The New Ethnic Studies in Latin America.
This compilation of essays brings to light the history of unaffiliated Jews, women, and other members of Jewish Latin American life who have not been represented in previous historiography. Many of the essays compare cultural experiences by Jews and people of Middle Eastern descent. This comparative perspective is an important contribution because it portrays the fluidity of ethnic identities as they evolve due to interacting with other groups over time. The focus is mostly on Chile and Argentina.
Jeffrey Lesser's chapter "Remaking Ethnic Studies in the Age of Identities" lays down the theoretical framework for the volume. Lesser proposes to undermine "either or" understandings of ethnicity, recommending "and" instead as the way to think about these issues because people and groups can be both diasporic and national. The majority of the essays in this volume succeed in breaking down the binary and in approaching ethnicity in Latin America using a comparative lens.
Nadia Zysman shows how the garment industry in Argentina helped the Jewish community organize and how Jews influenced the industry at large, modeling new spaces of labor (at home, in workshops, and in factories). She discusses their involvement in the labor movement and women's entrance into the workforce. Zysman also recreates the social network that allowed for the swift integration of Jews who arrived in Buenos Aires with previous experience in the textile industry.
Mauricio Dimant makes a compelling case for looking at the different experiences Middle Eastern descendants have had in the interior of Argentina compared to those in the capital. He breaks down the assumption that what goes on in the big cities is representative of ethnic groups in the entire country, focusing on access to political life. Similarly, Ariel Noyjovich and Raanan Rein contribute a chapter on Peronism's successful effort to engage Arab-Argentines, including Carlos Saul Menem of Syrian ancestry, who became president in 1989. Their essay looks at these political figures to demonstrate their central role in local and national politics and to highlight the differences that exist within this ethnic group and their role in Argentine politics. They also point out that Eva and Juan Domingo Peron recognized ethnic minorities as long as they became part of their people: Peronists.
Other essays in the book explicitly compare and contrast Jewish and Arab immigrants in Latin America. Claudia Stern's chapter explores similarities and tensions between these groups as they ascended to middle class status between 1930 and 1960 in Chile. She discusses the complex dual perception of immigrants as modernizers and as less educated. Her decision to include aspects of the private life of these communities (food, sports, youth activities, intermarriage, business relations between both groups) is unique in the volume. Gabriela Jonas Aharoni offers another intriguing comparative study, of the popular television show Graduados in Argentina and Chile. The series filmed in Argentina focuses on a Jewish middle class family, while the series filmed in Chile focuses on a Palestinian middle class family. The chapter also explains how in both shows Jews and Palestinians represent "others" who are, at the same time, very much part of society. Their ethnic markers only appear in the background, although she points out that the Palestinian family's markers are stronger in the Chilean show.
Finally, Valeria Navarro-Rosenblatt skillfully addresses the issue of leftist unaffiliated Jews in Chile who tried to effect social change. Many of them were targeted by military repression but have not received the same attention as their Argentine counterparts. This chapter also makes a case for the use of oral history, as she bases her chapter on testimonies (often clandestine) from the 1970s and 1980s. The chapter recovers the history of the Centro Cultural Sholem Aleijem, a leftist organization from the mid-1950s, and the personal story of a socialist Jewish-Chilean woman who had difficulties fitting in the mainstream Jewish community because of her leftist beliefs. These cases undo the monolithic view of the Jewish community in Chile as cohesive.
Some of the essays are not as strong as others. For example, Mariusz Kalczewiak's "Becoming Polacos" explains the connection between Jews and their landsmen as they rethought their relationship to what he calls their "homeland in Europe" in order to integrate to Argentine society. However, it is well-known that Polish Jews felt strong animosity against Poland because of the role it played in the Holocaust. Polish Jews' nostalgic and painful memories of their Jewish towns and neighborhoods do not translate into an affinity for Poland. Still, the essay makes a good case for how landsmen organizations helped immigrants integrate to Argentina by giving them a space of belonging and other practical tools to help them establish themselves. Another chapter that could have used further editing is Liliana Ruth Feierstein's survey of German-speaking Jews in Latin America. References to an ancient Mexican war God seem out of place, and the choppy and convoluted narrative make it difficult to follow. Having said that, her analysis of the contacts between German-speaking Jews and non-Jews is of great value. David Sheinin's epilogue attempts to bring the volume together through the case of Alberto Nisman, the secular Jewish special prosecutor in the 1994 AMIA terrorist attack who was found dead the morning he was going to testify against the government for covering up evidence. His case is crucial to this volume, but I'm not convinced that it connects well to the main issues presented in the essays. It would have been better to address the Nisman case separately.
These essays manage to bring to the fore stories of Jews whose journeys have been sidelined until now. Their stories demonstrate that identities are always a work in progress, a continuous dance between ancestry, history, and culture. This book makes a case for the important need to re-conceptualize "communities" in order to understand how diverse individuals' experiences can be within ethnic groups in Latin America.
Ariana Huberman is associate professor of Spanish at Haverford College. Her most recent publication is a co-edited volume, with Nora Glickman, titled Evolving Images: Latin American Jewish Cinema (University of Texas Press, 2018).
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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