Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, and the vibrant Jewish community in Buenos Aires will be eating fruit to mark the season that sees the earliest blooming trees enter a new fruit bearing cycle in the Land of Israel.
With around 250,000 Jews living in Buenos Aires, Argentina has by far the largest Jewish population in all of Latin America. Internationally, La Comunidad or La Colectividad, as it is known here, is of similar proportions to that of Russia, making it the sixth largest in the world, behind Israel, USA, France, Canada and the UK.
Jews began arriving in Argentina after it gained independence from the Spanish Empire in 1810 but it was towards the end of the nineteenth century that the numbers reached a high point when they were encouraged to migrate here by Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch and President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
Sarmiento ruled Argentina from 1868 to 1874 and embarked on a policy to increase immigration to Argentina; while de Hirsch was a Jewish-German businessman who spent generously on the promotion of Jewish emigration and colonization. His idea was to bring Jews to Argentina to work as independent agriculturalists. Original settlements, made up principally of Jewish immigrants from France, and later Russia when pogroms there forced many Jews to flee the country, were formed in Buenos Aires and the neighbouring provinces of Entre Ríos and Santa Fe. By 1920 the population reached 150,000.
The twentieth century however was a strange and sometimes difficult time for the Argentine Jewish community. There were anti-Semitic attacks in the twenties when more Russian Jews arrived following the Russian revolution, and then came the presidency of Juan Perón.
Though Perón was sympathetic to the Jewish cause, signed agreements with Israel during its first few years as a nation state and changed laws in Argentina to allow Jews to hold office (something they’d previously been barred from doing); he was also inspired by his admiration for nationalist governments to make Argentina a safe haven for Nazis fleeing post-war Europe; while introducing strict Catholic education to the country’s schools. After Perón, the late seventies and early eighties were especially tough for La Colectividad when Argentina’s military dictatorship targeted Jews, killing an estimated 2000.
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Despite the country’s return to democracy in 1983 and the introduction of new anti-racism laws, the Argentine Jewish community suffered further anti-Semitism in the 1990s. La Tablada Jewish cemetery was desecrated and there were two terrorist attacks in which a total of 115 people died, with over five hundred more injured. The first took place in March 1992 with the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires; and the second in July 1994 when the Jewish Community Centre (AMIA) was the target of a detonated van bomb. Though both cases officially remain unsolved, in 2006 Argentine authorities formally accused Iran of hiring Hezbollah militia to carry out the bombings after local suspects (including members of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police) were found not guilty in 2004.
Nowadays, reports of anti-Semitism are infrequent and although there has been a decline in the Jewish population, with many Jews emigrating to Israel, the vibrant community enjoys a strong presence, notably in neighbourhoods like Abasto, Balvanera, Villa Crespo and Once, where seeing Jews dressed in traditional Jewish clothing coming and going from the city’s 50 Orthodox and 21 Conservative Synagogues is more than a familiar sight.
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And on top of their involvement in politics and business there are many Argentine Jews who are prominent figures in the media here. Adrián Suar for example is a powerful television and cinema producer and current programme director of Canal 13 (the channel responsible for Bailando por un sueño), while Cecilia Roth, one of Spanish film director Pedro Almódovar's favourite actresses, is the daughter of a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant. Jewish education thrives too and more than 60% of Jewish children here study at one of the country's seventy or so Jewish educational institutions.
So, although there is no official time off like for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when national law grants Jews two days holiday, today is Tu B’Shevat and Argentina's 250,000 or so Jews will celebrate the New Year for Trees in Israel together with the rest of the international Jewish community.