Argentina – Jewish colonies

Baron Maurice de Hirsch always did things his own way.  After completing his first major  business coup of building the Europe-  Constantinople railway line through  the Balkan Mountains, a project more  sober businessmen had warned was  sheer lunacy, the German born magnate  became regarded as a visionary.  Early in his career, Hirsch decided  to devote a large part of his fortune to  helping the less fortunate of his people.

As he put it, “What is more natural  than that I should find my highest  purpose in bringing to the followers of  Judaism, who have been oppressed for  a thousand years, who are starving in  misery, the possibilities of a physical  and moral regeneration?” 

Traveling through the near East  during his railroad project, he had  been shocked at the Jews’ deplorable  poverty and determined to solve the  problem his own way.

“During my repeated and extended  visits to Turkey,” he wrote, “ I have  been painfully impressed by the  misery and ignorance in which the  Jewish masses live in that Empire…  progress had bypassed them, their  poverty stems from lack of education,  and only the education and training of  the young generation can remedy this  dismal situation.”

He reasoned that that it is better to  give a poor man fishhooks to earn a  living than supply him with fish the rest  of his life. As he put it, “I consider it  the greatest problem in Philanthropy to  make human beings who are capable of  work out of individuals who otherwise  must become paupers, and in this way  to create useful members of society.”

Unfortunately, he never considered  the Torah side of the issue. In accordance  with his material leanings, he began  donating huge sums to organizations  like the infamous Alliance Israelite  Universelle, the giant educational  system that endowed children with  secular education and Western values  at the cost of losing their souls. In  5633/1873 he handed the Alliance a  million francs and in later years he  picked up the Alliance’s unpaid bills  at the end of each year to the tune of  hundreds-of-thousands of francs.

Then he turned his attention to  Russia where Jews were suffering  more than anywhere else after  5642/1882 when Czar Alexander III  sanctioned the infamous “May Laws”  that, by restricting Jews from rural  areas and restricting education and job  opportunities were intended to make  Jewish life unbearable. The laws did  their job. By 5657/1897 fifty percent  of Jews in many cities were without  jobs, and about half the Jews of major  cities like Odessa, Vilna, Minsk and  Kovno couldn’t get through Pesach  without tzeddaka.

The May Decrees and hundreds  of pogroms in South Russia the  previous year sparked off a great  Jewish emigration to the West, which,  ironically never solved Russia’s  “Jewish problem,” because although  two million Jews had fled from  Russia by World War I, thanks to  natural increase the Jewish population  remained almost identical to what it  was in 5641/1881.

Hirsch initially thought of improving  the Jews’ life in Russia and offered  the government about £2,000,000  to establish schools, workshops and  farms for Russian Jews. However,  when Russian officials insisted that  the funds be handed directly to them  to be used as they saw fit, Hirsch  refused to give a penny and expended  the funds setting up Jewish schools in  Galicia against the heavy opposition of  Torah Jews who regarded his style of  education as a Trojan horse of heresy  and assimilation. 

Then the baron hit on another plan  after hearing of 820 Russian Jews who  arrived in Argentina in 5649/1889 and  established successful agricultural  colonies.

“These same families,” he enthused,  “which a few years ago, bending under  heavy burdens, appeared to be only  wandering trades-people in Russia,  have now become thrifty farmers,  who with plough and hoe know how  to farm as well as if they had never  done anything else… The knowledge  of this guides me in my work, and I am  now setting out with all my strength to  accomplish it.”

Why did Baron Hirsch prefer  Argentina over the United States?

As he explained later, “In  considering this plan, I naturally  thought of the United States, where  the liberal constitution is a guarantee  of happy development for followers of  all religious faiths.

“Yet, I was obliged to confess that  to increase to any great extent the  already enormous number of Jews  in the United States would be of  advantage neither to the country itself  nor to the exiled Jews; for it is my firm  conviction that this new settlement  should be scattered through different  lands and spread over a large space, so  that there shall be no opportunity for  social or religious rupture.”

