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In the Wake of Death and Destruction, Argentine Jewry Faces Dramatic Changes

Nothing will ever be the same for Argentina’s Jews after last week’s bomb attack on the community’s headquarters.

On Monday, when the winter holiday is over, children were scheduled to return to school, and pupils at Jewish schools were to face tighter security than ever before.

For the first time, police cars are being stationed at the school doors, and as the children go inside, their school bags are being examined one by one.

And parents will soon hold assemblies in Jewish schools and clubs to decide what additional measures should be taken to beef up security.

Diana Katz, the mother of a girl who goes to the Scholem Aleijem School in Buenos Aires, said she will send her daughter to a non-Jewish school next year.

“I cannot live in fear. You never know what murderers may do,” she said.

But Juana Kilzi, whose two grandchildren also go to a Jewish school, thought otherwise.

“We must not creep into basements” out of fear, she said.

But fear was nonetheless felt by many here in the wake of the July 18 bomb blast, which completely leveled a seven-story building housing the Jewish Kehilla, or Jewish community organizations.

The bomb struck one of the community’s most important addresses. The building housed the DAIA, the umbrella organization of Argentine Jewry; the AMIA, the community’s 100-year-old main social service agency for the poor and aged; a library of YIVO, the Jewish Research Institute; the archives on Jewish life in Argentina; and the Jewish Community Council, among other organizations.

At least 59 people are known to have died in the blast, and Jewish leaders are saying the toll may rise as high as 100. The blast echoed the one that demolished the Israeli Embassy here in March 1992. No one was ever tried for that attack, which killed 30 and injured 250.

‘NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE’

Ruben Beraja, president of the DAIA, has announced that Israeli companies and experts will be engaged to provide security for the 200 Jewish institutions in the country.

“We will have to invest millions of dollars to carry out this transformation, but we have no other alternative,” Beraja said.

Delia Dordon, the headmistress of a Jewish school, explained what her first security measures will be.

“Even the crates with vegetables we receive will be opened. We will ask the janitors of the neighboring houses to cooperate so that no unfamiliar cars are allowed into garages. We will study the history of each one of the persons that we hire.

“Parking will be prohibited on the block where Jewish institutions are located, and every school and club will be searched four times daily, inch by inch,” she said.

In spite of all the fears and difficulties with security, the Jewish community has made a unanimous decision: All Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires will open their doors for business as usual this week.

The Jewish resolve was bolstered after more than 150,000 people gathered last week in the city’s Congress Square to repudiate the act of terror that had claimed so many lives.

The July 21 rally, occurring three days after the bombing took place, was described as the largest mass demonstration to take place in Argentina in the last 10 years.

Six blocks in one direction, two in the other, three blocks behind the platform, shoulder to shoulder, Argentineans from all walks of life stood, mostly silent, many under umbrellas, in a cold and steady rain.

‘TODAY WE ARE ALL JEWS’

Banners of extraordinary length reading “Hoy somos todos Judios” — “Today we are all Jews” — were unfurled above the heads of scores of demonstrators.

Posters proclaiming the rally and urging all to attend and “stand up against violence” had been placed in stores throughout Buenos Aires.

“The trade unions collectively called for a work stoppage so that people could come to this event,” according to Jason Isaacson, an American Jewish Committee official who had flown here to express solidarity with Argentine Jews.

The Argentine government was shut down that day at 2 p.m. by presidential decree so that people could attend the rally, which began at 3:30 local time and lasted 90 minutes.

While the entire Jewish community seemed to be there, they were nonetheless outnumbered by non-Jews, and were joined by scores of Jews from other countries.

The crowd first sang the Argentine national anthem. Then came “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, though most in the crowd were not able to participate.

Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for AJCommittee, attended the rally with Jacobo Kovadloff, an Argentinean who represented AJCommittee in Argentina until 1973.

Isaacson, who had never been in Argentina, found a country in mourning.

But he said he was deeply moved that the news of the bombing was being covered by all newspapers, with pages upon pages of text and photos and editorials.

