Wassner on Yarfitz, 'Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina'

Mir Yarfitz
Dalia Wassner

Mir Yarfitz. Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina. Jewish Cultures of the World Series. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019. 224 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-9815-4

Reviewed by Dalia Wassner (Brandeis University) Published on H-Judaic (September, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54535

In Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Argentina, Mir Yarfitz expertly situates his study of the Jewish sex trade in turn-of-the century Argentina (1890-1930) within the interlacing contexts of global migration patterns, gendered labor choices, and political and social anxieties involved in negotiating conditions of belonging. Intentionally transnational in scope—defined in terms of migration, circulation of ideas, and the involvement of multinational institutions—Yarfitz’s study is committed to a perspective of mobility in terms of both lived experience and representation. Yarfitz achieves this goal, and in so doing, adds a probing scholarly voice to 150 years of contentious arbitration of Jewish involvement in sex trafficking and prostitution in Argentina, as revealed in prolific productions of culture, the press, and scholarship within that country and abroad. Situating his work within the context of mass Jewish and European migrations to America, and the ensuing shifts in Argentine policies toward race and immigration, Yarfitz urges his reader to consider local and transnational responses to sex trafficking—Jewish and gentile, national and international—as principally indicative of the agendas of the mediating parties, rather than reflective of the experiences of the historical actors. Conclusively, Yarfitz posits Jewish sex trafficking in the work’s context as neither white slavery nor marginal to either Jewish or Argentine history.

A notable strength of the work is the author’s dexterous engagement with the prolific production on the subject—be it cultural (for example, Sholem Aleichem, Albert Londres, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Carlos Luis Serrano, Myrtha Schalom, and Nora Glickman) or scholarly (for example, Edward Bristow, Boleslao Lewin, Robert Weisbrot, Isabel Vincent, Haim Avni, Ricardo Feierstein, Victor Mirelman, Jose Moya, Donna Guy, and Sandra McGee Deutsch)—as he analyzes the history and enduring impact of Jewish involvement in sex work in the early days of Jewish settlement in Argentina. Indeed, it is not Yarfitz’s archival discoveries that drive the work; rather, it is his original analysis of the “tropes and functions of international narratives,” extending also to archives and primary sources engaged by previous studies, which are analyzed anew and then considered against the cultural, political, and social narratives that arose to address the contentious phenomenon (p. 3). Specifically, Yarfitz’s attention to the intersecting roles of race, gender, labor, and migration as both narrated and judicated in transnational institutionalized responses (for example, London-based international Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women, founded in the 1880s, with the Argentine branch Ezres Noshim founded in 1901; British International Bureau for the suppression of the Traffic in Women; and the League of Nations’ Traffic in Women and Children Committee) is integral to his study of Jews as transnational actors. The resultant argument is original and powerful: Jews are not relegated to either victims or perpetrators of a certain iteration of the white slave trade but rather play a leading role in creating social and political parameters of belonging in Jewish Argentina and in the city of Buenos Aires more broadly. The dynamic thus described explicitly counters the common trope whereby social and political frameworks developed in Europe and the United States are passively accepted by the Global South. Pointing instead to the influential role played by Argentina in contemporary transnational conversations on eugenics, state policing, and border control, Yarfitz argues for the very centrality of the Jewish sex trade in defining mainstream Jewish institutional life, community, and familial identity within the national and transnational contexts involved.

Yarfitz also addresses the contemporary relevance of his work and, in so doing, engages the various schools of anti-prostitution activists and feminists who have established their own intellectual and moral frameworks as relates to sex-trafficking scholarship and activism. Tracing the transnational connection between abolitionists and anti-trafficking reformers and feminists of the 1970s, who categorized all sex work as fundamentally victimizing (Kathleen Barry, Sheila Jeffries, and Catharine MacKinnon), Yarfitz claims his own stake as pursuant to the countering interpretation, one that stresses the agency—albeit constrained—of those involved in the sex trade (Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Bernstein, Shonali Choudhury, and Jo Doezema). In so doing, Yarfitz purposefully situates his study to “move beyond a dichotomy of internationally mobile prostitutes as tragic victims or powerful agents by complicating the idea of consent and putting international trafficking in the context of migration” (p. 136). Proposing instead a “modified choice” model, considering the limitations in such choices imposed by race, class, and sex on those involved, he argues for the latter perspective based on the mappings of group mobility and the evidence of agency indicated by select women who moved in and out of prostitution throughout these established channels of mobility, including changing partners and roles, accumulating notable wealth, and owning property.

