BUENOS AIRES (Jul. 21)
Bitter memories and angry recriminations against the Argentine government characterized the solemn ceremonies held here to commemorate the victims of the 1994 terror bombing of the Jewish community’s headquarters.
The still-fresh feelings of grief and sharp calls for justice were joined by the fear among Argentina’s 250,000 Jews, the world’s seventh-largest Diaspora community and the largest in South America, that they could again become the target of terrorists.
Thousands of Argentines turned out last week to mark the second anniversary of the July 18, 1994, attack on the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association, also known as AMIA, that left 86 dead and more than 300 wounded.
Israeli officials and American and Canadian Jewish leaders participated in the two July 18 ceremonies. They joined in the sorrowful remembrance and in the searing criticism of the way the government has handled the investigation.
The anniversary was also remembered in the Israeli Knesset and in the halls of the U.S. Congress, where 42 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter calling on Argentine President Carlos Menem “to redouble your government’s efforts in this task” of apprehending those behind the bombing.
In an action coinciding with the anniversary, the American Jewish Committee issued an investigative report on the bombing that roundly criticized the Argentine government’s handling of the AMIA investigation.
The report cited incompetence, corruption and anti-Semitism among security and government officials as causes for the Argentine judiciary’s inability to solve the case.
Despite a much-publicized series of raids and arrests, Argentina has failed to find those responsible for carrying out the AMIA bombing.
Although it denounced Iran for backing the attack, the Argentine government also failed to prove Iranian involvement, the report charged.
The government has likewise failed to find those responsible for the March 17, 1992, bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which left 29 dead and some 100 wounded.
These failures, and the feeling that justice for the AMIA bombing victims may never be achieved, pervaded last week’s commemorations.
Some 2,500 people gathered last week at the site of the bombing on Pasteur Street by 9:53 a.m., the exact time of the explosion.
A shofar was sounded; emotions reached a peak when Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the recently retired leader of the American Reform movement, read Kaddish for the victims.
Also present at the commemoration was a delegation of American Jewish officials who were participating in the biennial meeting of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.
The Americans joined Argentines in lighting candles for each of the 86 victims of the bombing.
In the afternoon, more than 10,000 people gathered on Pasteur Street for a second ceremony.
Stretched across the street was a banner that read, “No to Impunity, Yes to Justice.”
Oscar Hansman, the new president of AMIA, said his organization “will not cease to seek justice until the last link in the chain of crime and complicity is exposed.”
“Almost all voices claiming for justice in Argentina are Jewish,” said Hansman, “and that worries and scares me.”
“People seem not to understand that the massacre took place at the AMIA building, but the victims were fellow citizens who were not solely Jews,” he said.
“We ask the government to solve the AMIA case in order to give all Argentines a sense of security. We ask our fellow Argentines to stop being indifferent, to abandon their sense of neutrality.”
Jewish leaders read a message from the Knesset that expressed solidarity with Argentine Jews.
“We hope that the culprits are caught,” read the message, “and that their capture exposes the forces of darkness that attack Jewish institutions the world over.”
Diana Malamud, who lost her husband in the bombing, spoke on behalf of the relatives of the victims.
“State-sponsored violence was reinforced by impunity and by the indifference of this government,” Malamud said.
“How can I explain to my daughters that their father was murdered two years ago and so few seem to care?
“We now know that the Argentine government lacks the political will to solve this case.”
Malamud listed instances of police neglect, incompetence and corruption in the handling of the case.
“But it took two years to finally investigate the police,” Malamud said, referring to the recent arrests of 18 Buenos Aires police officers on charges authorities hope to connect to the blast.
Also among the speakers was Ruben Beraja, president of the Argentine Jewish umbrella organization DAIA.
Visibly shaken by the emotional tone of Malamud’s words, Beraja called the terrorists that bombed AMIA “this country’s enemies.”
“Iran is behind this bombing. The Iranian Embassy here is behind this bombing – – the same embassy that threatens Argentine Jewish officials with violence if we don’t stop denouncing Islamic terrorism.”
Israel’s ambassador to Argentina, Itzhak Aviran, said there was “no longer any optimism about finding those responsible, because we have already been waiting two years to find out something about AMIA and over four for something about the embassy bombers.”
In its report, “Waiting for Justice, Two Years After the AMIA Bombing,” the AJCommittee cited high levels of corruption and incompetence among Argentina’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Evidence has surfaced that the police may have been involved in the selling of the van used in the AMIA car bombing attack, the report said, adding that some suspects have evaded arrest because they were tipped off by police officers.
The report also charged that anti-Semitism may have also played a part in the government’s fruitless investigations.
While stressing that Argentina is predominantly a tolerant country, the report said that “the military, the police and the intelligence services have shown high levels of bigotry, anti-Semitism and rejection of democratic values.”
A notable case, according to the report, was Justice Minister Rodolfo Barra, who was working closely on the AMIA case and who resigned earlier this month in the wake of reports about his past involvement with a violent anti-Semitic group.
Citing the exposure of Barra’s past, B’nai B’rith President Tommy Baer last week sent a letter to Menem calling for the investigation and removal of any government official who has associated with extremist groups.
Given the inadequacy of Argentina’s security forces, along with the need to upgrade security at the country’s borders, the AJCommittee report found that the local Jewish community’s fears of another terrorist attack are fully justified.
Those fears have prompted the community to seek added security for their institutions and schools, where private guards and police, along with concrete sidewalk barriers to prevent car bombings, are now a common sight.
The new AMIA building, already under construction, is being built with an eye toward future security precautions.
It will be set a few yards from the sidewalk behind a reinforced wall; the front of the building will have small windows, and they will be found only after the third story. A security checkpoint, with bulletproof glass and automatic doors, will be built at the entrance.
(JTA intern Heather Camlot in New York contributed to this report.)