After the blast

On anniversary of 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires, anti-Semitic currents linger in Argentina.

AMIA Buenos Aires bombing (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
AMIA Buenos Aires bombing
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
TWENTY YEARS after a suicide bomber ripped apart the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and injuring 242, little has changed for the Jewish community in Argentina, the largest in Latin America.
A group called the Islamic Jihad organization (not to be confused with the Palestinian group of the same name) claimed responsibility, but the grim anniversary of the bombing on March 17, 1992, passes with no sign of the perpetrators being brought to justice.
Two years later, on July 18, 1994, the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was destroyed by a truck bomb in the deadliest terror attack ever carried out on Argentine soil. Eighty-five people were killed and hundreds injured. On December 23, 1999, the Argentine Supreme Court stated that an armed wing of Hizballah known as Islamic Jihad was responsible for the bombing.
So far, nobody inside Argentina has been singled out for their involvement in the attack – perhaps because the Argentine justice system only focused on the international connection.
As the 20th anniversary of the first attack passes, those responsible for the crime continue to go unpunished. This impunity probably facilitated the second attack at the AMIA center.
The Argentinian government has formally accused Iran of orchestrating the truck bombing, and has issued arrest warrants through Interpol for five Iranian suspects.
But despite two decades of criminal investigation that has uncovered evidence clearly indicating the involvement of Iran and Hizballah in both attacks, suspects continue to travel the world with impunity.
On May 30, 2011, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi arrived in Bolivia on an official visit to attend a military ceremony with Bolivian President Evo Morales. Vahidi left hurriedly the following day in order to evade an international arrest warrant issued against him in 2007. Argentina has accused Vahidi of planning the AMIA attack. The Argentinian Justice Department has called on Interpol to detain him.
Iranian-Argentinian relations have been in the spotlight since March 2011, when the Argentinian newspaper “Perfil” published accusations about a secret agreement between Argentina and Iran to suspend the investigation of the attacks in 1992 and 1994 – a charge vigorously denied by the Argentinian government.
Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor handling the court case on behalf of the government, dismissed the “Perfil” report at the time as “absolutely preposterous, absurd.” Nisman told “Prensa Judia,” a local Jewish newspaper, that the investigations into the attacks would continue without hindrance.
Anti-Semitic attacks Closer to home, the Jewish community continues to find itself the target of anti-Semitic attacks whose ferocity and frequency in recent years has been closely linked to newsfrom the Middle East.
Shortly before the Jewish high holidays in September 2011, a group of orthodox Jewish worshipers leaving a synagogue in Buenos Aires were set upon by a gang of youths crying: “Jews must be burned alive! The only solution is to burn synagogues and Jews!” Daniel, one of the victims who preferred not to give his full name, said he was walking near the synagogue with his two sons when a man making obscene gestures began shouting anti-Semitic slogans and Nazi-style insults at him. The attacker then hit Daniel on the head with a stick, almost severing his ear.
“The man insulted us a lot. As we moved in a group towards him, he stepped back and tripped over a stick,” Daniel, his head still bandaged, said in an interview on Argentinian television. “He took the stick, ran in our direction... and left me with a hanging ear.”
While the Jewish community is concerned at the persistence of anti-Jewish prejudice in Argentine society, not all the 300 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the country each year involve physical violence. In January, the “Pagina 12” newspaper published a cartoon under the title “An adventure of David Guetto, the DJ of the concentration camps.”
The cartoon depicted a caricature of David Guetta, a well-known French DJ, performing at a concentration camp while Hitler instructs inmates to “have fun because life is short” and urges them to keep moving because “if you are relaxed the soap comes out much better.” The National Institute Against Discrimination said it received several complaints about the cartoon.
With some 280,000 Jews, Argentina is the largest Jewish community in South America and the seventh largest in the world. A recent poll suggests that the number of anti-Semitic incidents is fairly low when considering the anti-Jewish sentiments that pervade Argentine society.
In October 2011, an opinion poll of attitudes toward Jews published by Argentine Jewry’s primary umbrella organization, the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA) and the US Anti- Defamation League revealed that more than half of Argentinians believe that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their own country,” while only 28 percent believed that “Jews that live in our country consider themselves Argentinians.” Half of the respondents said that Jews talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.
Some 82 percent said that “Jews are mainly interested in doing well in business and earning money.” Forty-five percent said they “would never marry a Jew” and 30 percent “would not live in a neighborhood with a large presence of Jews.” More than 1,500 people aged 18 to 65 in eight major Argentine cities were interviewed for the survey, conducted by the University of Buenos Aires.
