Argentine Jews Struggling with Money Problems and Security Fears
Things weren’t always this desperate for Deborah Fischer and her husband Hector. Until a few years ago, the young Jewish couple sold notebooks, pencils and school supplies from their own kiosk and lived in a decent two-bedroom rental apartment in the middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Paternal.
Then the bottom fell out of Argentina’s economy, and the Fischers’ lives were turned upside down. Today, the entire family lives crammed into a one-room storefront. Their shop long gone, Hector now peddles off-brand sneakers in the street, while Deborah – who is 34 but looks 10 years older – takes care of their 7-month-old daughter and hyperactive 5-year-old son. Not all of Argentina’s 250,000 Jews are in such dire straits, and some are doing much better since the country’s economic situation began to improve in 2002.
But this month, as the Jewish community marks the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 85 people and wounded 300 on July 18, 1994, the community as a whole remains deeply scarred psychologically and economically. The Fischers’ apartment, which rents for about $78 a month, is barely big enough for two beds, a crib, a TV set and a kitchen table. The tiny Kelvinator fridge in the corner is practically empty, and the bathroom has no running water. If not for handouts from local and international Jewish organizations, the Fischers probably would be out on the street.
“We cannot shower. We can’t move around,” said Deborah, who once spent two years in Israel and still speaks some Hebrew. “I’d return to Israel, but when I lived there I was a different person. Now I have two kids, and it’s not so easy.” Compounding the economic challenges among Jews here are fears of a third large-scale terrorist attack on the community, according to Abraham Kaul, president of AMIA since May 2002.
The AMIA bombing came only two years after a bomb destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring hundreds. “I recently received an urgent call on my cell phone, and the first thing I thought was that a synagogue had been bombed,” Kaul said. “But it wasn’t that. Someone I knew had died in an auto accident. The point is, we have incorporated this idea in our heads that there can be another attack at any time, at any place. This is now a part of being Jewish in Argentina.”
Jews here are deeply frustrated that 10 years after the attack – the deadliest terrorist strike in the history of Latin America – no one formally has been charged with the crime, adding to the sense of paranoia among Argentine Jews. Even inside the community, there is deep distrust between AMIA officials and the community’s main Jewish umbrella group, DAIA, following reports that DAIA’s former president, businessman Ruben Beraja, was linked to former Argentine president Carlos Menem.
Beraja reportedly did not want to pressure Menem to investigate the 1994 bombing because Beraja was afraid of endangering his extensive business ties with the Menem government. Menem is suspected of hindering the probe into the bombing because of his ties to Iran, believed to have sponsored the attack. “After the attack, many people stopped going to Jewish institutions out of fear,” said Alejandro Kladniew, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s executive director for Latin America. “People are afraid. When you drop your kids off at a Jewish school, you know something might happen.”
The good news, say community officials, is that Argentina’s once-virulent anti- Semitism seems to have subsided. “I think the AMIA attack triggered a big feeling of solidarity by Argentines toward the Jews, and an acceptance that the Jews are a part of Argentine society,” Kaul said. “The economic crisis showed that the Jews are suffering the same as everyone else.”
An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Jews, about one-fourth of the country’s total Jewish population, live below the poverty line. Some 35,000 Jews receive daily food and housing assistance. Much of that help comes from Jews in the United States. The JDC runs a $10 million operation in Argentina. “Without that aid, they’d be going to bed hungry at night, and some would be put out on the street,” said Will Recant, JDC’s executive vice president.
Despite the country’s 8.8 percent economic growth last year, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Argentina now has one of the most unequal distributions of income in Latin America. In 2003, according to government statistics, the richest 10 percent of Argentina’s 36 million people controlled 38.6 percent of the country’s wealth and made 31 times as much as the poorest 10 percent.
