Argentina: In The Shadow of the Swastika
More than a hundred years ago Jewish people started immigrating to Argentina from Russia, Poland, Germany and other countries. Among these hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants were my great-grandparents. They arrived in Argentina in 1918. They left behind persecution, discrimination and pogroms (all epitomized by the swastika in the center of the Nazi flag).
In the golden sun that is in the center of the Argentine flag my great-grandparents had seen escape from persecution and the hope of a new life in a new country. Yet when they arrived they were told they could not stay in Buenos Aires, the capital. They had to make a 16-hour journey in an old train to the province of Entre Rios. There they found themselves in a country environment similar to that of Poland or Russia, except there were no Cossacks or soldiers from the Czar.
My grandparents came as participants in a project by Baron Maurice Hirsh to transport one million Jews out of Russia into agricultural colonies in Argentina. As Jews have done for thousands of years, they adapted to their life in a new land. Eventually my family arrived in Santa Fe, where my parents met and married.
I was born and grew up in Santa Fe. Our involvement with Judaism consisted of going to the city twice a year for the Jewish High Holidays and to the Jewish cemetery every two weeks. While I was growing up I experienced the swastika, anti-Semitism and insults from some of my schoolmates and neighbors who I thought were Christians.
In my high school years, after the death of some of my relatives, I began to wonder about things such as God, death and the meaning of life. My search ended with my discovery that the real Jesus was not the Gentile God I had heard of as a little boy, but the Jewish Messiah. And since I was Jewish, it made all the sense in the world to me that I should follow Him and want to tell other Jewish people about Him.
Today the swastika is still casting its shadow over my country. Argentina has the seventh-largest Jewish population of the world and the largest of all Latin America. Buenos Aires (where I now live and minister) is the city with the second-largest Jewish population in the entire western hemisphere. Yet in such a sophisticated world-class city you can still see graffiti with statements like Jews are gay” and “Be a patriot, kill a Jew.” Christ is still perceived as the Gentile Christ, the One we Jews murdered. He is the One the Inquisitors and the Nazis said they followed. Worse yet, He is the One our military, fascist dictators said they followed as they tortured and killed people who protested their policies (many of whom were Jewish).
However, many things have changed in Argentina. Anti-Semitism still exists, but it has definitely diminished. Jewish people participate in various levels of Argentine society. They are involved in the media, the arts and even government. Although our constitution declares that Argentina is a Gentile country, Judaism is respected and accepted by most of the population. This has been demonstrated even by the highest authorities in the country. Last year an event was held at the most important synagogue of Argentina to repudiate the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. The Argentine president (who comes from a Muslim background) was present to condemn those terrible acts of anti-Semitism.
Also, an encouraging change has taken place in the Jewish perception of Jesus. Many (whom the Jewish people call “the evangelists”) are presenting a different picture of the One we call Yeshua. Jewish people see a great difference between those who are broadly considered “Christians” and the “evangelists.” The “evangelists” are born-again, evangelically-minded Christians. Jewish people know they are different. The “evangelists” know and talk about the Jewish Bible. They tell Jewish people they will pray for them if they have a problem. They do not venerate images, which Jewish people abhor, and they tell Jewish people that their Messiah has come—that His name is Jesus.
The Argentine Jewish people have changed, too. Most of them do not know Hebrew. The once-important role of the synagogue has diminished, and attendance has been decreasing dramatically in the last 10 years. Most Jewish people here are totally unfamiliar with the Book of our fathers, and the few who do know anything, know it only because they learned it in their younger years.
Today Argentine Jews are expressing their Jewishness in ethno-cultural terms. They involve themselves in Jewish causes like Zionism and work for Jewish agencies. Another avenue of commitment is membership in a Jewish club. Jewish clubs have great significance here. In a sense, the Jewish people are drawing Judaism away from the synagogue. They are having traditional ceremonies like weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs performed by lay people instead of rabbis, and they hold them at Jewish clubs instead of synagogues.
Argentine Jews are looking for deeper meaning in their lives. They are asking many questions and are not finding answers within the Jewish community. Relatives, friends and rabbis do not have answers for the everyday problems they face in this troubled society. That is why some Jewish people are seeking answers in the wrong places, such as the New Age movement, oriental religions, astrology and even occultism.
The “evangelists” are the ones who seem to have answers to the questions Argentine Jews are asking. And when Jewish people hear that Jesus is for them because He is the Jewish Messiah foretold by the Jewish prophets in the Jewish Bible, the barriers disappear.
In more than a year and a half of ministering in Buenos Aires, I have found hundreds of Jewish people who never heard that Jesus was for them. Many really liked Him and His teachings, but rejected Him because they were told that He was not for them. When these people hear what I heard 10 years ago, there is a change of attitude and a change of heart towards Jesus. Through the efforts of various missions and messianic congregations in the last few years, Jewish people in Argentina and elsewhere are beginning to know that there are Jews who believe in Jesus.
I feel that Argentina, even all of South America, is ripe for the harvest of the gospel. The things that caused Jewish people to reject Jesus are disappearing. The persecution is past, and anti-Semitism has diminished. Jewish people are looking for new ways. They are not satisfied with old ways. Even the intermarriage rate is at an all-time high.
As they approach their 30s, young Jewish people become more serious about the meaning of life and religion. Judaism doesn’t have the answers. The Orthodox Jewish religion is based on the authority of the rabbis rather than the authority of God and the Scriptures, and my Jewish people have seen too much of humanism and not enough of holiness.
Let us pray that the shadow of the swastika cast over my country and others in South America will soon disappear as it is confronted with the piercing, powerful, shining light of Yeshua. Then my people will not walk in darkness anymore. Our righteous Messiah said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (John 8:12).