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Uncovering the Struggles and Successes of Argentinian Jews
While Argentinian Jews make up only 0.7% of the population, they have faced significant economic hardship and anti-semitism over the last few decades. Pre-COVID-19, more than one-quarter of the population lived below the poverty line. Additionally, lingering anti-semitism and an economy in a recession have made it nearly impossible for educated Jews to find high-paying jobs.

“Poverty affects Argentinians in general, not only Jewish people, as well as the economic ups and downs, [but] maybe the economic crisis and the inflation affects mostly to Jewish people because many of them are business people who see their businesses, incomes and savings damaged,” Sabri Toker, the coordinator for Onward Israel in Argentina, told The Borgen Project.

COVID-19 Deepens the Poverty Line

In 2020, Argentina faced a significant increase in poverty as COVID-19 deepened the country’s economic crisis. Due to strict lockdowns, Argentina’s poverty rate spiked to between 46% and 47% by the end of June 2020. This is in comparison to just 35.5% in the second half of 2019. The poverty line, drawn at $193 per month, is the reality for many of the 3.5 million people who experience lay-offs during the pandemic.

The pandemic has particularly impacted Argentina’s Jewish community as well, and expectations have determined that much of the community will make aliyah, or emigration, to Israel in 2021 due to economic concerns. In Argentina, a large part of the Jewish population falls into the middle class and has assimilated into Argentinian life. Like most of the country’s middle class, the country’s faulty economy harshly hit this subset. Under President Mauricio Macri, the economy has faced sharp inflation and the devaluation of the peso, which pushed 3.7 million Argentinians below the poverty line in a single year.

A History of Hardship

Anti-semitic attacks were frequent in Argentina prior to World War I. Then, Argentinian Jews faced pogroms following the Russian Revolution; in January 1919, hundreds of Jews experienced beatings and others burned or stole their property. Unable to find government or military work, Jews worked as farmers and shopkeepers. They lived modest lifestyles until the rise of Nazi sentiment in the country.

The rise of Nazism further limited employment and education opportunities for Argentinian Jews. On top of that, many lived in a state of fear and poverty. Argentine Presidents José Félix Uriburu and Agustín Pedro Justo led pro-Nazi regimes prior to World War II. This sentiment continued under Juan Peron, who allowed Argentina to become a safe haven for Nazis. Since Peron’s presidency, 45,000 Argentinian Jews have moved to Israel to escape anti-semitism and the economic struggles associated with low-skilled jobs. In 1960, Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, which increased anti-semitism in Argentina. During a military junta called the Dirty War, hundreds of Jews suffered kidnap and torture.

Discrimination Contributes to Poverty

Anti-semitism reached new heights following two terrorist attacks under President Carlos Menem. Firstly, the Israeli Embassy bombing in 1992 killed 32 people. And secondly, the suicide van bomb attack on Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in 1994 killed 87 people.

“We have discrimination in every environment we are involved in: Secondary school, university, at work, on daily life. It is not usual and an everyday thing, but it exists,” Toker said. “In my opinion, the Jewish community lost a lot of cultural aspects mostly in the last decades of the 20th century.”

By 2002, 24.8% lived in poverty, with an additional 7.5% of Argentinian Jews living in extreme poverty. During this time, banks like Banco Patricios and Banco Mayo collapsed, taking with them millions of dollars that the Jewish community owned. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing many middle-class Jews below the poverty line. Very few Jews hold leadership positions in the military, foreign ministry, or judiciary. Efforts to reduce anti-semitism have picked up over the last decade, but anti-semitic attacks on rabbis and synagogues, including on the country’s chief rabbi Gabriel Davidovich in 2019, have not gone away.

Assisting Argentina’s Vulnerable Jewish Populations

President Alberto Fernández has worked to strengthen ties with Israel, hold terrorist groups accountable and rebuild the country’s Jewish population. After Argentina signed a decree that added Hezbollah to the registry of terrorist organizations, Argentina adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, which sends a clear message that it will not tolerate any form of anti-semitism, including in the workplace.

Created in 1991, Fundación Tzedaká has worked to improve living conditions and job opportunities for Argentina’s impoverished Jews. More than 600 volunteers, 6,500 donors and almost 100 professionals dedicate themselves to the organization’s cause. The Fundación gives food aid to vulnerable families and offers healthcare and nutrition programs. Additionally, it provides housing subsidies and gives training and educational resources to vulnerable youth. In 2020, the organization launched the Guesher Assistance Program. The Program specifically assists people unable to afford food, housing and health needs during the pandemic.

One of Argentina’s Jewish community centers, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), and the Argentine Jewish Schools Federation (FEJA) have also been instrumental in helping sustain schools in Argentina’s Jewish School Network. With many Jewish schools operating only part-time, concerns exist that school desertion could become a major issue. This is particularly concerning to the community as a similar phenomenon occurred during Argentina’s economic crisis two decades ago. AMIA and FEJA encourage monetary contributions to ensure that students not only receive proper education but also remain in the system. Because of this, students have the option to pursue more advanced studies.

Holding On and Moving Forward

Argentina’s Jewish community retained many of its cultural traditions despite its assimilation into the broader Argentinian middle class. “Nowadays we have places run by Orthodox, others by Conservative, others by Reform, every Jew has the possibility of choosing where to go, what to do, what to leave aside,” Toker said. “Those who really want to maintain cultural aspects do that because they want to leave to their children what they received from their grandparents.”

Despite lingering anti-semitism and increasing COVID-19 hardships, Argentinian Jews have not lost their culture. They continue to seek employment and fight against those who have for so long have suppressed their growth.

