The AMIA legacy

The largest Jewish community in Latin America is prospering, but the tragic AMIA attack continues to cast a shadow

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner521 (photo credit: ENRIQUE MA RCARIAN / REUTERS)
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner521
The Argentine Jewish community continues to prosper and expand while controversy rages over the government’s decision to set up a joint investigation with Iran into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires.
Tehran is the prime suspect of being behind the terror attack that killed 85 people and left hundreds injured.
Argentina, with 285,000 Jews, is home to the largest Jewish community in South America. In Buenos Aires alone, the number of students at Jewish schools has risen from 15,593 to 19,162 in the last seven years. The most significant increase was achieved by Orthodox schools, which accounted for 35 percent of the total at the primary level in 2005 (4,421 pupils) and increased to 46 percent of the total in 2012 (6,455).
But not all is well. The legacy of the AMIA attack continues to cast a shadow over the community. Following the January 27 announcement of an Argentine memorandum of understanding with Iran to investigate the AMIA bombing case, AMIA president Guillermo Borger predicted that “the Iranian pact will lead to a third attack.”
“Why would you make such a terrible statement like that?” Argentine President Cristina Kirchner replied on Twitter. “If an attack is planned in relation to the agreement with Iran, who would be behind it?” she inquired.
The Jewish community head believes that the lack of Argentine resolve could lead to new terrorist attempts. “The impunity of the first attack against the Israel Embassy in 1992 [in which 29 people were killed and hundreds injured] facilitated the second one against us.
In our opinion, the agreement with Iran will lead to more impunity, and the country is still a haven for terrorists,” explains Borger to The Jerusalem Report.
Along these lines, US Senators Mark Kirk and Kirsten Gillibrand concluded that the joint Iranian-Argentine Truth Commission to investigate the bombing may set a precedent for allowing the Tehran regime to evade responsibility for its crimes, also warning that such a probe might even “encourage another devastating attack.” In a letter they sent on March 10 to Kirchner, the senators claimed that overturning an indictment against prominent Iranian suspects “dishonors the Argentine victims of the [Iranian] terrorist regime.”
The AMIA and the Jewish political umbrella organization, DAIA, will try to stop the pact through the Appellate Court. Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who is Jewish, reacted to the planned appeal by the Jewish community by claiming that the AMIA leaders didn’t want the case to advance.
Hours after the memorandum was signed between the Argentine government and Iran, American Committee Executive Director David Harris issued a press release in which he declared that “the idea of establishing a Truth Commission on the AMIA tragedy that involves the Iranian regime would be like asking Nazi Germany to help establish the facts of Kristallnacht.”
Argentina has refused to respond to an Israeli request for clarification on the Iranian pact. According to Timerman, “Israel has no standing in this case because no Israeli citizens were killed in the AMIA attack.”
On February 13, during the first day of testimony to the Argentine Congress, Timerman said dealing with Iran was not “pleasant,” adding that the government’s goal was to advance the AMIA case. “We want to know the truth about the attack,” he said.
The day after the testimony, in a radio interview, Timerman said, “I did not meet with the Iranians to discuss the Holocaust; I met with them to solve the AMIA case. If I have the opportunity to talk with them about the Holocaust, they will know what my opinion is.”
In Buenos Aires, on February 15, 300 people attended a rally against cooperation with Iran in investigating the bombing.
This year will see the judgment in the case of Argentine suspects involved in the coverup of the AMIA. The case has gone through years of tortuous meanderings, including the indictment, because of irregularities in the handling of the case, of the judge who presided over the investigation, Juan José Galeano and ex-prosecutors Eamon Mullen and José Carlos Barbaccia. The case was transferred to Federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral.
Others indicted because of the irregularities in the investigation are Argentina’s former secretary of intelligence Hugo Anzorregui and intelligence agency officer Patrick Finn.
