25 years since AMIA: resentment, resistance, resilience

Argentine ambassador: ‘Commemoration insufficient’

By SONIA EPSTEIN
July 17, 2019 21:52
25 years since AMIA: resentment, resistance, resilience

MEMBERS OF THE Argentinean Jewish community in Buenos Aires hold up pictures of the victims of the AMIA Jewish center bombing, during a ceremony in 2015 to mark the 21th anniversary of the 1994 attack. (photo credit: ENRIQUE MARCARIAN / REUTERS)

The deadliest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history occurred on July 18, 1994, when a suicide bomber drove a van filled with hundreds of kilograms of explosives into a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and wounding 300. Twenty-five years later, the perpetrators remain at large, and antisemitism is once again rearing its ugly head in the country.

Argentina’s special prosecution formally accused the government of Iran of directing the attack and the Hezbollah terrorist group of executing the tragedy, which occurred at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, known as AMIA. Iran and Hezbollah were singled out in the weeks following the bombing, but over decades of investigations, alleged political interference has halted a definitive ruling.

On the occasion of the bombing’s 25th anniversary, Argentina’s government is taking a number of steps to memorialize the attack and guard against future ones.

It is set to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization for its execution of the 1994 attack, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 and wounded more than 200. The designation paves the way for the enforcement of political and financial limitations on Hezbollah members.

President Mauricio Macri also announced three initiatives to commemorate the victims of the attack and fight against future terrorism. One of them establishes monetary compensation to as-of-yet unrecognized victims; a second establishes an official national day of mourning for the attack; and the third inaugurates a Public Register of Persons and Entities Linked to Acts of Terrorism and its Financing.

“Commemoration should not be the only aim of our struggle,” according to Argentine Ambassador to Israel Mariano Caucino. “That is necessary but insufficient. We must strive to do our utmost to avoid this kind of terrible crime happening again.”

Argentina is hosting a ministerial meeting later this week, which will be attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and will address the need to organize collective strategies to fight against global terrorism.

“There’s a very good relationship, particularly in Argentina, with the current government,” Liat Altman, director of Latin American Affairs at the ADL, said of the Argentine Jewish community. “There is a sense from the government that they want to root out antisemitism – and whenever there is antisemitism, there is action.”

But with Iranian holders of Interpol red notices – akin to arrest warrants – still at large, the past remains an open wound.

“The lingering effect of the AMIA attack 25 years ago is always going to be a ghost that shadows the community,” Altman said.

Back in 2015, former special prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener and former minister of foreign relations Hector Timerman of derailing investigations into the attack. Nisman was found shot dead in his apartment the day before he was scheduled to present his formal accusations against the officials.

In March, the federal court sentenced former judge Juan José Galean, who was initially in charge of investigating the attack, to six years in prison for embezzlement and concealing evidence, but acquitted former president Carlos Menem of corruption and obstruction of justice.

“The truth is that in our country, there is a serious problem with the operation of justice,” AMIA chairman Ariel Eichbaum said. “The attack on AMIA is not an exception. The lack of full clarification of the crime, prosecution and punishment has shaped not only Jewish life, but also Argentine society and the democratic quality of the Argentine Republic.”

In recognition of the lack of closure on the case, Macri is declassifying all files related to the events, “in honor of the principles of truth, justice and transparency,” Caucino said.

The US House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a unanimous resolution commemorating the bombing, acknowledging Hezbollah’s continued threat to Jewish communities in Latin America and condemning the decades-long delay in serving justice.

FOR JEWISH communities today, the anniversary is a time of grief on many levels: Argentineans’ mourning lost loved ones, the continued failure to bring the crime to justice, and ongoing antisemitism in their country and worldwide.

The Jewish population in Argentina is the sixth-largest in the world. It is roughly 90% traditional and liberal, according to the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, but with a vibrant Orthodox presence as well.

“It’s a very robust, strong and pluralistic Jewish community,” Altman said. “Argentine Jews are very well integrated in society, in professions, in academia and in media.”

