There has been a great welcome for the new Pope from Jewish groups. They point to his good relationship with Jews — “our elder brother” — and his strong condemnation of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires. He has even co-authored a book with a rabbi that will appear in English shortly. And yet there have been critical voices, some Jewish, asking “what did you do during the dirty war, Holy Father?”
Following a military coup in 1976, the generals tortured, murdered and terrorised in the name of God and Christian civilisation. Their victims ranged from the far left to liberals and human-rights advocates. Around 10,000 — almost certainly a conservative estimate — were apprehended and disappeared, never to be seen again. Some were drugged and dropped by aircraft out at sea. Pregnant women were allowed to give birth, killed and their newborns given to “good” military families. This will be painfully familiar to anyone who has read Jacobo Timmerman’s famous book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number or the report of Argentina’s national commission into the fate of the disappeared, suitably entitled Nunca Mas — “Never Again”.
It is estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of the victims were Jews, from the assimilated to the committed. Yet Jews represented only one per cent of the population. They were targeted because they were intellectuals and urbanised — and because of a belief in a Judeo-Marxist conspiracy on the one hand and a hatred towards “rich Jews” on the other.
Numerous studies show that Jews were treated far worse than non-Jews in the Junta’s torture chambers. Some posed as Catholics to avoid taunts that “Jews would be turned into soap”. Some successfully gave false names — Zaidman became Zapata, Esther became Maria. The son of the head of Buenos Aires community was kidnapped following statements condemning official antisemitism by his father, returned to his family (only with the probable intervention of the US Secretary of State) bearing the marks of a brutal beating. The 16-year-old daughter of the Cordoba community leader, however, did not return. US Jewish organisations made contingency plans for a mass evacuation of 300,000 Jews. The US State department was ready to issue 100,000 visas to Jewish refugees.
Although Catholic clergymen were among the victims, the leadership of the church in Argentina was at best apathetic and at worse complicit. This contrasted dramatically with the Catholic Church in Chile after the Pinochet coup. The local cardinal formed an inter-faith group including representatives of the Jewish community, which protected many people and helped them leave the country.
The Pope’s legacy is a heavy burden
In the 1980s, Emilio Mignone, whose daughter “disappeared”, wrote Iglesia y Dictadura, a scathing, bitter indictment that documented the indifference of many in the Catholic church in Argentina.
In 2005, the Jewish writer, Horacio Verbitsky, published El Silencio — the name of a small island where the military built a holding camp for prisoners and where the only substantial building was the summer residence of the then Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Its sub-title was (Pope) “Paul VI to Bergoglio”. The latter is now Pope Francis I and opinion is strongly divided regarding his apparent inaction during those dark years. In contrast, the revered US Conservative rabbi Marshall Mayer, 25 years a rabbi in Buenos Aires, spoke out and campaigned openly.
The generals exalted their faith, but the church fathers were muted in their response. No calls for excommunication. No appeals to good Catholics to obey God instead. No protests, no hunger strikes, just the abandonment of the doomed. The Pope has inherited the legacy of those times, regardless of his own conduct. It is a heavy burden to carry.