The Nisman Mystery Has Left Argentine Jews Divided and Embittered
Who can forgive the unexplained death of the man who indicted Argentina’s president and foreign minister for protecting Iranians who slaughtered Jews? There are a few.
BUENOS AIRES — The tragedies began with bombings more than two decades ago: the blowing up of the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992, then the blast that killed 85 people at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in 1994. They went on through the mysterious death just last month of the prosecutor investigating the AMIA atrocities (some have called him the 86th victim) and the inquiries into what may have been his suicide, or his murder. Taken together, the scandals of blood and conspiracy represent a kind of perfect storm for Argentina’s important, embattled Jewish community.
Most of the AMIA victims, and most of the several hundred wounded, were Jews. Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, although not known to be observant, was the son of Sara Garfunkel and Isaac Nisman, and was buried in a strictly halakhic ceremony in La Tablada, the massive Jewish cemetery just outside Buenos Aires.
Héctor Timerman, the Argentine foreign minister whom Nisman implicated, in a massive cover-up of Iran's hand in the crime, alongside President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is not only Jewish, but the son of the famous newspaperman Jacobo Timerman, who was tortured by the Argentine junta in the 1970s before being exiled to Israel. The president often mentions Timerman on her Facebook page as one "who professes the Jewish faith," a statement that may well unnerve the minister who absolutely does not say such things about himself.
Damian Pachter, the young journalist who broke the story of Nisman's death and was hounded out of Argentina after several threats (he also has ended up in Israel) is, you guessed it, Jewish.
And what about Viviana Fein, the much mocked prosecutor assigned to investigate Nisman's mysterious death, at age 51, of a single bullet to the head? Yup. Jewish. She attends the Hacoaj Jewish social club.
You might be lulled into thinking that Argentina was filled with Jews, but that is not the case. They number about 200,000, less than 0.5 percent of the Argentine population of 41 million. As such, it is the seventh largest Jewish community on earth.
There have been Jews in Argentina since the time of the Inquisition, but the community such as it exists today has been in place for over 150 years. It is large enough to post an attractive target for attack, but small enough to feel exposed within a country that may be coming apart at the seams.
In much the same way Nisman's death has laid bare previously concealed cracks in the national fabric, so too has it revealed cleavages among the Jews. There are those, a majority (like a majority of Argentines), who have refused to accept the government's unsubstantiated contention that Nisman killed himself. There are others, a vocal minority, who support the president's claim that she is, in fact, the victim of an attempted "soft coup," that Nisman's sudden disappearance from the scene and the subsequent protests are directed against her.
There are two principal organizing bodies for Argentine Jews: AMIA, which is responsible for internal communal needs such as education, weddings and burial, and DAIA, the Delegation of Argentina, that operates as a political body representing the community.
Both leadership bodies reacted ambivalently to Nisman's announcement of charges against the government, four days before he died. Caution was the rule as they simply didn't react, avoiding any statement that might indicate either support or opposition to the charges. But, quietly, they met with Nisman, and maintained contact unto his last hours. They planned on being present when, the Monday morning after his Sunday death, he was scheduled to provide detailed testimony to a congressional committed, including evidence gathered from wiretaps.
The caution was similar after Nisman was found dead; in fact, Jewish communal leaders seem to have miscalculated the public sentiment at first. As 70,000 people gathered more or less spontaneously in protest at the Plaza de Mayo, across from the Argentine seat of government, Jewish leaders kept their own counsel—and organized their own, separate commemoration in a traditionally Jewish neighborhood.
But something has cracked. By the time it came time to join—or not—the historic Silent March on Wednesday, one month after Nisman's death, communal leaders had become sharply critical of the government. "We're not going to let another prosecutor die, or be attacked, or be submitted to someone else's rules," said Julio Schlosser, DAIA's president. "We want the truth."
Waldo Wolff, Schlosser's deputy, has veered even further from the standard institutional line, going so far as to engage in Twitter wars with the presidential secretary, Anibal Fernández. Indeed, Wolff has emerged from anonymity to become one of the most vociferous figures on television and radio.
To such an extent has Wolff’s voice been heard that an opposing group of about 300 Jewish intellectuals, political pundits, artists and lefty journalists has taken out newspaper ads proclaiming their disagreement.
“I don't understand why they've chosen this exact moment to take up these positions," Schlosser told The Daily Beast. "I don't know what is moving them, but these aren't people who have come to talk or explain their doubts and concerns.”
Behind this new group is one Jorge Elbaum, a sociologist who not only identifies as a pro-Kirchner activist but is also Argentina's appointed delegate to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Before that, he served in the DAIA executive committee for seven years before being dismissed when accused of transmitting institutional information to the government.
Since Nisman's death, Cristina Kirchner has made numerous missteps for which Argentine Jews seem to have little patience. In one exquisitely Freudian moment, she referred to AMIA as an Israeli organization. In a confused statement, her foreign minister, Timerman, actually accused the United States and Israel of involvement in the AMIA bombing itself, or possibly in Nisman's demise.
In a bizarre letter he sent to Secretary of State John Kerry and Israelis Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and which he read aloud, Timerman announced that “Argentina is observing with great concern the increasing frequency with which many countries are used as stages for the intervention of other states to set out disputes in function of their own geopolitical interests. My country rejects these actions and tries to ensure they do not happen in its territory.”
Wolff, among others, has gone ballistic. In one of his kinder tweets he said Argentine government officials reminded him of kapos—the Nazi functionaries in concentration camps. In another, he called out the government for the "paradox" of marking Argentine Jews as foreign implants and economic powers, "just like National Socialism."
Kirchner's Peronist party has an ugly history of assembling "representative" Jews to tout its own positions when communal institutions refused to endorse them. The government of Juan Domingo Perón created the Organization Israelita Argentina (OIA) in 1947 when DAIA saw him as a fascist and a Nazi sympathizer. This body collapsed when Perón was overthrown in 1955.
In Buenos Ares, comparisons between Perón’s OIA the new (and as yet unnamed) Jewish body represented by the 300 signatories of the newspapers ads are constant, as are the mentions that on December 10, 2015, when Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner leaves office, the 300 gathered pro-Kirchenrite Jews will lose all government support.