Reform rabbi sworn in to Buenos Aires council

‘Non-Jews love me more than Jews,’ says Sergio Bergman, first Jewish religious leader to assume public office in country.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Sergio Bergman 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 country.
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.
“The 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.
This 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 its institutions.”
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.
“The minute 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 community.
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 millionaires.”
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 hundreds.
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 Kirchner.
He accused the Argentinean president of being friends with Israel’s foes and defaming the opposition through her “control of the media.”
“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 Iran.”
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 religious leader.
“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.”