Jewish leaders in Argentina – including of the ADL – said they agree that antisemitism is not increasing. But also, it has never truly gone away.

“There may be isolated cases [in Argentina], but [they are] in no way comparable to the situations going on in other places around the world,” Eichbaum said.

The cases that do persist are usually not violent. However, this past June, Rabbi Shlomo Tawil, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Rosario, Argentina, was assaulted by three young people during the holiday of Shavuot. The assailants beat him in the head and stomach, and trampled him while shouting antisemitic insults.

A little over a week before the attack on Tawil, a swastika was spray-painted on a hair salon in Buenos Aires owned by Jews, and neo-Nazi pamphlets were distributed nearby.

Earlier this month, an Argentine lawyer and state Supreme Court secretary, who is also the niece of its president, posted antisemitic content on Facebook, featuring a picture of Jewish children playing outside a school with the text: “I think they forgot to tell the little Jews that it’s summer vacation. And then they asked why Hitler hated them,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

The secretary was transferred to another position within the ministry and apologized for the post.

Such online antisemitism is an increasing concern in Argentina, experts said, even if violent antisemitism is not. The Web Observatory, which researches and raises awareness about online discrimination, found that YouTube videos with antisemitic content are four times more likely to receive positive comments than negative comments, meaning that for each comment condemning the video, there is an average of four comments in support of it.

The study, released July 14 in collaboration with AMIA, the Latin American Jewish Congress and the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, also found that when a Jewish institution or leader is the protagonist of a story, antisemitic comments on websites increase by up to 50%.

“We are very worried about the increase in Internet [antisemitism],” said Jorge Knoblovits, president of DAIA, which is the umbrella organization for Argentina’s Jewish communities and a strong advocate for fighting antisemitism.

“We are having meetings with some Internet companies about the possibility of moderating and taking off hate expressions,” said Knoblovits, noting the difficulty of facilitating this process with the existing legislation. “Some of the cases are being analyzed legally.”

BUT KNOBLOVITS said that Argentina, when compared with other countries, is not a hostile place for Jews. Others interviewed expressed similar sentiments.

“We are more concerned [about] the growing antisemitism that is taking place in Europe and the United States, both on the extreme Right and on the extreme Left,” Latin American Rabbinical Seminary Board chairman Miguel Toimaher said.

In France, for example, a 2018 report by the National Human Rights Advisory Committee found that antisemitic acts in France increased by more than 70% compared to the previous year.

Jewish leaders laud the Argentinean government for its contributions to the fight against antisemitism. In February, when Argentina’s chief rabbi was attacked, in an event that has been deemed an act of urban violence rather than an act of antisemitism, judicial authorities took action and the alleged perpetrators were arrested.

“The Argentine society and the government as a whole, including President Macri, have shown signs of solidarity with the chief rabbi and with the AMIA,” Eichbaum said. “The minister of security and the security forces that report to her were placed at the service of the investigation and security measures were tightened, in ongoing cooperation with the AMIA.”

This level of government attention extends to the commemoration events surrounding the AMIA tragedy. Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is collaborating with the Latin American Jewish Congress – the regional branch of the World Jewish Congress – to mark the 25th anniversary of the bombing at over 20 Argentine embassies around the world, from Chile to Moscow.

In Israel, Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People is collaborating with the ADL to commemorate the event with a discussion between Caucino and former ambassador to Argentina Ilan Sztulman.

The museum, which is classified by law as the center for Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the world, devotes much of its mission to displaying solidarity with Jewish communities worldwide during times of suffering.

“It is our role and our mission to never forget that we are one people, no matter where we are,” said museum CEO Dan Tadmor.

But he also emphasized the need to unite not only in times of calamity but also in times of celebration.

“Jewish history and Jewish existence are always a tapestry of tragedy and accomplishment and hope,” he said. “And the correct rendition of who we are does not leave out any of these elements.”


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