A former Jewish leader, Ruben Ezra Beraja, who once headed DAIA, was among those indicted for bribery during the first part of the investigation, and a verdict will be handed down in his case this year too.
The position of current leaders about the past DAIA leader’s responsibility in the irregularities of the investigation seems to be another source of tension in the Jewish community.
On April 15, Federal Judge María Biotti recused herself from ruling whether the accord between Argentina and Iran on the 1994 AMIA bombing is unconstitutional after a request filed by both AMIA and DAIA. Four days later, Judge Canicoba Corral also recused himself, leaving the Supreme Court to rule whether the agreement with the Iranians is unconstitutional or not.
After the bombing, Argentina’s Jewish community organization, AMIA, adopted a higher profile in Argentine society and is influential in local politics. AMIA had 13,700 members in 2002 and in the past 10 years its membership has more than doubled. “We have experienced unprecedented growth in the last decade, and estimate that as of this year we will have 32,000 members,” Gabriel Scherman, Director of the Membership Department of AMIA, relates to The Report.
The increasing visibility, membership and budgets could explain the unprecedented interest and the high number of candidates running in the long-delayed election for president, which took place on April 7.
The election marked a new record of participation: 14,582 people voted, almost 50 percent more than two years ago. The Religious United Bloc (BUR) and the Community Front were frontrunners to form the new administration, which will govern AMIA until 2016. Both parties are united against the pact with Iran.
The Religious United Bloc (BUR) and Plural Action, which came second in the election, have opposing views on core issues such as conversion, mixed marriage and the type of Jewish education that AMIA should support. Plural Action accused BUR of discriminating against secular Jews, while the Religious United Front accused the secular groups of excluding Orthodox Jews.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community continues to expand. Last January, the Wolfsohn School, a Jewish school founded in 1906, began the construction of a $3 million extension to its campus. Tarbut, which founded the first Jewish trilingual (Spanish, Hebrew and English) school in 1961, is also expanding.
Enrollment has increased by almost 50 percent over the past 10 years, and the school now numbers over 1,400 students.
“We estimate a population of 1,650 students in 2016,” Norma Goldman, Director of Tarbut High School, tells The Report. Similarly, during the last decade, registration at another Jewish school, the ORT Argentine School, grew 30 percent and rose to 8,400 students.
The local Jewish social scene is also a lively one, with innovative ideas and programs, which, for example, help young Jews find life partners. One of these initiatives has been run since 1995 by Rabbi Shlomo Levy, who organizes courses, seminars and weekend trips. “In our first four years, I married 15 couples, and 250 since then. If we add the people who meet at our activities and are married by rabbis in other communities, that number would rise to 1,000,” Levy tells The Report.
Levy´s matchmaking talent is well known all over Argentina and neighboring countries.
At his last get-together in August 2012, there were 275 young people in attendance, from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Israel and the US.
Young people and families participate in sports, cultural, and social activities at institutions, usually during the weekends.
Sports organizations like Maccabi and Hebraica have maintained their memberships in the last years, while Cissab has attracted new ones, especially from the middle class.
In 2013, Cissab reached an organizational record of more than 3,800 members, more than double its numbers in 1990.
The increased participation of Jews in social activities may be attributed to the recent economic boom that Argentina has experienced following the economic collapse of 2001. “The economic recovery of the country positively affects Jewish life, programs and institutions,” Fabian Triskier, Director of JDC in Latin America explains to The Report.
In recent years, international Jewish organizations have become more involved in local Jewish activities, deciding to hold meetings in Buenos Aires. In November 2011, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors met in Argentina – the first time in 15 years that its summit was held outside of Israel. In December 2011, Bnai B’rith International held its International Policy Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay – the first time the international event was held in Latin America.
While the biggest Jewish community in Latin America is enjoying economic and institutional expansion, a secular versus Orthodox divide is growing, and the community is increasingly at odds with the government over the agreement with Iran on the AMIA bombing issue. 