Impure Migration. Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina

Yarfitz, Mir
New Brunswick 2019: Rutgers University Press
224 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ruth Ennis, Universität Leipzig

Mir Yarfitz is associate professor at Wake Forest University’s Department of History in North Carolina. His first monologue examines how Ashkenazi Jewish migrant sex workers and their managers organized themselves in Buenos Aires between the 1890s and 1930s. While he presents a complex and entangled transnational history of their engagement within international networks, the story he tells is simultaneously specific to Argentina in how these actors self-organized locally through the mutual aid society Varsovia, which provided burial and other services for Jews who were excluded from the broader Jewish community.

By narrating in the perspectives and experiences of those engaged in sex work activities, Yarfitz brings a whole new light to the historiography on transnational migrant prostitution which up until recently has predominantly focused on international law and the role of international reform movements. His examination of migrant strategies makes great strides in helping to overcome the myth/reality dichotomy regarding turn of the century “white slavery”, which has long framed historical debates on trafficking and prostitution. Yarfitz confirms a historical truth that disproportionate numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe were involved in organizing transnational sex work networks between the 1890s and 1930s even if this was indeed exaggerated by anti-Semites. His work, however, does not confirm that these networks were based on coercion, nor that they can be described as trafficking as we today understand it. Rather, the women in his book made choices along their migratory paths, while their relationships with men, migrant networks and mutual aid societies provided them with more opportunities than they would otherwise have had.

In the five analytical chapters laid out between the introduction and conclusion, Yarfitz presents us with a complex entanglement of actors who were engaged in transnational struggles over space and discursive authority on constructions of Jews. While the language of white slavery increasingly became a vehicle to speak about cross border prostitution between 1870 and 1930, the meaning behind it also became further entangled with Jewish migration to the new world during this same period. Chapter 1 confirms what other historians have shown in terms of the circulation of sensational media narratives regarding Jewish trafficking in the 1890s and 1910s or the fabrication of evidence in the 1920s.1 Yarfitz, however, pushes this knowledge further by dealing in depth with the interplay of racial constructions and sexuality which brought together old orientalist tropes of Jews with imagery of chattel slavery and notions of female victimhood, innocence and purity to be found in Victorian narratives.

In chapter 2 he then goes on to examine the production of discourses around Jewish sex trafficking while contextualizing this in what we know about the actors involved in sex work in the period. What can be seen is that the Jewish seducer found in 18th century novels became discursively cemented in a turn of the century ‘reality’ by connecting the notion of a Jewish trafficker to the mass migration of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe to South America between 1890s – 1930s. In this context, the tensions und hierarchies within Jewish communities are revealed in how “respectable” Jews were compelled to organize against the problem of trafficking for fear of the anti-Semitic consequences it could have for the broader Jewish community.

Historians from the 1980s such as Edward Bristow and Lloyd Gartner had already described such transnational reactionary class struggles in the context of anti-Semitism between, for example, Western European and Eastern European Rabbis or the Jewish elites in London organizing the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women and migrant Jews making their way to the new world.2 However in contrast to these works, which largely reproduced the elitist narratives of exploitation and victimhood, Yarfitz consciously listened carefully the voices of sex workers which had until now been completely drowned out in cacophony of debates between Jewish and non-Jewish elites pouring out of the archives. In exploring, for example, the strategic function that the Jewish religious marriage of Shtile Khush played in enabling Jewish migrants to more easily cross borders, the findings of chapter 3 counter the historical discourses which entangled Jewish traditional practices in Eastern Europe with notions of trafficking and exploitation. In contrast to the sources and historiography, Yarfitz found that sex workers rarely framed themselves in these terms but rather outlined the decisions they made in a context of limited choices.

The growth of fears, reporting and arrests of Jewish traffickers between the 1890s and the 1930s temporally correlated with the increasing historical migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to Argentina. Chapter 4 shows the conflict of perspectives in how upper members of the Varsovia Society tended to perceive themselves as respectable, fair and ethical businessmen in contrast to the League of Nations who saw them and the societies Tmeim members as being centrally involved in transnational trafficking networks; the Tmeim being a group of actors who were placed centrally in the battlefields around white slavery. If the book falls short at any point, it is only that one is at times left wondering who the Tmeim were and how they were constructed as a group in the sources, by other actors and by the author himself. As internet searches do not provide further details for the non-informed reader, more explicit explanation of their historical relationships to the Varsavia Society, migration networks and the social organization of sex workers would be welcomed. That said, chapter 5 nevertheless gives us some more insight into how they were socially and spatially positioned within the urban entanglements and hierarchies of Buenos Aires.

Tightly intertwined in the same urban spaces, “kosher” Jews struggled to disassociate themselves from “impure” Tmeim Jews as a strategy for fighting anti-Semitism. This to a degree mirrors the hierarchical struggles on the international level between Eastern and Western European Jews in how best to react in the context of rising anti-Semitism. For good reason, Yarfitz does not clearly delineate the local class struggles among Jewish migrant communities in Buenos Aires from the transnational struggles between international movements and organizations. As they too were part of local fights for a stake in counter discourses to those which explicitly blamed the Jews for white slavery.

Yarfitz’s book is strongly rooted in his PhD-Thesis which he completed at the University of California in 2012. While he had already proved the depths of his knowledge on the subject, this book provides us with exciting ways in which the perspectives of the subaltern can be narrated into a transnational history of elites who dominated the talk about them. Impure Migration is a brilliant piece of history writing which will speak loudly and inspirationally to global and transnational historians. Its findings will equally be of immense help to activists and academics engaged in debates on contemporary sex work and trafficking.

1 See for example: Jean-Michel Chaumont, Le Mythe de La Traite Des Blanches. Enquête Sur La Fabrication d’un Fléau, Paris 2002; Mary Ann Irwin, White Slavery' As Metaphor Anatomy of a Moral Panic, in: Ex Post Facto: The History Journal V (1996); Gretchen Soderlund, Sex Trafficking, Scandal and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917, Chicago 2013; Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society. Women, Class, and the State, Cambridge 1980.
2 Edward J. Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice. The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery 1870-1939, Oxford 1982; Lloyd P. Gartner, Anglo-Jewry and the Jewish International Traffic in Prostitution, 1885-1914, in: AJS Review. The Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies 7 (1982), p. 129–78.

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