BUENOS AIRES, Sept. 25 (JTA) — As Argentine President Nestor Kirchner left this week for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he hoped to continue making progress on the investigation of the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ main Jewish community center. That probe, he believed, would improve relations with the country’s Jewish community, which had long complained about the government’s slow and inept investigation of the AMIA attack, which killed 85 people. But Kirchner’s trip is being overshadowed by a scandal at home involving accusations of anti-Semitism. On Aug. 13, the head of the Argentine army, Roberto Bendini, was giving a class to second-year captains at the War School. Bendini allegedly said that “small Israeli groups” disguised as tourists were planning to invade Argentina’s southern Patagonia region. Almost a month later, on Sept. 12, the local newspaper Infobae published new information about the substance of that classroom lecture, unleashing a public debate that has resisted government efforts to resolve it. The journalistic director of Infobae, Jorge Grecco, told JTA that the newspaper story was based on such materials as student notes. The Jewish community’s DAIA political umbrella organization and the AMIA Jewish community center were furious and demanded explanations from the government. Radical and Peronist party senators also demanded that the government explain Bendini’s comments. Government officials met several times with Jewish representatives and created a special commission to investigate the reports, but many have expressed their support for Bendini. The commission — coordinated by the Defense Ministry and the army — consisted of two people: Gen. Nestor Perez Vovard and the secretary of military affairs, Julian Dominguez. Perez Vovard, who was present at the Aug. 13 class, said the students’ documents analyzing Bendini’s statements had been destroyed for “security reasons.” According to the army, destruction of such documents is a normal practice. The government told Jewish leaders it was making every effort to ascertain if Bendini indeed had talked of a supposed Israeli plot against Patagonia. If true, the remarks would be seen as a sign of anti-Semitism in Argentina, where fantastical allegations of a supposed Jewish or Israeli plot to attack Patagonia featured prominently in the arrests and interrogations of many Argentine Jews under the military dictatorships of the 1970s. Government sources seem to believe that Bendini is the victim of an internal fight in the military following a recent restructuring. Aside from a phone call last week to AMIA President Abraham Kaul, in which he denied making the reported remarks, Bendini has remained silent. The investigative commission ordered the second-year students to recreate their essays from Bendini’s talk — but the new works contained no hints of anti-Semitism, the commission found. After an investigation that lasted less than two days, the commission said it had determined that Bendini had not made the remarks in question. DAIA members met for two hours on Monday with the head of the Argentine Cabinet, Alberto Fernandez, and came away satisfied. “It is clear to DAIA that there is no proof to incriminate Bendini. Although we have demanded that the government stay alert, we’re finished with this topic,” DAIA’s executive director, Claudio Avruj, said. La Nacion, the country’s second-largest newspaper, declared Tuesday “The conflict is over.” “We were not afraid to clarify what was necessary,” Fernandez said, according to the newspaper. “We are satisfied that we have done all we could for the Jewish community.” But members of AMIA — who at the last minute were left out of Monday’s meeting with the government, with no explanation — are not satisfied. “Lacking the original papers done by students, we believe there is more to be investigated,” Kaul said in an interview. Infobae’s Grecco said that even if the original works had been destroyed, there still are “living proofs: the students.” Grecco, who has written a prize-winning book on the Argentine army, said a commission composed of army officers is not the proper forum to investigate the actions of the head of the military. The government investigation was primarily a “political production,” Grecco said, adding that he believed the government had done all it could to protect Bendini. Grecco said Infobae’s investigation showed that Bendini was obsessed with the idea of a Patagonian invasion. Another journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, said Bendini not only referred to Israeli groups interested in attacking Patagonia, but also accused ORT schools of backing the invasion. Kirchner, who plans to attend Rosh Hashanah services at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, had hoped to dispel any suggestions of anti-Semitism before the Jewish new year began. But the controversy is still raging. Now, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is demanding a more intensive investigation. “The Wiesenthal Center is surprised that the government in this case is lacking the parameters of transparency that were used in other cases,” the center’s Latin America representative, Sergio Widder, said. “There is inscrutability surrounding Bendini’s case.” Widder called for a commission of legislators to investigate. “The main harm will be for the government,” Widder said, referring to Kirchner’s attempts to restore government credibility damaged by the bumbling AMIA bombing investigation. Many local Jews believe Bendini indeed made anti-Semitic remarks but don’t think the incident should be viewed exclusively as a Jewish problem. “If the head of the army makes anti-Semitic remarks, it’s a threat for democratic institutions, not only for Jews,” said one Buenos Aires Jewish man asked not to be identified. “Why does the head of the national Cabinet feel he has to satisfy the Jews, rather than Argentine society?”
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Florencia Arbiser is a contributing writer to JTA.
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