Torn by a bomb that killed more than 100 people and leveled its communal institutions, Argentina’s Jewish community is now facing tensions with the government and the fear of a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
For Ruben Beraja, the president of the DAIA Jewish communal umbrella organization whose office was demolished by the blast, this has brought new challenges to the tightrope he walks as a communal leader.
With some 220,000 members, Argentina has the second largest Jewish community in the Americas. But its history, including both ties with Germany during the Holocaust and a military dictatorship that ended only a decade ago, has given the Jewish community fears and sensitivities unfamiliar in the United States.
Statements and actions that might have been taken as routine expressions of Jewish pride and solidarity in North America have come under criticism from various quarters in Argentina.
Beraja tried to explain this to his American audiences in appearances before a congressional panel Monday and in a meeting in New York with American Jewish leaders Tuesday.
Some in the Argentine media have fanned the flames, said Beraja on Tuesday, with one influential commentator warning that the Jewish community’s high profile could rouse the “dormant beast,” referring to anti-Semitism.
These criticisms, coming at this sensitive time, Beraja told the American Jewish leaders, challenge the Jewish community to “moderate the feelings of many Jews who feel threatened by everybody and are paranoid at this time, and feel everybody’s an anti-Semite.”
At the same time, “we also have to face those who are anti-Semitic, and are taking advantage of the present situation to do what they usually do.”
The community received strong support at a rally three days after the July 18 bombing, attended by 150,000 people. Jews were outnumbered by their non-Jewish neighbors at what was described as the largest mass demonstration in the country in the last 10 years.
But the bombing, the second in two years, has also led non-Jews to fear their Jewish neighbors. In 1992, a bomb leveled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Ares, killing more than 30.
For Beraja, the fear among non-Jews is understandable. Beraja elaborated on this in testimony in Washington on Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights.
The fear has generated “an attempt to create a separation between Jews and non-Jews, in a reappearance of attitudes that we believed had been definitely eradicated from Argentinean society.”
Speaking to Jewish leaders in New York on Tuesday, he described this as “a great challenge in the field of social politics.”
BLAST REOPENED ANOTHER WOUND
“We are working with the Argentine government on this,” he told a meeting sponsored by the World Jewish Congress American Section and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The recent bomb blast reopened another wound: the failure of the Argentine government to apprehend those responsible for the 1992 embassy explosion.
President Carlos Menem, who has a friendly relationship with the Jewish community, is not seen as having been zealous in the 1992 investigation or in being vigilant on security matters since then.
He was booed when he appeared at the rally last month.
It is perhaps not surprising then that the rally was soon the target of criticism from both the government and elements of the press.
Beraja’s speech at the rally, in which he criticized the legal establishment as “neither efficient nor effective” in punishing terrorism, was attacked.
Another line of criticism boiled down to the question: Why, if the Jewish community kept insisting the attack was against all Argentineans, was the rally so Jewish?
Critics attacked the Jewish community, which organized the rally, for failing to invite a representative of the Catholic Church to speak, for having several speeches in Hebrew, for displaying an Israeli flag on the dais and for concluding with the singing of Hatikvah.
Some of the criticism, Beraja told Jewish leaders, came from “good friends” of the community.
To some extent, he said, the community was to blame. Reeling from the shock of the attack, it “lacked the necessary balance and peace of mind to design a more general event more open to the public.
“This is not a matter of lack of character or dignity,” he said. “It is a matter of understanding the concerns of a specific society, and how to respond to those concerns.”
These actions made the community vulnerable to “certain commentators” who tried to stir things up, hoping to “fuel the conflict between the DAIA and the government,” said Beraja.
He has maintained a continuous dialogue with Menem and other high government officials concerning the controversy, trying to calm things down, while indicating that the Jewish community would not lower its profile.
“Menem has shared our concern and reiterated his commitment to neutralize those alarm signals,” Beraja said in Washington.
And he told the Jewish leaders in New York that in terms of concrete actions, the government was doing a “good job.”
Nonetheless, Beraja said that “after this unfortunate episode our relationship with the government will be somewhat different than before. There will probably be different channels or different levels of relationship.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.