Buenos Aires, Argentina
ARGENTINA, South American Federal Republic, general population (2004) 39,150,000; Jewish population 190,000.
The deep economic recession which affected Argentina in the last years of the 1990s produced great political upheavals. Fernando de la Rúa, the leader of the Radical Party, who became president in December 1999, resigned after two years because of economic instability, a big budget deficit, an external debt which he inherited from the former government, and violent popular opposition to his liberal economic policy as unemployment reached nearly a fifth of the workforce. Eduardo Duhalde, the leader of the Peronist party who had lost to de la Rúa in the 1999 elections, became president in January 2002. The radical economic measures instituted by his government brought about a serious deterioration of the situation: production declined by 16% and inflation reached 41%. The cost of basic products increased by 75% and unemployment reached 25%. This situation specially affected people belonging to the middle class: thousands of them lost almost everything they had or were reduced to living on charity. The difficult social and economic situation brought Duhalde to call for early elections. Néstor Kirchner was installed as president in May 2003 after former president Menem withdrew from a second-round runoff. By 2005 his administration had achieved a measure of stability. Kirchner also got international creditors to cancel 75% of Argentina's debt.
The trend toward industrialization of the Argentinean economy started in the 1930s had produced economic dividends until the 1950s that also benefited the Jewish population. Many Jews abandoned blue-collar employment and went into business while a large number entered the universities and acquired liberal professions. This development, which continued in the following decades, produced a concentration of the Jews at the different levels of the middle class.
The liberalization of the economy commenced at the beginning of the 1990s, which opened the local markets to international competition, the big cut in government spending, and the reduction of a national debt of a magnitude unknown until then, had an adverse effect on broad sectors of the populace and especially on the middle-class, to which Argentinean Jews belonged. The economic distress of the Jewish community became that much worse in 1998, when two banks owned by Jews, Mayo and Patricios, where money belonging to Jews and to Jewish institutions had been invested, went bankrupt. After the collapse of 2001 an estimated 30% of the Jews were unemployed and one-fourth lived below the poverty line, some of them subsisting only thanks to Jewish welfare organized by community agencies. Existing institutions like AMIA and the independent Tzedaka organization were the first organizations to assist the needy. They coordinated and channeled economic support from local Jewish sources, providing a wide spectrum of aid including distribution of food and clothing, housing, backing to new businesses, vocational training, etc. Many synagogues and community centers opened emergency kitchens and supported existing ones. These institutions were also supported by non-Argentinean Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other North American organizations. Also the Inter-American Development Bank has supported the AMIA's job placement service.
The Jewish Agency also tried to help Argentinean Jews, classifying them, together with the Jews of France and South Africa, as being in danger. It stepped up its program to encourage aliyah, increasing the benefits already given to all immigrants. In the first four years of the 21st century close to 9,500 Jews immigrated to Israel. The peak was in 2002 with about 6,200 olim, while in 2001 and 2003 the number was about 1,400 each year and in 2004 approximately 400. This drop in olim could be explained by the relative economic stability in Argentina and the economic problems faced by immigrants in Israel together with the security situation and the difficulty of cultural adaptation.
Jews immigrated to other countries as well, and while there are no statistics, their number may be estimated at several thousand. HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), based in New York, helped Argentinean Jews by facilitating their emigration to different countries in addition to the U.S.
The economic crisis also affected the maintenance of Jewish institutions. The drop in the Jewish population and the consequent reduction in the school population, the collapse of the financial institutions that had supported communal activities, the decline of communal institutions because of changes in traditions like the use of Jewish cemeteries, which were one of the most important sources of income of the community, made community life and the maintenance of traditional ways more difficult. Among the most exposed institutions were the Jewish schools. In recent years they underwent major changes, including amalgamation for reasons of efficiency, serious student dropout, and a big reduction of the Jewish teacher's staff, with consequent unemployment. The community organized centralized projects to find answers to the needs of the schools, with the economic assistance of the Jewish Agency, the State of Israel, and the World Jewish Congress.
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