Around the Jewish World Argentine Jews Grill Candidates on Bombing Investigations, Economy

As Argentines prepare to choose a new president on April 27, the country’s Jews want to know how the candidates will bring to justice the perpetrators of two anti-Semitic terrorist attacks in the 1990s.

After the dream of prosperity in the early 1990s, Argentines in recent years have seen their society crash as a consequence of public debts, corruption, recession, devaluation and inflation.

The official unemployment rate now stands at 23 percent, though in reality it is believed to be much higher. More than half of the country’s 36 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, which is defined as a monthly income of $250 for a family of four.

In this scenario, 35,000 Argentine Jews — of an estimated 200,000 total — are receiving social assistance from the Jewish community. Formerly middle-class Jews are now impoverished, forced to reduce their consumption of basic items and unable to pay health insurance, school fees or electric bills.

In addition, they are losing their houses as banks call in mortgages.

Five of the 19 candidates have a realistic shot at becoming president, according to opinion polls. Three of them have Peronist roots: former President Carlos Menem; Nestor Krichner, governor of Santa Cruz province; and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, the former governor of San Luis province, who served for a week as a caretaker president when the economic crisis first exploded in December 2001.

The other two represent new political forces: Elisa Carrio from Alternative for Equality, or ARI, and Ricardo Lopez Murphy, from Recreate for Development.

Menem is considered the front-runner, though President Eduardo Duhalde’s support is expected to help Krichner. No candidate is expected to receive enough votes to avoid a runoff — and no single candidate has the fractured Jewish vote.

To learn more about the candidates’ positions, DAIA, the political umbrella organization of the Jewish community, invited each candidate to present his or her ideas to Jewish leaders and answer their questions.

In addition to questions about how to resurrect the economy and improve security and education, Jewish leaders wanted to know how the candidates would guarantee the sentencing of those who participated in the terrorist attacks against the AMIA Jewish communal institution in 1994 and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992.

Community members also asked about candidates’ positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war against Iraq.

Each candidate said he or she wanted to continue with the attack investigation until the guilty parties are sentenced.

But members of the Jewish community are skeptical.

“Since 1992 and up to now, the state has not had the will to know who masterminded the attacks and who executed them, and a will to have all these people sentenced according to the law,” Mario Ringler, president of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, told JTA. “Personally, I don’t think new candidates will change this.”

Javier Ojman, who belongs to Chabad Lubavitch and works at its Youth Center, said there is no chance for complete justice after so many years without a proper investigation.

“It’s just so difficult to find proof that was lost then,” Ojman said.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent questions on the Middle East and the Iraq war to candidates a few weeks ago.

Both Menem and Rodriguez Saa said they did not have time to attend the DAIA meetings.

Menem was president when the terrorist attacks took place and recently was accused of receiving a $10 million bribe to cover up Iranian participation in the bombing. He has denied the allegations, calling them politically motivated.

“He might be afraid of a hostile reaction from the Jewish community,” a DAIA official said of Menem’s refusal to appear before the group.

Ringler characterized Menem’s period in office, from 1989 to 1999, as “a fantastic virtual festival” in which people thought it was possible to survive without working.

When that dream melted, the middle class was especially hard hit, and the Jewish communal infrastructure was destroyed, Ringler said.

The financing of Jewish institutions — through contributions from wealthy Jews and from banks and cooperatives related to the Jewish community — effectively ended. Wealthier Jews found themselves impoverished and banks collapsed, endangering many institutions that depended on them.

Although Ringler thinks the local Jewish community already has suffered so much that they can’t be easily shocked anymore, he is worried about emigration.

Some 6,000 Argentine Jews made aliyah in 2002, far above the level of 300 to 1,000 who moved to Israel annually during the 1990s. But Ringler is especially concerned that during the past two years, “between 15,000 and 25,000 Jews” have moved to Mexico, Spain or the United States.

Absent a meaningful economic recovery, Ringler said he doesn’t see an end to the emigration in the near future.

Roberto Nul, president of the local B’nai B’rith, is focusing on the strength of Argentine democracy in the election.

“Our democracy is looking to improve. It’s still young,” Nul said. “Every election is a good opportunity to enhance the system. And the five candidates with a chance represent a possibility to improve the country’s democracy.”

To Nul, the Jewish community has reason to be dissatisfied with Menem’s halting investigation of the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks. But Menem also took action on issues that were important to the community, opening files related to Nazis in Argentina and creating a committee to research Nazi activities in the country, he said.

Daniel Pomerantz, AMIA’s executive director, said his main concern in the election is the economic resuscitation of the middle class.

Younger Jews such as Chabad’s Ojman have low expectations for such a revival.

“I’m tired, fed up. I feel impotent,” Ojman said.

He and his new bride lost part of their savings when banks refused to allow citizens to withdraw their money after the economic meltdown began in December 2001, a step known as the “corralito.”

“I am disillusioned,” he said.

Not all young Jews are so skeptical.

Mariela Fukman, 25, is a lawyer, AMIA volunteer and coordinator of the Jewish Youth Network. The network was created in 1999 to support cultural and social activities within a Zionist framework.

“I’m scared that some anti-Semitism could follow this economic crisis and the local repercussion of Middle East conflicts,” she said. “But I feel our youth is powerful.”

The country’s young people “are under crisis and demoralized. But there is much we can do,” she said. “One of my focuses is to see how can we show more about Judaism to Argentine society. I think there is a need to spread more about who we, the Argentine Jews, are.”

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