Blogs > HNN > Marguerite Feitlowitz: Review of Graciela Ben-Dror's The Catholic Church and the Jews: Argentina, 1933-1945 (Published by the University of Nebraska Press, for the Vidal Sasson International Center for the Study of Anti-semitism, The Hebrew University, Je

Aug 3, 2009 1:04 am

Marguerite Feitlowitz: Review of Graciela Ben-Dror's The Catholic Church and the Jews: Argentina, 1933-1945 (Published by the University of Nebraska Press, for the Vidal Sasson International Center for the Study of Anti-semitism, The Hebrew University, Je

[Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of"A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture," a New York Times Notable Book, New York Times Notable Paperback, and Finalist for the L.L. Winship-PEN New England Prize. An updated Second Edition is due out from Oxford University Press in 2011. She teaches Literature at Bennington College in Vermont.]

Even before the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, there was significant anti-semitism in the Argentine press. In 1881, in an editorial in L’union française, Jews were referred to as “noxious insects, powerful parasites.” An influx of their numbers was likened to “an injection of leeches.” This, when there was but a handful of Jews in the land, virtually all of them assimilated or official converts to Catholicism. By the end of the 20th century, Argentina would have the largest Jewish population in Latin America, one that was vibrant, sophisticated, and diverse (Ashkenazic and Sephardic, ranging from Orthodox to secular humanists), and whose members would become major intellectuals and politicians, writers and artists, journalists and activists, bankers and industrialists. Yet there has never been serious hope among Argentine Jews of definitively eradicating anti-semitism. Historically, the task has been to set “acceptable” limits, as one Rabbi put it to me. Jewish cemeteries are periodically desecrated; Jews (though not only Jews) have suffered terribly under right-wing governments and dictatorships; the Department of Education has periodically succeeded in imposing Catholic teachings in public schools.

In the fall of 1989, the first time I attended Kabbalat Shabat services at Bet El, a renowned synagogue in Buenos Aires, the temple’s wall was emblazoned with a swastika. In the early 1990s, the Israeli Embassy, located on a lovely commercial and residential street, was bombed; in 1994, the AMIA (Jewish Mutual Aid Society) was bombed, causing the deaths of hundreds and devastation to persons, property, and a sense of civic comfort in the center of Once, the largest traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

It is well documented that Argentina was a safe haven for prominent Nazis, among them Adolf Eichmann; ex-Nazis modernized the Argentine secret services. Argentina (like many other countries) was inhospitable to Jews fleeing the Nazis. Going further back, the armed forces were modeled on the Praetorian Guard; the Catholic Church long harbored and taught the blood libel, that Jews had killed Christ and framed poor Pontius Pilate, and other distortions of history and theology. One can still buy the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at major news kiosks in subway stations and street corners.

These tensions and contradictions have attracted some first-rate scholarship (Leonardo Senkman and Uki Goñi come immediately to mind). The Catholic Church and the Jews draws on this reservoir of study (and the notes are excellent); the author operates in a charged and restricted time frame and, while she examines some Church documents she contends have not been scrutinized before in this context, the overall project remains relatively modest. Graciela Ben-Dror, born in Uruguay, a member of a pioneer youth movement, and a kibbutznik, carried out her study under the guidance of distinguished historian Haim Avni of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her aim was to gather the various documents and declarations of the Argentine Roman Catholic Church (1933-1945), compare them with statements of the same period made by the Vatican, and then try to ascertain how these influenced Argentine domestic and foreign policy. Ben-Dror has indeed amassed a number of documents: some of these are arresting, some horrifying, others are ambiguous, and yet others are noteworthy for their strong disapproval of the violence being done to the Jews throughout Europe. She reminds us that vicious anti-semites rose to great prominence: Hugo Wast (pseudonym of Gustavo Martínez Zuviría), was a best-selling novelist, whose books routinely portrayed Jews as leeches, lepers, Christ-killers and, when they were not communists, controllers of the international press and banking system. During the years covered by Ben-Dror, Martínez Zuviría was Secretary of Education and Justice.

At the inauguration of the National Library in 1992, the periodicals room was named for this “distinguished” malefactor, despite vigorous protest from Jewish and other citizens’ groups and human rights organizations. She quotes from Father Julio Meinvieille, who from the bosom of the Church, based his own (in)famous works on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

To her credit, Ben-Dror is candid in saying that on the basis of her own research (and owing to the inaccessibility of certain documents), she is unable to conclude with any certainty that such views had a direct influence on actions taken at the highest political levels. She lets us know that Argentina’s neutrality during the Second World War owed as much to its longstanding diplomatic “dance,” which was designed to keep both Britain and Germany as buyers of its wheat, beef, and other exports. Argentine relations with the United States were similarly complicated. It was not until Germany’s defeat was certain that Argentina made its move toward the Allies. She implies, however (and responsibly, I believe) that entrenched hostility to Jews played its part, even if unofficially or indirectly.

Ben-Dror also points up that, owing to the conflation in Argentina of Jews and communists (russo, or Russian, is still a nominative for Jew in some Argentine circles), anti-communist politics often got mixed up with anti-Jewish rhetoric, actors, and actions. Politicians wary of the trade union movements, for example, often found themselves linked up with virulent anti-Jewish campaigns. Nationalists who honored Hispanidad (which was, for them, inherently Roman Catholic) opposed non-Spanish immigration, even of those fleeing certain death in concentration camps. There were Argentine clerics who defended the Jews as having a “chosen” place in God’s overall design, or because they were charged, by the Gospels, to defend the defenseless. The Church was of course on the defensive against “godless communism” which, when it was conflated with Judaism, led to predictable reactions. Ben-Dror does well not to shrink from such braided dynamics.

I wish that the author had spent more time analyzing the texts she puts before us, and weaving a narrative that contends with context. Her focus is so tight that we sometimes lose sight of the live events from which they arose. There is a curious “stop action,” dissertation-like feel to her pages (and in fact this book is an adaptation of her PhD thesis).
It is to be hoped that now that she has immersed herself in the scholarship and arrayed her primary sources, Ben-Dror will continue the work she has begun in the present study.

comments powered by Disqus