Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Ministry of Special Cases

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The Ministry of Special Cases

A Novel

by Nathan Englander

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 352 pages

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The Argentine "Dirty War"

Estimates of the number of people who were "disappeared" during the Argentine "Dirty War" range from 9,000 to 30,000, of which about 1,000 were Jews. After the death of controversial President Juan Peron in 1974, his third wife, Isabel, assumed power (Peron's second wife was Eva, made famous by the musical Evita). Isabel was politically weak and was soon removed from power by a military junta who then set about arresting anybody they believed challenged their authority.

By the early 1980s the junta faced mounting opposition, an economic crisis, and allegations of corruption. Seeking to allay criticism it launched a campaign to regain the group of islands close to its southern tip which the Argentines call the Malvinas, and the British, having occupied them since 1833, refer to as the Falklands.

The junta believed they would be able to reclaim the islands easily, and initially they did; but they didn't count on the recently elected British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sending a substantial chunk of the British military 8,000 miles around the world to defend the rights of the 3,000 residents (not to mention the island's strategic importance close to the Antarctic and South America). Seventy-two days later the British retook the islands having captured 9,800 Argentine POWs. This humiliating loss was the final blow for the military regime who, in 1982, restored basic civil liberties and retracted its ban on political parties. In December 1983 a civilian government was elected.


Jews in Argentina

After being expelled from Spain in 1492, a number of Jews settled in Argentina where they assimilated into the general population, so by the mid 1800s there were few overt Jews in Argentina. When Argentina gained its independence from Spain in 1810, the first president officially abolished the Inquisition and encouraged freedom of immigration and respect for human rights. Over the following decades Jewish immigrants began to arrive from Europe, especially France. In the late 19th century, a third wave of Jewish immigrants arrived, primarily fleeing poverty and pogroms in Russian and Eastern Europe. By 1920 there were about 150,000 Jews in Argentina.

Anti-Semitism in Argentina had been infrequent until World War I, but increased during the 1920s and '30s. Juan Peron, a Nazi sympathizer with fascist leanings came to power in 1946. He halted Jewish immigration and allowed Argentina to become a haven for fleeing Nazis; but he also expressed sympathy for Jewish rights and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949 (since then about 45,000 Argentine Jews have emigrated to Israel). A law against racism and anti-Semitism passed in the Argentine parliament in 1988. Argentina's Jewish community currently numbers about a quarter million, mostly in Buenos Aires.

This article was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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