“Discrimination is usually studied from the victim’s perspective, but in this case we chose to analyze those people who discriminate,” said Nestor Cohen, a University of Buenos Aires researcher who conducted the poll. He said the survey shed light on what many Argentinians really think about the country’s Jewish community. “The study doesn’t take Jews as a problem, but non- Jews,” said Cohen. “Jews are mainly perceived as not worried about whatever exceeds their interests, and as not identified with local issues,” the survey found, but most people recognized that Jews have great respect for work and knowledge.
Cohen said he had considered the risk of making the results public, and decided to go ahead in order to make the phenomenon more visible and to raise awareness, so that discriminatory incidents could be neutralized.
He said he was hopeful that attitudes could be changed and that it was a mistake to believe that “something is OK just because it’s always been like that.”
Dual Loyalties Aldo Donzis, head of DAIA, says that Argentine Jews have always been suspected of dual loyalties. “We do not even dare question a Spaniard by having an emotional affinity with Spain, or an Italian with Italy...but a Jew would never be allowed to have an emotional attachment to Israel. That would be considered a betrayal,” Donzis tells The Report.
Cohen said his survey showed that “discrimination has more to do with an anti- Jewish and not an anti-Israeli feeling; it is not related to Israel's political decisions.”
But another recent report seems to contradict that assertion.
The Annual Report on Anti-Semitism in Argentina, published in October 2011 by the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, lists 274 anti-Semitic incidents in Argentina during 2010. They include anti-Jewish expressions in public spaces and graffiti with Nazi symbols. The report noted a significant increase over previous years in digital and virtual anti- Semitism on websites and on social networks.
The Task Force report appeared to show a direct link between the occurrence of anti-Semitic incidents and the news from the Middle East. The total number of incidents fell by more than 48 percent compared to the number recorded in 2009, the year of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead incursion into Gaza. In 2009, anti-Semitic incidents linked to the events in Israel and Gaza equaled the number of incidents using Nazi symbolism. In 2010, some 47 percent of the incidents involved the use of Nazi symbols, and only eight percent were related to news from the Middle East.
The single highest monthly total of anti- Jewish graffiti in 2010 was in August, with 14 incidents recorded. In 2009, it was January, the final month of Operation Cast Lead, with no less than 92 incidents.
But even in a relatively quiet year in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitic incidents using Nazi imagery or rhetoric remained high. “Given that there was no significant crisis in the so-called Middle East conflict last year, which directly affects our country, there was no quantitative impact of reports in that sense,” Marisa Braylan, director of the Center for Social Studies of the DAIA, tells The Report.
From the report on anti-Jewish incidents, it’s clear that the actions taken by Israel directly affect the number of incidents reported.
But the negative sentiments expressed in the opinion poll were aimed not at Israel but at Jews. Respondents were asked about what they thought led to violent acts against Jews. Some 66 percent believed that violence directed against Jews is a result of “anti- Jewish” prejudice, while only 21 percent believe it is a result of “anti-Israel sentiment.”
A week after both reports were released, another incident hit the headlines. A priest named Oscar Belli made anti-Semitic comments during a Sunday sermon at the Itatí Church. According to Rita Beatriz Arcusín, a Jewish woman who overheard the sermon and reported the incident to the Human Rights Provincial Secretary, Belli said during mass on September 25 that “Jews are such liars that they have their souls rotten to the bones.” The sermon was delivered in the province of Entre Ríos, where the first Jewish colonies were established in the country in 1889.
One possible reason that the deep negative prejudices revealed by the poll do not often erupt into violence against Jewish people could be Argentina’s 1998 Discrimination Law, which punishes hate crimes resulting from racial or religious discrimination and also allows judges to increase the penalty in other crimes, if such discrimination is involved.
Some local Jewish officials question the extent of anti-Semitism in Argentina.
Tomy Saieg, the pro-secretary of AMIA, says the report on anti-Semitism conducted by the University of Buenos Aires for DAIA and ADL is of great concern for the Jewish community. He questions the report’s accuracy.
“In Argentina there is respect for diversity towards all religions. Jews have been living harmoniously here for more than 100 years, and it is not true that this is changing,” he tells The Report.
“It would be extremely rude, ungrateful and false to talk about an anti-Semitic Argentinian society. Although we always maintained that as long as there is no justice for the terrible attacks that destroyed the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA building, we cannot say a Jew lives 100 percent securely here. I insist we do not live or walk with fear,” he says.
But if Jews are still living in the shadow of the two deadly attacks in Buenos Aires, Argentine society is beginning to forget them.
A recent poll revealed that 20 years after the attack on the Israeli Embassy, only 20 percent of Argentine youth have any knowledge of the atrocity. The poll showed that while 90 percent of Argentinians know about the AMIA bombing in 1994, only 27 percent recall the embassy attack two years earlier.
Among the population aged 18 to 29 years, these percentages are 91 and 20.