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Behind the Headlines: a Changed Argentine Jewry Faces Bombing Anniversary

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In a sad and nervous mood, the Argentine Jewish community is preparing to mark the first anniversary of the bombing that destroyed the main building of AMIA, the Argentine Jewish Mutual-Aid Association.

On July 18, 1994, a powerful bomb destroyed the 6-story building on Pasteur Street, in downtown Buenos Aires, killing 86 people and wounding at least 300.

To mark the incident, Jewish community authorities will unveil a memorial monument at La Tablada cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in South America, on July 16.

The memorial will stand by other monuments in the cemetery commemorating Holocaust victims and fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.

On the anniversary itself, there will be three main events. At 9:50 a.m., the exact time of the explosion a year ago, a ceremony will remember he victims at the site on Pasteur Street.

At 6 p.m., there will be a demonstration at a nearby square. All major Jewish organizations and groups as well as most Argentine political parties are calling on “all Argentines to attend and demand that justice be done.”

Later that evening there will be a memorial service at the Liberty Street Synagogue, the largest in Buenos Aires.

Besides these main events, there will be dozens others, because most Jewish community groups in the country are planning some form of commemoration.

But as the commemorations approach, Argentine Jews cannot hide a sense of despair and helplessness that after one year, the investigation has yielded only four arrests and no conclusive explanation of the bombing.

President Carlos Menem’s government has so far failed to get beyond accusing second-hand car dealer Carlos Alberto Telleldin of providing the van used as a car bomb, and arresting three others as alleged accomplices. And three of these occurred only recently.

Although Argentina denounced Iran as being behind the bombing and downgraded its diplomatic representation in Teheran, Menem’s government has not sustained the charges with any evidence.

The recent arrest of seven Lebanese nationals and a Brazilian citizen in Ciudad del Este, a notorious smuggling point in eastern Paraguay, has also not yielded any new information.

Paraguayan authorities have spent the last seven months considering Argentina’s petition to extradite the eight suspects for interrogation.

Argentine Judge Roberto Marquevich accuses the Lebanese and the Brazilians of being linked to a neo-Nazi cell in Buenos Aires. Marquevich has said there is evidence of “possible links between this cell and the AMIA bombing,” but refused to discuss details.

The AMIA bombing was the worst attack in history against the 230,000-strong Argentine Jewish community.

In the wake of the attack, Jewish institutions, synagogues and schools have set up tight security systems to prevent future bombings.

The buildings are marked by Belfast-style anti-car bomb concrete fences, closed circuit TV cameras and private security personnel.

And behind bullet-proof windows and reinforced concrete walls, Jewish life in Argentina has changed.

The possibility of a third bombing in Buenos Aires — after the 1992 destruction of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of AMIA — makes Jews feel that their open and integrated way of life also fell victim to the bombs.

“It used to be that you did not feel different from other Argentines,” said an Argentine Jewish woman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Most people still don’t treat you any different on a personal level. But as a community, Jews are perceived by many as a potential problem,” she said.

“People don’t want to live near a Jewish institution, and we have metal detectors at my daughter’s school. It is all very sad,” she said.

Most Jews here agree they do not feel threatened by fellow Argentines, and security measures are limited to community buildings, not private homes. And there has not been an upsurge of anti-Semitic acts during the past year.

But on the whole, Argentine Jews do not appear to trust their government to solve the case and capture the bombers.

“The important issue is not to prove if Iran was or wasn’t behind the bombing,” said Horacio Lutzky, news director of Alef Network, the first Jewish cable TV station in Argentina, and former editor of Nueva Sion magazine.

“What really matters is to find the local connection, those who provided intelligence, safe houses and support for the bombers,” he said.

“I think they are former security agents that worked for Argentina’a military dictators in the ’70s and early ’80s,” he said, adding. “They are torturers and fascists who keep up very good contacts in the police and security agencies. And, you know, fascists don’t go after fascists.”

Ruben Beraja, president of DAIA, the umbrella Jewish political organization, has so far not been openly critical of the government’s handling of the case. But he, too, seems to be growing impatient.

In the past year, Beraja publicly spoke of “the importance of having our institutions doing their work, investigating and finding the culprits.”

Beraja consistently refused to support those who hinted about the complicity of police and security agencies in the bombing.

“I know there are anti-Semites and people with Nazi sympathies in their ranks,” he said recently, “but I think there are many other decent and law-abiding policemen and agents who want to solve the case.”

But in a recent news conference, Beraja hinted at a change in his position.

“We were told that there will be major breakthroughs in the coming two or three months,” he said to an assembly to foreign and Argentine journalists.

“If that time goes by without further developments, we will denounce the situation here and abroad,” he warned.

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