Rabbi Sergio Bergman made history on Tuesday when he was sworn in to the
60-member Buenos Aires municipal legislature.
He became the first Jewish
religious leader to assume public office in the Catholic-majority
The Reform rabbi, who dons a colorful, broad-rimmed yarmulka and
took his oath on the Torah instead of the Christian Bible, said the election of
a visibly Jewish candidate to a senior position was especially significant
because of Argentina’s past.
“It’s very important because in the 1950s,
under [Argentinean dictator Juan] Peron, we invited the Nazis to come to this
country,” he told The Jerusalem Post at the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of
Governors meeting last month. “Now I can be elected and there has been no
discussion over whether ‘we should let a Jew became a leader,’ and I think this
is a good thing.”
Bergman was the top candidate on the list submitted by
Propuesta Republicana (PRO), which won 60 percent of the vote in the Buenos
Aires municipal elections last June.
Headed by Buenos Aires Mayor
Mauricio Macri, PRO is the main opposition to Argentinean President Cristina
Kirchner’s Justicialist party.
“I know Macri well, and he is a friend of
Israel,” Bergman said of his political boss, “and I know he has the common sense
to distance Argentina from Venezuela and Iran.”
During his tenure on the
municipal council, the head of a congregation in downtown Buenos Aires and
founder of Fundacion Judaica, a network of Jewish charities, vowed to make the
rule of law and political responsibility his top priorities.
question is whether Argentina wants to be democratic and republic or to be
demagogic and populist,” he said. “It’s not an issue of Right or Left but of a
system. Why? Because you can see Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are countries
where through a democracy you get power that destroys the republic.
is the power of a demagogic system and I think Argentina is in between. I think
we need to find a way to keep Argentina in the Right with respect to the law and
The 49-year-old native of Buenos Aires is hardly the
first of Argentina’s approximately 200,000 Jews to enter politics. Hector
Timerman, the country’s foreign minister, and Jose Alperovich, the governor of
the state of Tucuman, are both Jewish, to name a few.
Nor is he the first
rabbi to gain national attention. The late Rabbi Marshall Meyer was deeply
involved in the struggle for human rights during the oppressive regime of the
junta. But Bergman is the first Jewish religious leader to swap the pulpit for
politics, a decision that has garnered both praise and scorn.
Bergman decided to be involved in politics he’s part of a different game,” said
Claudio Epelman of the Latin American Jewish Congress, a non-partisan Jewish
advocacy group. “There are Jews who support his party [PRO] and there are those
who support the [Justicialists].
On top of that there are other conflicts
in the community like whether a rabbi should become a member of the city
council? Or whether a Jew should become involved in politics at all?” Indeed,
many of Bergman’s most vocal critics are members of the Jewish
One Jewish activist, who belongs to a group called Judios Por
la Profundización Democrática (JPPD) and asked not to be quoted by name because
of his position in the Jewish community, blasted Bergman saying he had sold out
his political allies to advance his career.
“Everything he says he does
the opposite,” the activist said. “He speaks in the name of pluralism and
democracy but then makes friends with the haredis [ultra-Orthodox] and
In a petition posted on its website under the banner “not
in my name, no to Bergman,” the JPPD laid out its list of accusations against
him. It said the rabbi had deliberately sided with the ultra-Orthodox when it
was politically advantageous, that he had abandoned Memoria Activa, a group
demanding justice for the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center,
and that he had ignored gay rights. The petition has received the signatures of
Other members of the Jewish community have a more favorable
opinion of the rabbi.
“I see in him an outstanding person,” wrote Oscar
Olendar, the president of Sociedad Hebraica Argentina, a Jewish sports club in
Buenos Aires, in an e-mail. “He is a brilliant orator, a man with a sincere and
thoughtful opinion on every subject. He is what we call in my mother tongue a
‘mentsch.’” Bergman said he was aware of his critics, admitting that “the
non-Jews love me more than the Jews,” but he vehemently rejected their
accusations saying they are made by supporters of his political rival
He accused the Argentinean president of being friends with
Israel’s foes and defaming the opposition through her “control of the
“The Jewish community loves to be with the winners,” he said.
“They don’t have the courage to say it’s impossible for us as Jews and friends
of Israel to allow a country like Argentina to be so close to Venezuela and
Much of Bergman’s political future depends on the fortunes of his
boss Macri. If the PRO leader and mayor of Buenos Aires is ever elected
president then Bergman might become part of his government, but the next
scheduled general elections are four years from now. In the meantime Bergman’s
biggest challenge by far will be balancing his dual roles as a political and
“How will the rabbi, the politician and humanitarian
reconcile themselves in complex situations?” asked his friend Olendar. “This is
the big question and over the years its outcome will be determined based on
Rabbi Sergio Bergman’s performance.”