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From the New World to the Third World: Generation, Politics, and the Making of Argentine Jewish Ethnicity (1955-1983)


This dissertation traces the interplay between understandings of the Argentine nation and constructs of Jewish ethnicity between 1955 and 1983. It begins with the celebrations surrounding the supposed triumph of the "liberal nation" after the overthrow of Juan Perón in 1955, and continues through the years of rapid transitions between civil and military rule, massive labor unrest and social protest, escalating violence, and finally the brutal military dictatorship of 1976-1983. It argues that these were crucial years in which Jewish activists forcefully discarded previous understandings of the nation and radically reformulated, several times, what it meant to be Jewish and Argentine.

This process echoed wider debates about the Argentine nation, but Jewish activists consistently ascribed particular meanings to different visions of the nation, whether liberal, national populist, revolutionary, or authoritarian. These understandings formed the basis for new articulations of membership and constructions of Argentine Jewishness. Through this all, the dissertation contends, the community's own complex generational politics catalyzed change. Beginning in the early 1960s, Jewish youth activists launched a rebellion against the community's central institutions, claiming that ethnic values must be made compatible with mentalities of native-born Argentines and new understandings of the nation. Rather than rejecting these innovations, the older generation often grappled with them, forcing the meanings of Jewishness in Argentina to the fore over and over again. At the height of revolutionary foment, the older generation even embraced the youth's radical definitions of Jewishness, though it later worked to silence them as social violence escalated in the mid-1970s. While the national context and the community's own dynamics are thus fundamental, this work also underscores many ways that the process of constructing ethnicity and rethinking the nation were tied to trends in the broader Jewish diaspora, involved in its own processes of remaking the meaning of Jewishness and Zionism after the establishment of the State of Israel.

With the interplay between national, communal, and diasporic processes, this dissertation offers three key contributions. The prevailing myth surrounding Argentine immigration is that by World War II the "melting pot" had forged a new Argentine culture and made ethnic identity irrelevant. By contrast, this project contends that the rapid political changes and shifting national consciousnesses in the years after 1955 created particularly fertile ground to debate, remake, and reformulate the intersection between being Jewish and Argentine. This project also speaks to ongoing debates about the relative importance of nation and diaspora in the making of ethnic identity: even as Jewish activists were keenly attuned to constructions of ethnicity emanating from other parts of the diaspora, they consistently accepted or rejected them in accordance with their understanding of themselves as Argentines. Finally, it adds the ethnic community to the realms where Latin American youth activists remade cultural categories in the 1960s and 1970s, but also complicates the image of rebellious youth and recalcitrant elders by pointing to a varied interplay between the two.

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