‘Jews, out of Patagonia’


Israeli backpackers who swarm to southern Argentina are no longer so welcome. Shades of the area’s Nazi past?

For over three decades, Patagonia has been a favorite destination for thousands of Israelis, especially recently discharged soldiers on their big post-army trip looking for unique sights and adventures in the lakes and mountains of southern Argentina. Locals know them well; they know that these young people will often be followed by their parents, relatives, friends from work and other Israelis, who are looking to eat the world’s best meat and enjoy a wilderness the likes of which can only be found in the Himalayas.

Due to many Israeli visitors, Patagonia has many signs in Hebrew, restaurants offering hummus and falafel, and even Israeli products such as locally popular salty snacks. At the same time, one can run into anti-Semitism, or anti-Zionism, as some would call it.

Recently, this racism has taken the form of signs in stores calling to “boycott Israeli tourists”, saying “we don’t want them here”, and even the more familiar “Jews out!”, this time with the ending “…of Patagonia”, and other aggressive, hate-spreading graffiti. The Jewish community of the city of Bariloche revealed this week the existence of an anti-Israel campaign organized by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which is affiliated with over 70 Argentinian organizations, including Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo, the Communist Party, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights – which had a major role in condemning the crimes of the military junta in the 1970s – as well as SERPAJ, the organization led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

Argentina has a tradition of denying the existence of anti-Semitism in the country, only admitting to rare cases of anti-Jewish discrimination. However, one cannot ignore that 10 percent of the 30,000 “desaparecidos” during the years of the military dictaroship (1976-83) were Jews, and most were given “special”, i.e, worse treatment in terms of torture and jail terms as a result of their being Jewish.

One also cannot forget the terror attacks at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and in the Jewish community building (AMIA) in the 1990s, carried out with the help of a local terror network. Not only does the Argentinian government constantly deny the existence of anti-Semitism in the country; even the Jewish community and the Israeli government cooperate with this denial. The first do not want to face the severity of the situation and thus avoid the need to face with the world’s public opinion, chiefly of the United States. The Jewish community wants to avoid a confrontation with the authorities and attempts to continue a sort of peaceful co-existence. The Israeli interest is to maintain a strategic ally, with one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, known for its Zionist character.

Denial had reached such a level that the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires recently officially stated that the countries have never had better trade and commerce ties. That is while everyone know that relations were severely damaged after Argentina and Iran signed a document of understandings, which critically undermined the chances of investigating the 1994 Buenos Aires AMIA bombing. Iran is widely believed to have played a role in the attack, in which 85 people were killed and over 300 were injured.

This time, the anti-Israeli organizations do not speak directly about a campaign or a boycott against Israel, but rather about “solidarity with the Palestinian people” and a “condemnation of Israeli crimes in the Gaza Strip”. The signs against Jews do, in fact, state two demands: do not trade with Israel and do not host its citizens, a combination somewhat reminiscent of the anti-Jewish tirade in the movie “Borat”.

The current campaign is likely to dissipate, because for local traders in Patagonia, such an initiative is a shot in the leg. Most Israeli tourists are young and do not spend much money, but they come in numbers so high that they provide major income for the local business owners.

But what makes this development different from previous anti-Semitic outbreaks in Argentina, is the venue: the south of the country was the preferred shelter of thousands of Nazi criminals fleeing prosecution, who came to the area after 1945 with the aid of the Odessa organization and the explicit consent of then-President Juan Domingo Peron.

The Simon Wiesenthal Institute says the Nazis managed to build for themselves normal, uninterrupted lives in southern Argentina and even start families, partially thanks to local cooperation. Things changed after 1960, when Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the so-called Final Solution, was kidnapped by Israeli Mossad agents. Eichmann’s exposure led in the following years to the exposure and sometimse arrest of other Nazi criminals – despite the protection they got from the locals. Although some Israelis may still harbor fantasies of hunting down a 90-year-old escaped Nazi criminal, most Israelis do not know that the Jewish-Argentinian community still lives in the shadows of the Nazi phantom which hovers over the south.

Israel cannot afford itself to lose another tourist destination, as happened with Turkey and some European countries. The summer operation in Gaza fueled global anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment. At this rate, instead of going south to Patagonia, Israeli youths may find themselves going no farther than the Red Sea port town of Eilat.

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