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Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Re-thinking Migration to Latin America and the New Ethnic Studies

Within the framework of a series of conferences initiated in 2012 between the Institute of Latin American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, and Tel Aviv University, on 20 April 2018 the third Joint Research Workshop on “The New Ethnic Studies” took place in Berlin. It was titled “Migrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers: Re-thinking Migration to Latin America and the New Ethnic Studies.” PhD Students, postdocs, and senior historians from different universities around the globe, who have been working together for many years, met to discuss their work and research perspectives about topics such as migration, displacement and asylum from the “New Ethnic Studies” approach. Eleven presentations from different disciplinary perspectives -- history, literature, sociology, and political science -- covered regional cases in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Israel, Paraguay, French Guiana, and Canada.


In his opening remarks, STEFAN RINKE (BERLIN) underlined how important it is that different institutions jointly provide a platform for the discussion of research. Furthermore, he pointed out that this kind of occasion is a fundamental part of an ongoing construction process of this attempt to create a new field: the New Ethnic Studies. Together with RAANAN REIN (TEL AVIV) and JEFFREY LESSER (ATLANTA) Rinke proposed to reject the exceptionality and homogenizing tendencies in immigration history and, instead, advocate an approach that emphasizes the locally- and nationally-embedded nature of ethnic identification. This conception should remind us that the presence of groups resulting from (im)migration challenges notions of whiteness, indigeneity, and/or blackness, which inform the construction of national identities in Latin America case.  


As keynote speaker, RAANAN REIN (TEL AVIV) traced the efforts to establish a mosque in the Argentine capital from the mid-1940s, during Juan Perón’s first presidency, and up to the revival of the project during the so-called Menemato. The speaker said that although the populist policies of Perón and the neoliberal program of Menem represented very different political orientations, they did have traits in common, especially in their efforts to better integrate various ethnic communities, such Jews and Arabs. With his work he underscored the importance to closely analyze the context in which integration processes unfold.


GUSTAVO GUZMÁN CASTRO’s (TEL AVIV) presentation looked at the main responses to the Évian Conference and the Kristallnacht during the 1930s in Chile, in order to better understand their significance in the construction of Chilean political identities. The Évian Conference (July 1938) raised two clearly differentiated positions in Chilean politics. As the center-left expressed its solidarity with Jews and requested President Arturo Alessandri to increase their immigration quotas, Conservatives and Liberals showed themselves indifferent to the German Jews’ situation and sharply rejected that possibility. Something similar occurred after the Kristallnacht (November 1938). As the center-left actors—organized in the Popular Front—emphatically condemned the German government and reiterated their solidarity with Jews, the Right remained mostly silent. While this contribution highlighted how Chilean politicians positioned themselves by reference to Jewish refugees, VINICIUS BIVAR (BERLIN), discussed the role of diplomacy in debates about ethnicity and its potential impact on the lives of German-Brazilians in the same period (1933–1938). Among the first measures enacted following the institution of the Estado Novo in Brazil, the “nationalization campaign” raised significant obstacles to German-Brazilian diplomatic relations in the years preceding World War II. German-Brazilians were caught in the middle of an ideological crossfire between cultivating the model of Germanness as advocated by the Third Reich or ceding to the pressure to integrate posed by the new laws of Vargas’ dictatorship. Bivar used in his presentation the methodological approach of the New Ethnic Studies to explain that thread of tensions in the intersection of different migrations flows and the political and historical development of Brazil.


By trying to recover the testimonies of Polish-Jewish refugees, MARIUSZ KALCZEWIAK (BERLIN) complemented diplomatic history with personal accounts about the fates of refugees who attempted to enter Latin America at the beginning of World War II, as well as in the four years after its end. The paper suggested that Polish-Jewish refugees actively searched for refuge, used their own contact channels and were not passive subjects counting on the benevolence of Latin American authorities or of Jewish help institutions. The paper focused on the way in which different types of sources, like testimonial manuscripts, diplomatic and foreign documents, can help to elucidate the role of networks between migrants and refugees in order to explain personal and collective experiences.


From the same perspective of personal accounts, but from the perspective of literature, JOANNA MOSZCZYNSKA (BERLIN) described how the last thirty years have been characterized by a diminishing number of survivors and direct witnesses from the Holocaust, but at the same time by a gradual expansion of memory discourses and practices related to the Holocaust. Through the examples of two short stories of Moacyr Scliar’s “Na minha suja cabeça, o Holocausto” (1986) and Cíntia Moscovich’s “O homem que voltou ao frio” (1998), Moszczynska analyzed how post-memorial work generates a relation between the present and the past by creating a new canon of post-witness literature even as fictional or autofictional novels.


