April 5, 2002
Argentina in Crisis: Penury beckons for a once-wealthy community


Six months ago, Beatrice Ballageure was struggling to make ends meet as a single, middle-aged Jewish woman living in the capital city of an economically depressed Argentina. She had lost her job several months earlier, but she owned her own apartment and had enough money in the bank to afford basic expenses. She had friends who had jobs, and she knew she could rely on her family if real trouble ever came.

Then the bottom fell out of Argentina's economy.

First, the president announced in December that the country was defaulting on its public debt. Then, in January, the Argentine peso, which had been pegged to the dollar at a one-to-one ratio, was de-pegged and promptly lost more than 65 percent of its value. The banks closed, and the government put a freeze on all accounts to prevent a massive withdrawal of funds that would destroy the country's banking system. Unemployment doubled, and what had been a weak labor market effectively was decimated. Food riots broke out, and the president, along with three of his successors, resigned.

Suddenly, Ballageure was out of options.

So on the eve of Passover, Ballageure found herself going down to Buenos Aires' Jewish community center to wait on line for a handout of basic foodstuffs for the holiday. Over the course of just three months, her sister had moved to Israel, all but two of her friends had lost their jobs, and the little money she had left in the bank had been frozen in an account that was rapidly losing its value as the peso went into a freefall. And she needed food to eat.

"I was middle class," says Ballageure, clutching her handbag on line at the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), Buenos Aires' central Jewish community facility. "Now I have no class." Reduced to penury, all Ballageure has left is her apartment, which she says she will donate to the AMIA once she dies. "If I didn't have an apartment-if I had nothing-I would make aliya," Ballageure says.

Ballageure is just one of the tens of thousands of Jews-and millions of Argentines-who suddenly find themselves out of money and out of luck, caught in the downward spiral of a national economic crisis.

For many Argentine Jews, this is a season of particularly difficult choices. Once-wealthy parents suddenly must decide whether they can afford the luxury of private religious schooling for their children. Congregational rabbis must figure out which of their synagogue programs to cut and how they'll feed congregants who have been reduced from synagogue patrons to patrons of soup kitchens. Newly impoverished families must decide whether it is worthwhile trading their woes in Argentina for hardship in Israel, where 18 months of escalating violence has turned the Jewish state into a trying destination for Argentine emigrants. And Jewish communal leaders must figure out how to secure the resources necessary to help the Jewish community survive.

It takes a visit to Argentina to understand just how difficult these choices really are. Some of the signs of the national crisis are immediately apparent-stores all over Buenos Aires are plastered with notices of "liquidacion," huge billboards in prime downtown locations are empty, and anti-government political graffiti is everywhere-but the less obvious aspects of the crisis are far more worrisome. Years of fiscal profligacy, the persistence of deep-rooted corruption in the public and private sectors, and failed monetary policies have brought one of Latin America's strongest economies to its knees.

Financially secure Argentines with savings in the bank were rendered impecunious when the government froze bank accounts and forcibly converted dollar savings into devalued pesos. Those who have lost their jobs-unemployment is now at 22%-have little hope for economic stability in the virtual absence of a labor market. Without an income, even middle- and upper-class Argentines have no way of getting money. In the wealthy Buenos Aires neighborhood that is home to the country's president, many houses post For Sale signs, some of them tacked to the red brick wall that encircles the presidential compound.

For Argentina's once-affluent Jewish community, estimated at 250,000, the trappings of wealth remain, but the money is gone. As one member of Argentina's Jewish Community Emergency Committee explained it, "The poor people dress like us, act like us, and are educated people. But their fridge is empty, their electricity bill is not yet paid, their gas service probably already has been cut, and they probably are not paying their mortgage or rent. This is the first time in history that the Argentine Jewish community needs the help of the Jewish international world."

Unaccustomed to their sudden impoverishment, many of Argentina's new Jewish poor are too ashamed to ask for help. But their community leaders are sounding the alarm, and the world's Jews have begun to respond.

In February, North America's central Jewish communal group, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), pledged $40 million in emergency aid to Argentine Jews for 2002. The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which are working with the UJC, have themselves earmarked millions of additional dollars for Argentine relief. And hundreds of Jewish groups and synagogue congregations-and thousands of individual Jewish patrons all over the world-are sending money directly to friends, family, and Jewish institutions and congregations in Argentina.

