions, while 46% declared that Jews had made a positive contribution. Seven percent supported the notion that the country would be better off without Jews. While corroboration of such results would require the periodic holding of comparable polls, the outcome of this one can be reasonably attributed to changes going back to 1983.

But this pluralistic trend was challenged by two terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. In March 1992, before the above-mentioned public opinion survey was made, a car bomb destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and 29 persons were killed. In July 1994 a second car bomb destroyed the community building of AMIA and DAIA killing 85 people. On the one hand, there was a spontaneous expression of popular solidarity in a rally of tens of thousands of people in the square in front of the Federal Congress, with the participation of President Menem and some of the leaders of the country. The government of Argentina gave the Jewish community, as a kind of reparation, $11 million for the expansion of Jewish cultural activity, including $1 million for the establishment of a Holocaust museum to be housed in a building provided to the community by the government. At the same time many groups turned a cold shoulder to the Jews and the investigation into the bombings led to no concrete result.

Nevertheless, the pluralistic process which also legitimized organized Argentinean Jewry as an integral part of Argentinean society was becoming stronger. One example of this trend was the approval in 1988, after a long debate in the two Chambers of Congress, of an anti-discrimination law. A draft bill prepared by the criminologist Dr. Bernardo Beiderman was sent by President Alfonsín to Congress and finally approved with some modifications with the support of the two main factions. Since then, Law 23,592 was applied in several circumstances against racial, religious, and other kinds of discrimination. Another important change was made by President Carlos Menem in his first term: the reform of the National Constitution in 1994. Best known for abolishing the ban on two consecutive terms in office for incumbents seeking reelection, and reducing the presidential term to four years, this also enfranchised non-Catholic aspirants to the leadership of state. The requirement of the original constitution that the chief executive and his deputy must be Catholic has now been dropped, with government support for the Catholic Church remaining in place. In spite of this constitutional change, the aforementioned 1992 opinion survey showed that 45% of respondents would not support a Muslim presidential candidate while 41 and 39% held similar views in respect of a Jew and a Protestant. If this is anything to go by, a sizable proportion of the Argentine public was not ready, when this change was made, for a non-Catholic head of state.

As another example of the official attitude towards Jews and pluralism, it could be mentioned that when in 1997 Argentina's National Institute Against Discrimination and Racism (INADI) was established in the Ministry of Justice, the DAIA was made part of its advisory council.

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