By Susan Zaraysky
For the Buenos Aires Herald
A Jewish community center, a Lebanese restaurant and an Indian store selling Palestinian scarves all located on the same block, is this a fluke or a symbol of religious and ethnic peaceful coexistence in Argentina?
Buenos Aires, is probably the only city in the world where Jews and Arabs have been living together without any major religious or ethnic conflicts. Pasteur St. between Túcuman St. and Viamonte St. is not only the home of the Jewish community center (the AMIA), which was bombed 5 years ago, but also for other ethnic venues.
Just a few steps away from the AMIA building is a Lebanese restaurant, Al Malak and across from Al Malak is an Indian store, Kashmir. The store sells Indian goods but also displays Palestinian kefiyeh, the head scarves worn by Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and commonly seen as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. This block of Pasteur St. is just a small section of the history of Arabs and Jews working together in Buenos Aires.
The majority of Arab immigrants came from Ottoman Syria and Lebanon starting in 1860 until 1920, just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. About 60 to 70% were Christians (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic (Marronite and Melkite), 30 to 35% Muslim and a small community of Arabs belonged to the mysterious Druze faith.
Since the Arab immigrants to Argentina came during the time of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Argentines mistakenly referred to the Arab immigrants as turcos, or Turks. This moniker has stuck until this day.
The Jewish diaspora in Argentina consists mostly of the Sephardic Arabic speaking Jews from the Middle East (mostly from Lebanon and Syria) and the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. (There were also Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Greece and from the islands of Rhodes and Cos who immigrated to Argentina.)
Ana Weinstien, AMIA librarian, explains the close relationship between Arabs and Jews by the fact that when the Sephardic jews arrived to the port of Buenos Aires, they natural migrated to the Arab areas by Corrientes Ave. and Reconquista Dr., where they found the same stores, bakeries, bars and cafés from home. “As they spoke the same language and had similar customs, the Sephardic Jews felt more affinity to the Arabs than to the Ashkenazi Jews”, remarks Weinstein.
According to the book, History of Argentine Jewry (Historia de los judios argentinos), by Jewish historian Ricardo Feinstein, Syrian Jews from Damascus moved to the areas of Boca and Barracas while the Syrian Jews from Aleppo, joined the Ashkenazi community in the Once neighborhood.
Business and Cultural ties
Argentine historian, Ignacio Klitch, in his book Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America, co-edited by Jeffrey Lesser, documents the social, cultural and economic ties which intertwined the Jewish and Arab communities.
Arabs and Sephardic Jews mostly made a living by being traders and by giving consumer credit to those who couldn’t get it anywhere else. At the time, Argentina needed agricultural laborers. The elite of the country looked down at the Arabs and Sephardic Jews because they didn’t recognize the importance of banking and mercantile trade and saw the Arabs and Sephardic Jews as lazy and unproductive for the society as they weren’t working in the fields. Some native Argentines became jealous as they saw the Sephardic Jews and Arabs dominate commerce.
Since both groups were not held in high regard by Argentines, they bonded together to prosper in Argentina. Both communities developed economically by working in retail trade, as urban and rural peddlers, as small store owners and in consumer credit.
Israel and its effect on Arab-Jewish relations in Argentina
Before the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, it was common to see Jews in different Arab cultural and business institutions. Argentine historian, Liliana Cazorla recently published her book, The presence of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in the industrial development of Argentina (Presencia de inmigrantes sirios y libaneses en el desarollo industrial argentina), found that after 1948, a few Jewish families left the Arab community organizations. In the provinces outside of Buenos Aires, there are still Sephardic Jews in Arab cultural organizations.
Zionism was not very popular among the Sephardic Jews as they saw Zionism as a mostly secular Ashkenazi movement. So the creation of Israel and the political fights between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries of Lebanon and Syria did not strain the business and cultural relationships between Argentina’s Arabs and Sephardic Jews.
Though modern Zionism originated in Eastern Europe, there were no signs of conflict between the Ashkenazi Jews and the Arabs in Argentina either.
Modern cultural and business ties
Helueni, is a family run Syrian Jewish delicatessen and store (2495 Córdoba St.), which has mostly Arab foods with a few Ashkenazi products as well. Walking into the store and hearing Arabic music and seeing Arabic sweets and delicacies next to donation boxes for local Sephardic Jewish centers and synagogues can be a confusing experience, but it points to the incredible mix between the Arab and Jewish communities. Moisés Helueni (one of the sons of the owners), is proud of the fact that he has both Jewish and Arab clients, “Even the Israeli ambassador has come here to buy products from Arab countries.”
Lebanese businessman, Jamil Awada, owns his company, Baraca SRL and imports Lebanese food products to Argentina. About 40% of his clients are in the Arab community and about 25% are Sephardic Jews. “I call my Jewish clients on their religious holidays and they call me for my Muslim holidays. My Sephardic Jewish clients feel that they are Arabs”, points out Awada.
Most of the Arabs and Sephardic Jews in Argentina have lost the Arabic language. There is only one school, the Islamic High School in the Flores neighborhood, which teaches Arabic. The Sephardic Jewish schools teach Spanish, Hebrew and English. Since the Muslims didn’t have mosques or Imams (Muslim religious leaders) in Argentina, many lost their religion or converted to Catholicism, emphasizes Cazorla.
Arabic food (bohio, fatay, murrak) are abound in Buenos Aires, but often lacking their authentic flavors. The intersection of Scalabrini Ortiz St. and Córdoba Ave. has many Arab and Armenian delis and stores. The Once neighborhood has many Sephardic Jewish fabric stores and delis.
The popularity of the white and black kefiyeh among Argentine youth is a confusing phenomenon. Ana Weinstein explains the strange fashion, “Many Jewish teenagers travel to Israel when they are 15 years old on a program called Tapuz. When they return to Argentina, many bring back the kefiyeh or Israeli army jackets as souvenirs.”
It is contradictory to think that someone could wear an Israeli army jacket and have a kefiyeh, a globally recognized symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. However, fashion goes beyond politics and historical disputes.
Liliana Cazorla, Presencia de inmigrantes sirios y libaneses en el desarollo industrial argentina, for information call the author at 48026355.
Ignacio Klitch and Jeffrey Lesser, Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America, publisher Frank Cass & Co. Ltd.,(London, 1998).
Ricardo Feinstein, Historia de los judíos argentinos, Ameghino Editora S.A.,Buenos Aires,(Argentina, 1999).