"It's like [Manhattan's] Upper East Side suddenly went belly-up," said the president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, Rabbi Marc Schneier, of the plight of Argentine Jewry. Last month, Schneier and the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Israel Singer, led a group of a dozen rabbis on a two-day mission to Buenos Aires to figure out how to distribute approximately $100,000 in relief aid-raised by some 67 North American synagogue congregations-for the purchase of Passover food. "They still have their nice clothes and expensive homes," Schneier said of his Argentine counterparts, "but they suddenly have no money to buy food and can't make their monthly maintenance payments. It's unbelievable."

In Argentina's current economic turmoil, even the process of donating money is fraught with hazards, as an impassioned meeting last month between a visiting Jewish delegation from North America and the executive board of the AMIA Jewish center made clear. First, there is the problem of transferring money. Because of the rapid devaluation of the peso, any money that is converted from dollars into pesos immediately will begin hemorrhaging value. Moreover, because of severe government restrictions on bank withdrawals, any funds that are deposited into an Argentine bank effectively will be lost.

The most contentious issue, however, is deciding how the money should be spent. There is a multiplicity of local Jewish communal organizations operating in Argentina, and each has its own idea of where financial aid should go. But the differences among those groups seem small compared to the differences between Argentine organizations and the international Jewish charities committed to Argentine relief.

For example, of the $40 million UJC has earmarked for Argentine relief, less than 13% actually is to be spent in Argentina. Fully $35 million has been allocated to aid Argentine aliya and absorption in Israel-under the auspices of the Jewish Agency-and $5 million is to be spent locally in Argentina under the aegis of the Joint. This has some Argentine Jewish leaders up in arms. They point out that while much has been made of Argentine aliya, only a little more than 400 Jews a month are emigrating from Argentina to Israel, where escalating violence has kept immigration figures down. Meanwhile, a growing number of Argentine Jews are slipping into dire poverty, and local officials say that getting only a small fraction of the relief money-in the case of the UJC, an eighth of the $40 million-is not nearly enough.

"We have a community and a middle class in Argentina that is falling to pieces," said one Argentine official privately. "The question is, do we have to keep the Jews in Argentina in poverty? Do we have to encourage Jews to make aliya despite the dangers there?"

One Argentine immigrant to Israel, Nestor Edelstein, 43, complained, "They don't talk about the bombings or the job market when encouraging you to come here." Speaking in Israel, she said, "It's very different than South America."

The World Jewish Congress' Singer addressed those concerns during his visit to Argentina last month. "We haven't come here to evacuate you, nor do we believe that anyone should be evacuated at this time," he told a group of Jews in Buenos Aires. "That doesn't mean that people who want to make aliya from the United States, from Europe, and from Argentina shouldn't be encouraged to do so."

Rabbi Mario Karpuj, an Argentine émigré to Atlanta, speculated that many Argentine Jews who can do so will leave the country-just not for Israel. "Everyone expects the Jewish community to shrink drastically," he said, "but most Argentines will choose not to go to Israel."

The Jewish Agency estimates that the cost of an aliya package for a family of four-which includes airline tickets, moving costs, housing, and Hebrew ulpan-is roughly $28,000, or $7,000 per person. By contrast, says Karpuj, in Argentina, "with very little amounts of money you're making a huge difference." He said that $12 was enough to supply a month's worth of school lunches for a single student, and $6 covers a month's worth of transportation to school. And as the value of the peso falls faster than Argentine prices, every dollar sent to Latin America is worth even more.

Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, who joined Singer and Schneier on the rabbinic mission to Argentina, said, "If we Jews are going to raise millions of dollars in the United States it should not be for the purposes of helping the citizens of Argentina to move to Israel and America." He said, "We in the religious community can organize to give an opportunity for people to be lifted out of their poverty to live and prosper in their own country, which they love."

Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Human Development Commission of the Latin-American Jewish Congress and a fellow at the Inter-American Development Bank, in Washington, D.C., said Argentina's woes pose nothing less than a problem of "physical survival" for the country's Jews.

"This community has no [financial] resources," he said recently over lunch at Buenos Aires' Sucath David restaurant. "There are 50,000 poor Jews in Argentina, and only 20,000 have the protection of the Jewish community. The Argentine situation is very serious." Until a very short time ago, Argentina had a thriving Jewish community, Kliksberg said. "It's not Ethiopia and it's not Ukraine," he said. "But today we have a problem of the survival of Jews and of the Argentine Jewish community."

