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Argentina's moment of truth

    Firefighters and rescue workers search through the rubble of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community center in 1994.
    Firefighters and rescue workers search through the rubble of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community center in 1994.

    The suspicious death of Alberto Nisman, who claimed Argentina tried to cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of a cultural centre, continues to drive a wedge between Latin America's largest Jewish community and its government.

    This week, the Jewish community of Buenos Aires boycotted a state ceremony to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, amid mounting mistrust over the Argentine government's links to the terrorist attack. Argentina's foreign ministry was due to host the memorial event, as it has done every year in recent memory. But ten days after the shock death of prosecutor Nisman, who accused the government of hiding Iran's role in the bombing, community leaders chose to hold an alternative event.

    Instead, they flocked to the AMIA centre, scene of the 1994 attack in which 85 people lost their lives and more than 200 were injured. A senior figure in the Jewish community, who asked not to be named, told me the decision was taken because Argentinian foreign minister Hector Timerman, himself Jewish, was among those accused by Nisman.

    Despite the sweltering 35 degree heat, teenagers and Holocaust survivors alike crammed into the centre's auditorium. And amid the customary speeches and songs commemorating the Shoah and marking the liberation of Auschwitz, the community voiced its intense unease over Nisman's death.

    Mario Comisarenco, treasurer of the Delegation of Israelite Associations of Argentina (DAIA) said: "In honour of the victims, we will not share a table with those who do not offer us the truth, let alone justice." His comments met with long and thunderous applause.

    Alberto Nisman
    Alberto Nisman

    Mr Nisman's body was discovered in his apartment in the seafront Puerto Madero neighbourhood on Sunday January 18. He was found next to a .22 calibre Bersa pistol, with a gunshot wound to the temple, in an apparent suicide.

    His death came just hours before he was due to present to politicians serious allegations against the regime of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. He claimed that a 2013 'Memorandum of Understanding' between Argentina and Iran to investigate the bombings was a sham, masking a backroom conspiracy to cover up Tehran's role in the atrocity.

    In exchange, he alleged, Iran agreed to a trade deal under which it would swap oil for Argentine grain and meats. Nisman's death, before he had the chance to elaborate on his accusations, stunned a community that was looking to him to end a 20-year wait for justice.

    Now mistrust of the Argentine government is mounting, particularly after President Kirchner initially claimed that Nisman had committed suicide, only to reverse her position just days later. In a symbolic gesture, senior figures in the Jewish community this week agreed that Nisman can be buried in the Cementerio de Tablada, alongside the victims of the bombing. If it was at all credible that he killed himself, local sources said, he would have to be buried at the side of the cemetery, to reflect the Torah teaching that only God can take life.

    The implicit belief that he was murdered tallies with broader opinion among Argentinians, 70 per cent of whom think Nisman was assassinated, according to an IPSOS poll. Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American branch of the World Jewish Congress, says: ''Argentina needs to make a big effort to preserve institutions like justice. If there is no justice, then there will be impunity for both the AMIA attack and the death of Nisman.''

    Anita Weinstein, director of the Federation of Jewish Communities at AMIA, survived the 1994 bombing only because she went to speak to a colleague at the back of the building. The security guards and receptionists she greeted moments earlier upon arriving were all killed.

    The death of Nisman has brought back intense emotions from the aftermath of that tragedy. "The day that I found out [about Nisman] was for me like going back to 1994," she told me. "The sadness and uneasiness, not knowing where you are standing, how safe you are. For me the most important thing is to renew our remembrance that this attack, the killing of 85 people, has not been solved."

    Like many prominent figures in Argentina's 200,000-strong Jewish community, she is reluctant to criticise the Kirchner government directly. But she is plainly frustrated by the fact that nobody has been brought to justice two decades after the attack.

    President Kirchner's government has done little so far to soothe concerns, its response ranging from the bizarre to the outright sinister. Having claimed he committed suicide, Kirchner than changed her mind before her this week's speculation that Mr Nisman's death was likely to an attempt by elements of the secret service to smear her government. Mr Nisman had been fed misinformation by rogue security agents, she said, as part of a plot to destabilise her regime.

    The behaviour of some of her allies has been even less dignified. Less than three days after Mr Nisman's death, a painted message appeared on a Buenos Aires wall, purporting to be written by the Kirchner-friendly Movimiento Evita (Evita Movement). It simply read 'Nisman la tenes adentro' - 'Up yours, Nisman'.

    Nor has the Kirchner government done much to show that it poses no threat to those who hold it to account. Damian Pachter, the journalist who first broke the news of Nisman's death, this week fled to Israel, where he holds citizenship, yet the Government's Twitter account published details of his flight number and supposed date of return to Argentina, an illegal act that has put his life in danger.

    The Jewish community has made clear that the Argentinian government must think very carefully about its current behaviour and its next steps. But despite the pleas of Argentinian Jews for truth and justice, President Kirchner's regime has shown little appetite for either.

    Little surprise, then, that the mood here is so bleak.

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