In 1974, when the government began recording such figures, the wealthiest sector was only 12 times better off than the poorest sector. “There’s been an improvement, with only 48 percent of Argentines living below the poverty line compared to 58 percent at the end of 2002,” said Bernardo Kliksberg, an Argentine Jewish economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, in Washington. “But one of every two Argentines is still poor, earning less than $250 a month, and there are at least 2,000 homeless Jewish people and increasing numbers of Jewish street children. This is unprecedented in modern Jewish history.”
Kliksberg said it is important that Argentine Jews not be forgotten by Jews around the world. “Help from American Jews has been very important, but we’re hearing from community leaders that Argentina is no longer on their priority list. This is a very dangerous impression. If this help to Argentine Jews is reduced, it’ll be a tragedy.”
Dora Berenstein, a 73-year-old widow, lives with her two dogs in the Santa Fe provincial town of Moisesville. She gets by on $20 a month in food coupons and $34 a month in rental income from two small apartments behind her crumbling house. Berenstein has no children, and her husband died four years ago. “In Israel, I have lots of family, and I’m in contact with them, but none of them help me,” she said. “I haven’t asked them for help, and they wouldn’t anyway. Everyone is for himself.”
Street vendor Oscar Rodriguez, who isn’t Jewish, receives assistance from Chabad-Lubavitch thanks to his young son, who attends the Morasha religious school in Buenos Aires. His late wife, Monica, who is Jewish, died in a fire in their apartment two years ago. His bedroom ceiling is still charred from the fire. “Their help has been like a shock absorber,” Rodriguez said of Chabad. “Sometimes they invite me to meetings. I know a lot of people from the Jewish community.”
While few Jews are among Argentina’s 40,000 “cartoneros” who eke out a living by picking through the garbage at night, many Jewish people live in slums known as “villas de miseria.” More than 45 percent of AMIA’s $8 million budget now goes to social assistance, especially to people older than 45 who have little hope of finding work. AMIA runs soup kitchens, religious schools and other charitable institutions throughout metropolitan Buenos Aires.
“For people living below the poverty line, life continues as before,” Kladniew said. “Some people have found jobs, but unskilled jobs at very low salaries – jobs that don’t even pay 500 pesos,” around $170 a month. “You can’t buy anything with that.” Chabad, which has 22 sites in Argentina, also is working to help alleviate Jewish poverty. Earlier this month, Chabad found an apartment for a Jewish family that was living in a cardboard shack on a piece of land given to them by the Catholic Church. Two of the five children were sick with pneumonia.
Things have gotten better since Argentina’s economic nadir, said Rabbi Zvi Grunblatt, director of Chabad’s Argentine operations, but “we really have a long way to go.” Grunblatt said Chabad now has 250 children enrolled in its Ieladenu center for poor and abused Jewish children. “Three months ago, we received a child who was somewhat retarded,” Grunblatt said. “After eating normally for two months at our Ieladenu center, the kid went into a normal kindergarten class. The problem wasn’t that he was retarded, but malnourished.”
The crisis has hit Argentina’s Jews especially hard. Many were middle-class professionals who fell into penury when they lost their jobs and the Argentine peso lost two-thirds of its value, wiping out their savings. Many now accept handouts. “My father used to have a pharmacy,” said Viviana, a 54-year-old social worker who asked that her last name not be used. “We always had maids, and he used to take us to Europe on holidays. Every year, my parents went to Club Med in Brazil.” When Argentina’s economic crisis hit, the pharmacy went into debt and her father was forced to sell the business. He died of cancer not long ago, humiliated and psychologically devastated.
“My father never spoke about his suffering, but I’m convinced that when he lost his economic and social position, that’s when he got cancer,” said Viviana, whose $100,000 in life savings disappeared when the Uruguayan bank in which her money was deposited went out of business. “But we are fortunate, because we have work and we’re healthy. Many Jews are much worse off than us.” Deborah Fischer, trying to make ends meet in her tiny Buenos Aires storefront apartment, now has more modest dreams that she once had. “To get out of here,” she says quietly, then adds: “To have enough water to be able to take a nice shower.”