In a sign of just how drastically fortunes have been reversed, last month World ORT's Russian office, itself usually the recipient of charity, sent a $25,000 check to its needy counterpart in Argentina. ORT, the London-based worldwide Jewish educational and vocational training group, had already sent $185,000 to Argentine Jews in January after the group's annual board of directors meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.

Jews aren't the only ones sending money to Argentina. Roman Catholicism is the official state religion of this South American nation, and the Church's special place in Argentine society has helped galvanize churches as far away as Spain to hold special fundraising drives for Argentine church communities. Now would be an ideal time for international Jewish groups to work with the Church to relieve Argentine poverty, said the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, but the lack of any history of collaboration between the Jewish community and the Church on issues of social welfare makes such a collaborative effort extremely difficult to set in motion now.

"Our multiplicity of national and international organizations in North America have no vision" when it comes to the relationship between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church, chairman Singer said. The history of the Vatican's role during the Holocaust should not be the only issue under discussion, he argued. The problem, Singer said, is that "international Jewish organizations don't raise anything anymore. They just raise themselves."

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions in Argentina are suffering while demand is rising both for social services and for spiritual services, community officials are saying.

Rabbi Ruben Saferstein, who runs the Sinagoga Dr. Max Nordau in the nation's capital city, says his outreach-oriented synagogue in Buenos Aires has been wildly successful in attracting growing crowds of young, Jewish Argentines interested in their religion, but ever since the bottom fell out of the country's economy he has no money left for programming, little food to offer his congregants, and trouble amassing the resources he needs to run his Shabbat services. Though he doesn't mention it, Saferstein hasn't been paid in eight months.

At the Lubavitch-run Bais Chabad center in another Jewish neighborhood, Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt says he has had to turn his outreach center and synagogue into a welfare center because of "the pressure of necessity." Independent of the regular Jewish organization superstructure, the Chabad center raises its own funds and provides help to 1,200 to 1,500 people a month to buy food and medicine and pay their rent. Chabad runs 14 such centers around the country.

"There are many Jewish families that simply don't have enough money to buy food," said the president of the AMIA, Dr. Hugo Ostrower.

Perhaps in a sign that some Jewish contributors and groups from abroad have grown frustrated with the decisions of the international Jewish communal organizations that manage aid operations to Argentina, some are beginning to take matters into their own hands.

In March, the North American Boards of Rabbis kicked off a synagogue twinning program that matches groups of North American synagogue congregations with individual Argentine congregations in need. Roughly $100,000 was raised in advance of Passover, and a delegation from the interdenominational rabbinic group traveled to Buenos Aires before the holiday to deliver the money directly to 32 Argentine synagogues, many of which have had to open soup kitchens to feed their members. Now, the rabbinic group, along with the World Jewish Congress, is drafting a letter to be mailed to 250,000 Jewish households in America making a direct appeal for money for Argentina's Jews.

But even such direct-aid efforts can run into trouble in Argentina. When the interdenominational group met with local Jewish communal leaders at the AMIA center in Buenos Aires, some of the delegation's members were upset to learn that the Orthodox rabbinate in Argentina has a monopoly on religious matters within the AMIA. Some members of the North American group pressed Ostrower, AMIA's president, to adopt a its own pluralistic model of interdenominational religious inclusion, but Ostrower insisted that granting non-Orthodox rabbis sway over religious matters within the AMIA would shatter the union of the organization and disrupt its social mission of service to the entire Argentine Jewish community.

Having visited Argentina multiple times since the current economic crisis struck, the World Jewish Congress' Singer seemed mindful of the tensions between what visiting benefactors expect and what local beneficiaries need. Speaking to a group of Argentine journalists about the Congress' relief effort, he said, "This is not some gringo attempt to make Latin America part of the North American ethos. We know the mentality of Jews and non-Jews in Latin America and it would be the biggest mistake to come as the rich uncle to teach you, to preach to you, and to save you.

"What this mission has attempted to achieve is some kind of continuity to sustain the community. We came to help people help themselves. That's the Jewish way.

"It's only a beginning," Singer said. "We shall return."

Keeping a Watchful Eye on Anti-Semitism in Argentina

As the political and economic climate in Argentina grows increasingly unstable, many in the Jewish community are worried that Argentines may at some point blame the Jews for the country's woes.