Watching all the banners proclaiming “Today we are all Jews,” Isaacson said he felt that “today I am an Argentinean.”

Roxana Rizzo, a young Catholic girl in the crowd, had a Magen David pinned to her chest, because, as she explained, “Today I’m also Jewish.”

Close by, Yang Baek, a Protestant woman from Korea, carried a sign in her own language, which she translated: “Let’s clean up the garbage.”

“We Koreans have also closed our shops today. In the Once district (the city’s traditional Jewish neighborhood), the Jews are our neighbors and we get along fine,” Yang said.

Argentina’s president, Carlos Menem, who has a friendly relationship with the Jewish community, was booed when he appeared. He did not address the rally, but other government figures and Jewish leaders did.

Many in the Jewish community here believe that the government has not done enough to protect Jewish institutions. They remember the failure of the government investigation into the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy that killed 30 people. Many believe that if the terrorists had been found, this latest attack would not have occurred.

Beraja of the DAIA reflected this feeling when he spoke at the rally:

“Terror comes to those societies where justice is weak and where the systems for prevention and punishment are not efficient,” he said.

Meanwhile, the survivors of the attack and the relatives of the dead and missing await an explanation.

Salomon Belgorovski is still searching for a reason for the death of his wife, Dorita.

Belgorovski, who worked in the treasury department of the community building, jumped into the inner yard when he felt the floor move, the furniture fly and the ceiling collapse.

He called out to his wife, who also worked in the building, but there was no answer.

Rosa Montagno, pregnant with her third child and on her way to the doctor, passed the ill-fated building just as the blast occurred. Her 6-year-old son, Sebastian, was killed instantly. Montagno is recovering in the hospital.

Perhaps the most dramatic story was that of Jacobo Chemanuel, the man in charge of the building’s coffee shop.

A NATIONAL OBSESSION

Twelve hours after the attack, firemen heard his voice under the rubble. Saving his life became a national obsession as his rescue was broadcast live. Removing stones and beams to reach him, firemen made a tunnel to put coffee within his reach and talked to him so he wouldn’t fall asleep.

A full 31 hours later, Chemanuel was rescued and rushed to the hospital to undergo two operations. Later his right foot was amputated. But with it all, Chemanuel, a diabetic with a heart condition, was fighting against the odds. His heart failed and Chemanuel died last Friday afternoon.

In a search for answers to the tragedy, Isaacson and Kovadloff of AJCommittee met last Friday with leaders of Jewish groups, Israeli Embassy personnel and with Argentine Foreign Minister Guido di Tella and Interior Minister Carlos Ruckauff.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, a New York activist and the leader of AMCHA-Coalition of Jewish Concerns, held a private meeting with Menem last Friday and encouraged the Argentine president to apprehend the perpetrators as quickly as possible to avoid a similar tragedy in the future, he said in a statement.

When Isaacson asked if the attack could have involved tie-ins among former Nazis who found haven in Argentina and other South American countries, neo-Nazis and Islamic extremist groups, he was told: “It’s a possibility.”

The Jewish leaders were also told it was possible that Muslim extremist groups were operating in Argentina.

A southern Lebanon-based Islamic group, calling itself the Supporters of God, has claimed responsibility for the July 18 attack.

Little is known about this organization, but the group reportedly issued a statement three months ago from the Lebanese town of Sidon promising all-out war against Israel.

If their claim proves true, it would bear out Israel’s assertion last week that a Middle East terror group was behind the bombing.

Isaacson said he was told by many that “Argentina is a sieve; that it is not difficult to get either contraband or undesirables into the country and out again.”

There have been some reports from other South American countries that there were or would be attempts on Jewish or Israeli targets in the region.

Meanwhile, synagogues throughout Argentina held special services last Friday night.

Isaacson and Kovadloff attended one service at a Conservative synagogue, Beth El in Buenos Aires, where about 1,500 people were packed in and spilling out onto the street.

Isaacson said, “While we were singing the Shema, there was a police helicopter beating its wings over our heads.”

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)

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