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Argentine Jews Glad That Menem Leaves Race, but Worry About Future

Argentine Jews are relieved by former President Carlos Menem’s decision to drop out of Sunday’s runoff election — though they’re uncertain what the rule of the presumptive winner, Nestor Kirchner, will mean for the community.Menem, who was in power from 1989 to 1999, is unpopular among Argentine Jews, primarily for his perceived reluctance to seriously investigate two major terrorist attacks on the community: the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, which killed 29; and of the AMIA Jewish community center, which left 85 dead in 1994.

Menem placed first among 18 candidates in the first round of voting on April 27, with 24 percent of the vote, followed by Kirchner with 22 percent. However, polls ahead of Sunday’s runoff showed Kirchner trouncing Menem by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent.

Menem announced his withdrawal Wednesday evening from his hometown of Anillaco, in La Rioja province, after 36 hours of rumors. In the three-minute speech, Menem said opponents had mounted a systematic slander campaign against him and accused President Eduardo Duhalde — who is backing Kirchner — of avoiding internal elections in the Peronist Party, which would have produce a single candidate for president.

Kirchner, 53, the governor of Santa Cruz province in Patagonia, will take office May 25.

Kirchner attended a forum sponsored by DAIA, the Jewish community’s political umbrella organization, before the first round of voting. Like other candidates, he said he is committed to getting to the bottom of the two terrorist attacks against Jewish institutions.

Kirchner staked out left-wing positions during the campaign, but observers say his policies during his three terms at the helm of Santa Cruz province have been fairly conservative.

Gerardo Indij, an Argentine Jewish accountant who owns a small taxi company, said he was as “scared” about the prospect of a government led by Kirchner as he was “relieved” that Menem had backed out.

“I’ve read about Kirchner and I’m aware of his authoritarian qualities,” said Indij, 36, an active member of the community. “I know he was even non-democratic, ‘buying’ the opposition and not allowing the freedom of speech.”

On the other hand, Indij said, “Kirchner would bring some renewal to Argentine politics — not only because he brings a few new faces, but also because he shows a strong willingness to renovate.”

Some members of the Jewish community said Menem’s decision generated less interest than a World Cup soccer match.

“We are used to irresponsible actions from our politicians,” law student Federico Kamelhar told JTA.

Kamelhar, 18, works as a teacher at the Hebraica club and is involved in projects of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Though he is no fan of Kirchner, Kamelhar said he never would have voted for Menem.

“As a Jew and an Argentine, I couldn’t have voted for Menem, who was so linked to terrorism,” he said. “My concern now is whether Kirchner will have enough strength to govern. Without a runoff, he won’t have all the trust that he would have had from people’s votes.”

Among his colleagues at Hebraica, Menem’s resignation “caused laughter, despite its seriousness for democracy,” Kamelhar said.

Others viewed the matter more gravely.

“If Menem knew he didn’t have enough support, why did he wait so long to resign?” asked Jorge Burkman, executive director of the local B’nai B’rith. “Anyone with democratic ideals is shocked by this carnival situation.”

But Burkman said the community was willing to give Kirchner the benefit of the doubt.

“Many Argentine Jews want to believe this new period starts us down a new route,” he said. “We’ll see what Kirchner can do.”

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