Claiming that the white slave trade was more a narrative and judicial tool than a reality in the context at hand, Yarfitz demonstrates that it was nonetheless a powerful construct exploited by participants and reformers alike, in a way that proved the very porosity and ambiguous nature of sex labor. The argument would have been strengthened even further, however, had the author provided a qualitative framework for understanding how representative those who exerted such meaningful agency were, such as the cited cases of Raquel Lieberman and Esther the Millionaire—the former is argued to have invoked the white slave narrative to her advantage (and enduring fame) and the latter did not (and has been mostly forgotten). Likewise, though Yarfitz’s analysis of the League’s Advisory Committee on the Traffic of Women and Children archive, particularly as it relates to lead investigator Paul Kinzie, is instructive of his arguments, the work could have been further strengthened by more explicit revelations of the specific archival evidence used. Presently, such statements as “women were probably less naïve than the dominant narrative suggests and sought opportunities to switch to preferable partners” read as informed but do not necessarily earn the reader’s same conclusion in terms of a broadly shared reality (p. 71). Likewise, statements about “untapped primary sources” would be well served to be named and explicitly unpacked in terms of their limited utility and availability (p. 80). Admittedly, relying on the narratives of investigating groups rather than the individuals involved speaks to a handicap met by all who approach the field. The archives that would reflect more detailed and individual experiences are scarce due to an acknowledged methodological trifecta of hurdles, involving Jewish communal cover-up, the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) building, and editorial decisions made by Argentine police and military leaders over the last century.

On the other hand, a significant detailed contribution of the work on the local level is the author’s precise mapping of Jewish Buenos Aires in chapter 5, where he demonstrates how the world of prostitution fit spatially and institutionally within the context of the city’s underworld, immigrant neighborhoods, and mainstream Jewish institutions (figures 5.1, 5.2, 5.3). The chapter succeeds in bringing the reader to street-level Buenos Aires, and the Once neighborhood in particular, where detailed maps delineate the activities of the Varsovia Society members in relation to mainstream Jewish institutions and other immigrant neighborhoods. The result is an effective visual representation of how underworld and mainstream Jewish institutions were formed in dialectical definition of each other, as they likewise reflect the practical implications of evolving laws and policing of sex labor in the capital. On another note, the book is enhanced by the extent to which Yarfitz places Ashkenazi Jewish immigration to Argentina within the larger context of Jewish diaspora migrations, including Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews as they comprised Jewish immigration to Argentina more broadly, and also as they were at times involved in the sex labor network’s activities.

Unwavering in granting the exploitative and violent reality that widely dominates sex work, Yarfitz effectively questions the applicability of the white slave term to the Jews in question, as defined in a postcolonial racialized victim-exploiter dichotomy. Yarfitz’s broader argument for questioning the utility of the white slave trade narrative applied to Jews as Europe’s “ur-Others,” situated within the multiple transnational frameworks of Jewish migration, national integration, and racial and sexual policing, offers important contributions to scholarship in Jewish studies, Diaspora studies, Latin American studies, and gender, women, and sexuality studies. As Yarfitz states: the dynamic involved occurred in the context of North Atlantic reformers attempting to reconstruct shifting boundaries of race and civilization as part and parcel of “transatlantic debates over immigration, miscegenation, urbanization, marriage, suffrage, and the end of empire” (p. 137). Yarfitz has approached the delicate subject deftly and with sophistication.

Dalia Wassner is the director of the Project on Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University.

Citation: Dalia Wassner. Review of Yarfitz, Mir, Impure Migration: Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54535

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.