– Noah Sheidlower
Photo: Flickr

Updates on SDG Goal 10 in ArgentinaIn Argentina, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic unrest has stalled efforts to close the inequality gap. Before the pandemic hit, Argentina was making progress on a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is a framework of global objectives created by the United Nations, designed as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by 2030. The country was “well-positioned” compared to its Latin American counterparts, according to the Argentine Network for International Cooperation (RACI). The onset of COVID-19 has impacted updates on SDG Goal 10 in Argentina.

Achieving SDG 10: Reducing Inequality

Argentina had been struggling to achieve SDG 10, which focuses on reducing inequalities within a county’s population and among different countries around the world. To measure inequality, the SDGs use a scale of 0 to 100. The lower the score, the closer the country is to achieving economic equality. The goal is to achieve a ranking of 30 or lower by 2030. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Argentina had a ranking of 51. The pandemic has siphoned resources out of the government and stalled updates on SDG Goal 10 in Argentina and other progressive reforms. On top of that, millions of Argentinians have lost their jobs and inequality is expanding as a result.

President Alberto Fernández

In December 2019, President Alberto Fernández won the presidential election over conservative incumbent, Mauricio Macri. President Fernández’s political style is that of his mentor, former president, Néstor Kirchner. However, “the COVID-19 pandemic might very well shatter the center-left president’s dreams of following in his mentor’s footsteps and bringing social progress and economic growth to Argentina,” writes Hugo Goeury.

Despite Fernandez’s progressive goals for his administration, reforms have all been put on the back burner since the arrival of COVID-19 in Argentina.

Poverty, Unemployment and the Wealth Gap

In the first half of 2020 alone, the poverty rate among Argentinians increased to almost 41%, the Americas Society/Council of the Americas reported, nearly a 5% increase from the previous year. The Central Bank is also predicting the GDP to contract by nearly 11%.

With almost a third of Argentine workers facing unemployment, President Fernandez is scrambling to financially support his unemployed constituents, while also negotiating the country’s debt owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

According to the World Inequality Database, as of 2019, the top 10% wealthiest Argentinians controlled nearly 40% of the country’s income, while the bottom 50% only possessed 17.9% of the nation’s income.

Better Days Ahead for Argentina

Even though updates on SDG Goal 10 in Argentina seem especially challenging right now, Argentinians are still
pushing forward to make their country more equitable for everyone. The U.N. says, “In the post-pandemic world, Argentina must strengthen its productive apparatus and continue to eliminate inherited social inequities and those aggravated by COVID-19.”

– Laney Pope
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

COVID-19 in Argentina
As governments all over the world scramble to contain the spread of COVID-19, Argentina’s response has been especially quick and comprehensive. The South American country confirmed its first case on March 3, 2020. Since then, the government has adopted a response plan consisting of strict shelter-in-place orders and travel bans, as well as extensive economic relief. These policies have allowed the administration, led by President Alberto Fernández, to limit both the medical and economic consequences of the pandemic. To date, over 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Argentina and over 300 deaths have occurred. These numbers are better than those of comparable countries that had slower or less extensive responses to the virus.

Shelter-in-Place Policy

The Argentine government’s country-wide shelter-in-place policy went into effect 17 days after its first confirmed case. Citizens can only travel to their nearest supermarket or other essential business and otherwise have to stay home. The police are strictly enforcing this national shutdown of non-essential activity. The government emphasizes that social distancing is the most effective way to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Argentina, as the country does not have the resources to do universal testing. Violators of the shelter-in-place order can face jail time. The police began making arrests on the first day the policy officially went into effect.

Argentina has also enacted a travel ban that is among the strictest in the world. The country’s borders have closed to all inbound and outbound travel since March 2020. In late April 2020, the government adopted a policy banning all airline travel into, out of and within the country until the beginning of September 2020. Several South American countries have instituted similar flight bans, but Argentina’s ban will last longer than any of the others. The intention of these policies is to halt the potential spread of COVID-19 in Argentina by limiting people’s travel capabilities. However, many expect that the flight ban will be a significant burden on Argentinian airlines and airports.

Economic Relief

Before the pandemic, the economy of Argentina was in a recession; approximately 40% of people were living below the poverty line. The current administration inherited over $300 billion in debt when it came to power in 2019. To relieve the huge economic pressure that COVID-19 in Argentina caused, and to prevent the country’s economy from falling deeper into recession, the government has instituted multiple economic relief programs. The President issued an emergency decree banning all worker layoffs for two months. This measure should protect Argentina from the huge spikes in unemployment that other countries are experiencing due to the economic slowdown. The expectation is that business leaders will take a financial hit instead of laying off more financially vulnerable workers.

The government has also begun several social welfare programs. The President issued an executive order so that companies do not cut essential services, such as electricity, water and cable television, for retirees or poor households due to lack of payment. Another executive order provides a 10,000 peso emergency family income for domestic and low-income workers. Initially, many citizens had to wait in lines for up to 12 hours to collect their payments. The government has since expedited this process by keeping bank branches open on weekends. In addition, the administration has suspended all evictions and rent hikes until the beginning of September 2020. These policies should ensure that the most vulnerable members of society can maintain their basic necessities as the economy struggles through the pandemic.

While all citizens are enduring the huge impact of COVID-19 in Argentina, these policies have helped move the country closer to being able to return to its normal way of life. Banning international travel and enforcing social distancing are both important methods for minimizing the spread of the virus. Broad economic relief programs have helped limit the damage to an economy that was already struggling. It is impossible to know how long this pandemic will last, so Argentina’s government has been quick and cautious with the policies it has instituted.

Gabriel Guerin
Photo: Wikimedia