Explaining the Argentine Enigma

Several years ago, economist and sociologist Paul Samuelson proposed dividing the world into four categories: the rich countries, the poor countries, Japan and Argentina. Everyone knows the state of rich countries and poor countries. However, no one understands why Japan is doing so well and Argentina so badly.

These days, experts around the world are biting their nails trying to find an explanation for the Argentine enigma. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was the seventh-richest country in the world. It was considered the breadbasket of the world. And so it remained until a decade after World War II. For European emigrants seeking a better future, it scarcely mattered if the boat they were boarding was headed for New York or Buenos Aires. Both were golden paths toward hope, freedom and growth.

The Argentine Jewish community began to organize itself at the end of the 19th century. The French philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch invested a great deal of money to support the resettlement of persecuted Jews in Argentina’s rich agricultural regions. An Argentine version of the Jewish cowboy was born, the Jewish gaucho. The writer Alberto Gerchunoff immortalized them in a book of admirable literary breadth bearing this very title. It was published nearly a century ago, in 1910. Even Theodor Herzl, in his seminal work "The Jewish State," mentioned Argentina as a possible homeland for the Jewish people.

The Argentine Jewish community grew rapidly and became the largest and most vibrant in Latin America. When Israeli sociologist Arie Tartakower visited the country in the 1950s, he was impressed by the dynamism of the community’s institutional life and the vigor of its educational system. He said it constituted the best Jewish communal model in the entire Diaspora. Jews were involved in science, law, art and the media. First-generation Argentine Jews became national figures. Jewish poets, composers and singers contributed to Argentine culture, even enriching the tango.

Politically, Jews imported their ideological trends from pre-Holocaust Europe. They began to participate in Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, in synagogues and in secular organizations. In the middle of the 20th century, Argentine Jewry’s Zionist ideals were evidenced by the community’s strong support during the crises weathered by Israel and the Jewish people. The participation was massive, honest and generous.

This healthy Jewish climate was nevertheless confronted with a latent anti-Semitism. The wonders of integration were sullied by the first pogrom in the Americas, which took place in 1919 during Argentina’s so-called "tragic week." However, the fear that those deadly events would repeat themselves did not weaken the resolve of Argentina’s Jews to continue developing their communal life and pursuing their integration into Argentine society.

The Perón presidency was an ambivalent period for Argentine Jewry. On the one hand, Juan Perón guaranteed Jewish rights and established a friendly relationship with Israel. On the other hand, his administration was complacent toward Nazi war criminals. The rightist nationalism that accompanied Perónism began to create problems in the 1960s, after an Israeli commando team captured Adolf Eichmann. The military dictatorships, especially the last one, were decidedly cruel toward Jews. And there are still pockets of ignorant and dangerous fanatics who from time to time desecrate cemeteries and who may have contributed to the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Through history, one can see a parallel between the fate of Argentina and the fate of its Jews. Until the middle of the 20th century, Argentineans were a successful and optimistic people. In the second half of the 20th century, however, a decadence set in, slowly at first and then quickening. Argentina collapsed because of authoritarianism and corruption. The Jewish community was no more the model touted by Arie Tartakower. The educational system, which every year reached new milestones, started to decay. Economic problems, which were never seen as an obstacle, started to weigh heavily. And some unthinkable developments took place, most notably an atmosphere of suspicion regarding the loyalty and honesty of our communal leaders, which was very worrisome and disillusioning.

Until about three years ago, Argentine emigration was motivated exclusively by politics. Persecution at the hand of the dictatorships prompted thousands of scientists, artists, educators, journalists and even students to flee. The sad reality of the new emigration is that it is not due to politics, but to the economic situation. For the first time, Argentineans are abandoning this land because there is no work, not even food.

Some sort of cycle is coming to a close. A century ago, despair prompted massive emigration from the Old World to Argentina. Now despair is causing massive emigration, this time from Argentina.

The change is reflected in Argentine aliya, the emigration of Argentine Jews to Israel. In the past Argentine aliya was undertaken for idealistic reasons. Tens of thousands of Jews filled kibbutzim and Israeli towns to contribute to the national resurrection effort. But now they do it because they don’t see any future here for themselves and their children.

The reasons for this general decadence are difficult to discern. Several months ago, I published a book whose title could be interpreted as a joke, "The Atrocious Charm of Being Argentine." Contrary to the fears of my publisher, the book was a hit and has remained on top of the best-seller list since its publication. The people, far from being annoyed by it, are reading and discussing it with passion. It is good news to see that we Argentineans are leaving behind us our old and odious arrogance. We want clear diagnoses in order to find the right remedy.

Argentina’s difficulties can be overcome if the corruption and transgression are not protected by immunity. Illegality is the worst evil in a society that respects the law.

Jews suffer, like other Argentineans, from the "corralito," the limits imposed on money withdrawals from banks. The country is going through one of its worst crises, fueled by the severe economic depression. But if there is international comprehension and if the decaying trends can be progressively reversed, Argentina will wake up. Its "hardware" — natural and human resources — are intact. What is missing is the "software," the management.

And this holds true for all Argentineans — including the Jews.

Marcos Aguinis is an Argentine writer and commentator. He is the author of eight novels, including "The Saga of the Marrano," available in Spanish and Hebrew. This article is reprinted with permission of The Forward.