"The first people to be accused will be the Jews," warned Rabbi Analia Bortz, an Argentine émigré who now lives with her husband, Rabbi Mario Karpuj, in Atlanta. "The first people to be attacked are going to be the Jews, and we are very close to that line."

The chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Israel Singer, said, "The Jews are not persecuted at this time, but this is a nation in which endemic anti-Semitism has a long history."

Argentina became a haven for ex-Nazis after the Holocaust, a fact that Argentina's ex-president, Fernando de la Rúa, acknowledged and apologized for repeatedly. Under ex-President Carlos Menem's watch ten years ago, the Israeli embassy in the Argentine capital was bombed, killing 29 people, and in 1994 the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires was attacked, leaving 86 dead. The perpetrators behind both bombings still have not been found.

For his part, the current president, Eduardo Duhalde, whose tenure began in January, emphatically rejects suggestions that Argentina has a history of anti-Semitism. In a meeting last month with a delegation of Jewish communal leaders from North America, the president pointed out that Jews have far more to fear in Europe, where, he said, anti-Semitism is more obvious. "Here anti-Semitism is more isolated because the community rejects those actions," Duhalde said.

But the lack of punishment in connection with the embassy and AMIA bombings suggest otherwise, say Jewish leaders.

Most Jewish officials view the incompetence of Argentina's investigative authorities as a sign that the Argentine government has been tolerant of -- if not complicit in -- violence against Jews. A report on the Israeli embassy bombing published in 2000 by Acción por la República, an Argentine political party, cited judicial irregularities, the manipulation and disappearance of evidence, and suggestions by investigators that the Israelis themselves perpetrated the embassy bombing as indications that the government of then-President Menem was not serious about the investigation and may itself been linked to the bombers. Now, several presidents later, Duhalde takes pains to distance himself from the Menem regime's investigation.

In his meeting with the Jewish delegation last month, which was held on the tenth anniversary of the embassy bombing, Duhalde pointed out that the city of Buenos Aires was not part of his jurisdiction at the time of the 1992 bombing (in 1992, Duhalde was governor of the Argentine province of Buenos Aires, which does not include the city of the same name). Speaking against a backdrop of the Argentine and Israeli flags in a conference room at the presidential compound, the president talked of Argentina's relationship with Israel and his country's environment of "integration" of Jews into Argentine society.

But Argentine Jews are not sanguine about the future. Aldo Donzis coordinates security for the DAIA, or Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelites Argentinas, which is the political arm of Argentina's Jewish community. Already, he said, placards linking finance and the Jews have appeared outside banks, and in the provinces outside of Buenos Aires swastikas have been painted on the exterior walls of some Jewish institutions. Donzis said anti-Semitism in Argentina is made worse by the country's insecure borders, where weapons and drugs are smuggled through with ease.

"On top of that you add impunity, because the terrorist attacks [at the Israeli embassy and the AMIA building] have gone unpunished, and you have a situation where another terrorist attack could take place," he said.

In his meeting with the president, Singer demanded to know what Duhalde was doing to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. But Duhalde assigned responsibility for that, too, to another's jurisdiction, asserting that he was convinced that the same people who were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States were behind the anti-Jewish bombings in Argentina. He said he was leaving it up to American authorities to find the perpetrators.

"The day the culprits of 9-11 are found, I'm sure that justice will be made also for Argentina," Duhalde told Singer. Acknowledging that Argentina's system of justice moves very slowly and that his government possesses scant resources in intelligence, he said, "We don't have the possibility to prosecute the terrorists. To say something different would be lying to you."

Privately, Jewish officials acknowledge that the trail is cold on the terror bombing investigations and that the government is incapable of bringing the perpetrators to justice. But the issue must be raised, they say, so that the Argentine government will be more sensitive to present and future Jewish community concerns. They also hope that by keeping the issue in the limelight, anti-Semites in Argentina will not feel that they can act against Jews with impunity.

All the while, the Jewish community-and the government-is acting with extreme caution. Ever since the bombings a decade ago, police guards paid for by the government have been posted at every identifiable Jewish school, synagogue, and community center across the country. Security officials estimate the total police force required for the 24-hour guard duty at 1,500.

Still, Argentine Jews remain on edge. "There could be a social explosion very easily," Donzis said.