Jewish immigrants from Argentina are following other waves of newcomers from Europe, Russia and Ethiopia to Israel.Many in the first wave of Argentinian immigrants to Israel are strikingly well equipped for successful integration into the country and, refreshingly, they’re delighted by the warmth of their reception.
Repeatedly during a conversation, in a quiet corner of a McDonald’s in a shopping mall, Elias Simana’s eyes fill with tears. The stocky 48-year-old, who prides himself on being a former secretary of the country club of the Sociedad Hebraica Argentina in Buenos Aires, has ample reason to weep – for joy, in sorrow, and perhaps out of sheer disorientation. A short time ago, he was still the owner of a once-thriving advertising agency. But all at once he bundled his 43-year-old wife, Adriana, and their four children, aged 9 to 20, onto a plane to Israel – leaving behind aging parents, a brother, friends, a house, an apartment, two houses in the country club and a slew of debtors and creditors. Soon after their arrival, his family received their Israeli identity cards, making them eligible for all the privileges (and bound to all the duties) of Israeli citizens.
The entire process – from the moment he entered the Jewish Agency’s offices in Buenos Aires to inquire about immigrating to Israel, until boarding the plane to Tel Aviv – was accomplished in 10 days. Only now, with a simply furnished apartment already rented and a few weeks to go before his government-sponsored Hebrew classes begin, has Simana had a chance to catch his breath.
“Over the past nine months, the situation in Argentina had been increasingly problematic for me, because my agency had less work, none of my clients were paying their bills, and I couldn’t pay my suppliers,” he said. “Our final month there was downright dramatic: I knocked on my clients’ doors for payment, and my creditors did the same to me. But the payment chain had been shattered. We just couldn’t go on anymore.”
So Simana convened his wife and children (two of them university students and two still in elementary school) to discuss the notion of leaving Argentina and to choose a destination. They had visited Israel a few years earlier, but other possibilities – Mexico and the United States – had attractions too. “The whole family chose Israel, because we’re Jews,” he said.
The Simanas are but one family among the approximately 300 Argentinian Jews who have been arriving each month since late last year. So far, the influx is still only a trickle, considering the devastating financial and social situation prevailing in the country’s Jewish community. But the numbers are expected to grow.
And the Simanas are fairly typical of this first wave of Argentinians fleeing to Israel, who contrast sharply with the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have come in over the past decade. Although the newcomers from both places arrive without financial assets, the Argentinians tend to have a far stronger sense of Jewish identity, cultivated by the wealth of Jewish communal institutions and day schools that thrived until economic woes began plaguing the community about five years ago.
Many of the immigrants in their thirties and forties have been here before – on summer programs as members of Zionist youth movements – and the graduates of Jewish day schools even speak serviceable Hebrew. In fact, virtually all the recent arrivals say that Israel was the only destination they seriously considered. Even the discouraging security and economic situation did not dampen their enthusiasm. It’s all, they say, a matter of getting your priorities straight.
“As a father of two, I’m naturally concerned about entering the job market, and I know people are having trouble finding work,” said Gabriel Lew, a 39-year-old jewelry designer from Buenos Aires who arrived Dec. 25, the day rioting broke out in his native city. “But the situation in Argentina is worse, and it deteriorates further by the day.”
“He’s right. You can’t begin to compare the economic situation here to Argentina,” said Fabio Perez, 35, who worked in his family’s lighting-fixture business in Buenos Aires before coming here with his wife and two-year-old child. “Officially the unemployment rate there is gauged at 20 to 24 percent. But we know it’s higher – closer to 30 percent and growing every day – with an average monthly salary running at $150 for those who still have a job,” he said. “The health services have collapsed and there are no drugs. People are killed every day in the course of robberies, and the violence is growing.”
Lew nods vigorously. “When we landed in Tel Aviv, we were deluged by reporters,” he said. “And one of them asked me whether I wasn’t afraid to bring my family here, given the terror attacks. But I told him it’s far more frightening to walk in Buenos Aires, especially at night.”
Fear that anti-Semitism – a permanent though not necessarily blatant feature of life in Argentina – will grow stronger as the sense of chaos deepens was another motive for these parents to leave sooner rather than later. “I’ve had problems with anti-Semitism all my life because of my name,” said 32-year-old Leonardo Israel, a father of two from the northern city of Tucumán, who was in Israel on a summer program at the age of 17 and wanted to stay but could not get his parents permission. “People were always asking me, ‘What kind of a name is that?’ in an unpleasant tone. And now my wife and I assumed that the unpleasantness might develop into something far worse.”
But besides the forces that pushed them to leave Argentina, all these immigrants are eager to speak about the special draw that Israel had for them – and especially the warm reception they have received here.
“When they discover that we’re new arrivals from Argentina, people – perfect strangers – say ‘Welcome’ and ‘Good luck’ to us,” Lew said. “And the financial aid given to newcomers here is critical. No other country helps its immigrants that way.”
“My family has been living in a furnished apartment for the past two months, and it hasn’t cost us a shekel,” Perez said. “And people I’ve never met before are continually asking me whether I need anything. I’m a Jew; that’s reason enough for them to care. So we feel not just welcome but protected here.”