Argentine Fuels Jewish Identity Debate

The first Orthodox man elected to head Argentina’s largest Jewish organization took office Thursday amid an angry debate over religious and cultural identity.

Guillermo Borger tried to dispel fears that he would favor Orthodox Jews and their beliefs during his three-year tenure as president of the 22,000-member Argentine Israeli Mutual Association, known as AMIA.

”AMIA is, and will be, the representative of all Jews, without exclusion and with a spirit of dialogue,” Borger said in a speech Thursday night.

Borger is the group’s first Orthodox president in its 114-year history. On Saturday, Buenos Aires’ leading newspaper Clarin ignited a controversy when it quoted Borger as saying that ”genuine Jews” are those who ”lead a life based on everything that is dictated in the Torah, our sacred book.”

”It’s a paradox that people call themselves Jews if they don’t practice the religion,” Borger added, according to the newspaper.

Borger, a 59-year-old businessman, denied having made the remarks in a communique he sent to the nation’s Jewish community.

Clarin stands by its story. ”What we published is what he said,” Clarin editor-in-chief Julio Blank told The Associated Press.

Argentina’s 250,000-person Jewish community was divided Thursday between Borger’s backers and those who worry his alleged comments will divide the AMIA.

”We respect Orthodox Jews’ way of life and we want them to respect us too,” said Agustin Ulanovsky, a 22-year-old law student who joined about 200 people protesting Borger’s statements at his inauguration, which was televised on a large screen to accommodate an overflow crowd.

Orthodox Judaism requires adherents to live strictly as outlined in the Torah, the Jewish holy book, while Conservative and Reform Judaism permit relatively more lax interpretations of the Torah’s 613 laws.

A majority of Argentine Jews follow Conservative and Reform streams of the faith.

Even if Borger never made the disputed comments, damage has been done, said engineer and community leader Mario Goijman, who called his alleged words ”fundamentalist.”

”Borger’s statements unfortunately establish a base for discrimination,” Goijman said.

Terrorist acts have thrust Argentina’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, onto the national stage twice since 1992. That year, a bomb flattened the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29. Two years later, an explosives-packed van exploded outside AMIA’s seven-story building, killing 85 people and wounding 200 more. The center has since been rebuilt.
(Tags: Argentinean Jews, Orthodox Jews, Argentine Israeli Mutual Association)

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