Through the analysis of local press, CLAUDIA STERN (BERLIN) pondered on the 'Chileanization' of Arab and Jewish immigrants, addressing their integration into the national political sphere. By focusing on the political careers of Rafael Tarud and Ángel -Faivovich, Stern showed the scope of political participation in the 'Chileanization' of both, Arabs and Jews. HAGAI RUBINSTEIN (TEL AVIV) provided further insights into the integration of Palestinian-Chileans. He examined two periods that do not appear in the bulk of studies on Palestinian-Chilean identity: Nakba and the first Intifada. Studying the Palestinians in Chile from the perspective of these events has the potential to reflect from a transnational perspective how the Palestinian-Chilean identity changed.


ADRIAN KRUPNIK (TEL AVIV) presented the particular case of a ship called Jerusalem, which departed from Haifa to Buenos Aires with a big number of “returnees”—i.e. Argentine Jews who had previously migrated to Israel—on board. He used this example to refer to a return wave of Argentinian immigrants from Israel that took place in 1966 in a context of economic recession in Israel. Nevertheless, he referred also to two opposite and simultaneous streams of migration were observable while Israel was suffering the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and Argentina went through quick changes that included political violence. LIANNE MERKUR (POTSDAM) described the reconfiguration and prevalent constellations of collective belonging of Israelis in Toronto and Berlin. Their experience offered a perspective on other instances of migrant transnationalism.


OMRI ELMALEH’s (TEL AVIV) dealt with the Lebanese Muslim community on the border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, but deliberately sidelined the question of terrorism, in which scholarship on this community is typically framed. Instead, his paper focused on the history of Lebanese Muslims in two border cities: Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. He addressed the intersections of transnational identities, cultural hybridity, and the formation of a Lebanese Community in Latin America more broadly. In a similar way, FABIO SANTOS (BERLIN) sought to shed light on what he called the “conundrum of geography” (Sharpley-Whiting/Patterson 2009), highlighting the value of research perspectives provided by French Guiana’s historical and contemporary patterns of migration.


Finally, a number of positive outcomes and stimulating challenges emerged during the round table discussion. JERRY DAVILA (Illinois), JÜRGEN BUCHENAU (North Carolina), and JEFFREY LESSER (Atlanta)wondered about whether the conference’s “new ethnic studies” approach managed to offer better explanations than those that have traditionally been used. They pointed out how difficult it is, in spite of all the theoretical work behind the presentations, to overcome in practice the customary divisions between “ethnic groups” (white, black, Oriental, Jews etc.). Furthermore, they addressed how this differentiation has not helped to understand better the complexity of migration processes, since the contact zones in which individuals developed their encounters often break with traditional ethnic dynamics. One of the most pressing challenges mentioned at the roundtable was how to deal with the concept “ethnicity,” which has been widely criticized for its lack of definitional precision and its resulting potential to create confusion.


In conclusion, this one-day workshop showed the importance to analyze diasporas within their context, differentiating between social problems emanating from their place of origin and those arising at the place where they are migrating. All participants agreed that the overrepresentation of men as protagonists in all papers or the lack of explicit references to women could be one of the most distorting effect in order to deeply understand how migration     procceses began and developed.



Conference Overview:


Welcome and Opening Remarks Stefan Rinke (Berlin)



Opening Lecture Raanan Rein (Tel Aviv) 

“From Perón to Menem: The Tortuous Road Towards the First Mosque in Buenos Aires”


Session I

Gustavo Guzmán Castro (Tel Aviv):The Évian Conference, the Kristallnacht, and the Issue of Jewish Refugees in Chilean Politics During the 1930s


Vinícius Bivar (Berlin): Diplomacy and Ethnicity: German-Brazilian Identity Between the Estado Novo and the Third Reich


Session II


Mariusz Kałczewiak (Potsdam): ‘We Hope to Find a Way Out from Our Unpleasant Situation’: Polish-Jewish Refugees, Latin America and Escaping the Nazi Europe


Joanna Moszczynska (Berlin): The Holocaust in Brazilian Jewish Literature after 1985: Postmemory and Ethnicity


Session III                                        


Claudia Stern (Berlin): Inmigrantes Políticos: la ‘chilenización’ de Àrabes y Judíos y su Trasfondo Cívico (1930-1970)


Hagai Rubinstein (Tel Aviv): From Nakba to the Intifadas: The Identity of the Palestinian Community in Chile in the Shade of Historical Events


Session IV                                                    

Adrian Krupnik (Tel Aviv): An Unsafe Haven: Argentinian Immigrants in Israel during 1966


Lianne Merkur (Potsdam): Bathurst and Babylon: Israeli (Ex)Patriots in Toronto (2014-2017)


Session V                                                     


Omri Elmaleh (Tel Aviv): From the Ceders of Lebanon to River Paraná: Lebanese Immigrants in the Triple Frontier of Argentina - Brazil- Paraguay

Fabio Santos (Berlin): Re-thinking Migration in Latin America from its Margins: On French Guiana and other Conundrums of Geography


Round Table Discussion: Raanan Rein (Tel Aviv), Jerry Davila (Illinois), Jürgen Buchenau (North Carolina), and Jeffrey Lesser (Atlanta)