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Special to the JTA the Jews of Argentina

The Jewish community of Argentina, as a vital and long-established part of this vast country with its troubled recent history, is sharing in the current psycho-political upheaval that is engulfing Argentina with the return of democracy after seven years of military dictatorship.

Like the rest of the nation, the Jews of Argentina follow avidly and with strong feelings of relief, tempered with national shame, the day after day discoveries of new mass graves in remote areas, yielding their gruesome contents of tortured and murdered bodies.

Informed observers estimate that a solid majority of the Jews voted for Raul Alfonsin, the Radical Party leader who swept to victory in the Presidential election on October 30, 1983. Many Jews here have always felt suspicious and fearful of Peronism.

(An important young Jewish Peronist member of Congress, Diego Guelar, warned this reporter, however, not to believe everything one is told by anti-Peronist Jews. He contended that the Peronist movement as such was never anti-Semitic, though he conceded that on its ultraright fringe there has always been a neo-fascist element.)

In a key respect, though, the Jewish community here is stirred and troubled even more than the general public over the brief and bloody history of the military dictatorship.

PROFOUND HEART SEARCHING

There is profound and at times acrimonious heart-searching within the community over the question of whether the leadership did enough to protect and save young Jews persecuted by the military.

While statistics are still sketchy and investigations and revelations continue, it is already quite clear that the Jews suffered — proportionately to their strength in the population — considerably more than other sections. There were perhaps four times as many “disappeared persons” among the Jews than among the general population.

Most Jewish observers here do not believe that people were kidnapped and killed by government thugs merely because they were Jews (though there are some Jewish and Israeli observers who are not convinced of this). But the evidence clearly shows that Jews, once incarcerated, were worse treated, more brutally tortured, than other prisoners.

And if one was Jewish, says Sofia Eppelbaum, mother of three disappeared ones, the chances of ever getting out alive were certainly slimmer.

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP FAULTED

Mrs. Eppelbaum, a leading figure in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo group, is among those Jews here who fault the community leadership for inaction during the military dictatorship. She accuses the then president of the DAIA, the representative body of Argentine Jewry, of urging Jewish organizations abroad to mute the tone of their protests and not to intervene overtly over the Jewish disappeared ones issue.

Former Argentine newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman, in his book, “Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, also faults then-DAIA president Nehemias Reznizky and the Jewish establishment here, at one point flinging out the dreadful accusation, “Judenrat.”

(The Judenrats, or Councils of Jews, were set up by the Nazis in occupied Europe and they in effect helplessly assisted the Germans in the process of ghettoization and eventual extermination. There were some Councils that, vainly tried to resist the Germans.)

In the later years of the military dictatorship, the Jewish Movement for Human Rights was set up here, led by American-Argentine Rabbi Marshall Meyer and leftist newspaper editor Herman Schiller, as a counterweight to the establishment leadership, to press persistently and vociferously on the human rights issue.

JEWISH LEADER DENIES ALLEGATIONS

Reznizky, in an interview last week, vehemently and bitterly denied the allegations against him. He argued that the DAIA, at the helm of the community, had been more active than any other sectional group in the land on behalf of the missing persons and their anguished families.

Each month, he recalled, he himself would present a list of Jewish missing persons at the Ministry of Interior. “I didn’t help much, but we kept at it. No one could help much — even the Vatican, even the French and Italian governments,” he said.

Reznizky flatly and passionately denied that he had urged Jewish organizations in the United States and elsewhere to be silent or keep a low profile. On the contrary, he said, “Whenever I was asked I told the whole truth about the terrible situation of the Jews in Argentina and I urged everyone to do what they could.”

Reznizky shows a warm and admiring letter to him, dated January 1977, from Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, director of the Latin American affairs department of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, totally scotching the suspicion that arose then that Reznizky had been cowed into passivity by the arrest and subsequent release of his own son, Marcos.

Marcos was hauled off by 12 armed men from Reznizky’s home in the dead of night. But Reznizky senior was able to intercede with the Interior Minister, General Harguindeguy, and secure his release after four days of brutal interrogation about Zionist plotting and international Jewish conspiracies.

“Yes, I know,” he says, “that other people were not able to appeal to Harguindeguy. The minister knew this case would cause an uproar, but the minister told me that my son would be freed because he was not involved in subversion — otherwise not even Harguindeguy would have helped.” After the release, Reznizky immediately sent Marcos and his other two children to Israel. Marcos still lives there.

Reznizky insists that he and the DAIA continued after this episode as before, doggedly presenting their lists of missing persons, publicly fighting against neo-Nazi literature then pouring onto the market, and generally ensuring that Jewish life, religious and communal, continued to flourish in these trying conditions.

‘EVERYONE WAS AFRAID’

A third and less subjective perspective on this poignant problem was offered to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by Jacobo Fiterman, now president of the Argentine Zionist Federation. Fiterman sympathizes with the Jewish human rights movement, but he does not dismiss or discount the efforts made by the DAIA during the bad years.

“We were afraid,” he says candidly. “But in this, the Jews were no different from the rest of the country. Everyone was afraid.”

SUB-DEBATE OVER ISRAEL’S ROLE

Complicating the controversy is a sub-debate over the role of Israel. On the one hand, Israeli diplomats and other emissaries here were active discreetly in rescuing young Jews. Hundreds were quietly flown to Israel, and even now much of the story is untold and unknown.

On the other hand, the Israel government had — and indeed still has — a close arms-supply relationship with Argentina. During the junta period, the Argentine Air Force built up a large fleet of Israeli warplanes which proved themselves convincingly in the Malvinas (Falklands) war.

There are critics here, and in Israel, too, who believe it was morally reprehensible for Israel to supply a rightist regime, with a crude anti-Semitic tinge, with military hardware. But others contend that it was the close relationship between the two countries defense establishments that enabled Israel to act quietly to save at least some endangered young Jews.

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