In preparation for his plan, Hirsch  sent Arnold White, an English  Member of Parliament, to Russia  to explore whether the Jews and  Russians were interested in the  proposition. The leading Russian  official, Pobyedonostzev, tried hard to  persuade White that Jews could never  survive as farmers.

“The Jew is a parasite,” he assured  him. “Remove him from the living  organism in which and on which he  exists and put this parasite on a rock  and he will die.”

However, after an extended tour  of the Russian Pale and Jewish  agricultural colonies in Southern  Russia, White became convinced that  the Russian paranoia against Jews “was  evolved from the inner consciousness  of certain orthodox statesmen, and has  no existence in fact.”

“In short,” he reported to Hirsch  later, “if courage – moral courage,  hope, patience, temperance are fine  qualities, then the Jews are a fine  people. Such a people, under wise  direction, is destined to make a  success of any well-organized plan,  of colonization, whether in Argentina,  Siberia, or South Africa.”

Russian officials agreed to go along  with the scheme on condition that  Hirsch get rid of most of Russia’s three  million Jews within twelve years.

In 5641/1891, Hirsch founded the  “Jewish Colonization Association”  (JCA) with a capital of 50 million  francs and delineated its goal: “To  assist and promote the emigration  of Jews from any part of Europe or  Asia—and principally from countries  in which they may for the time being  be subjected to any special taxes or  political or other disabilities—to any  parts of the world, and to form and  establish colonies in various parts of  North and South America and other  countries, for agricultural, commercial,  and other purposes.”

White traveled back to Russia with  joyous tidings for its anti-Semitic  leaders. In 5642/1892, Hirsch’s  society would move 25,000 Jews to  Argentina; the number would increase  in following years, and within 25 years  Russia would be rid of every one of its  3,250,000 Jews. The Russians agreed  to expedite the process by issuing free  exit permits and exempting emigrants  from military service. After all even if  Hirsch’s scheme failed, at least it would  move some Jews out the country.

Hirsch then bought up huge  tracts of land around Buenos Aires,  Sante Fé, and Entre-Rios, developed  infrastructure, and waited for the  immigrants to stream in. 

They never arrived; Hirsch’s  grandiose dream came to nothing.

Only 6,000 Jews immigrated to  Argentina within the first three years  and of these, half stayed put in Buenos  Aires. Within a decade, the association  transplanted to Argentina a grand total  of 10,000 Jews.

The reason for the failure was  that Jews simply preferred going  to the Goldene Medina rather than  struggling in Argentine dust and  mud. During the previous decade, the  United States population of 250,000  Jews had doubled, and another  165,000 Jews streamed to the US  shores during the first three years of  the Argentina debacle. Hirsch did  better with his Baron de Hirsch Fund  for United States immigrants, to which  he endowed $2.4 million. This fund  provided loans, education and training  to new immigrants, and established  Woodbine, New Jersey, the first Jewish  town of the United States.

By the end of his life in 5656/1896,  Hirsch had expended an estimated  $100 million chasing his dreams,  and his Jewish Colonial Association  with funds of about £10,000,000, had  bought up land in South America,  the United States, Canada and Asia  Minor and was probably the greatest  charitable trust in the world.

The only project that left Hirsch  unmoved was the fledgling Zionist  movement that generated such  enthusiasm among other Jews. When  the Chovevei Zion movement and  Theodore Herzl approached him for  funding he refused to give them a cent,  regarding their aspirations as nothing  more than a ridiculous dream.  Were the baron’s efforts a failure?

“In the history books they say  that most of his attempts of solving  the Jewish problem turned out to be  failures, and that hundreds of millions  of dollars was wasted,” wrote A. D.  Goldhaft, a past student at the Baron  de Hirsch Agricultural School in  Woodbine. “But I wonder if such  things can ever be measured. Perhaps  some of the settlements that he set up  failed to have a spectacular success,  and most of them failed in time, but  my life was helped by his work, as I  suppose were many others.”

This sentiment was echoed by  grateful parents who endowed their  offspring with the cumbersome names  of Baron de Hirsch or Baron Maurice  de Hirsch. These poor individuals had  to bear this testimony to the baron’s  generosity for the rest of their lives.

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