In Buenos Aires, a mayor facing a Jewish challenger taps a rabbi to lead his party’s list


BUENOS AIRES (JTA) — Rabbi Sergio Bergman, already one of Buenos Aires’ most prominent spiritual leaders, has become one of the Argentine capital’s most highly visible political candidates.

Bergman was tapped by the city’s incumbent mayor, Mauricio Macri, to lead his PRO party’s list for the municipal legislature. As the top candidate on the center-right party’s slate, the rabbi is virtually assured of securing a spot in the city legislature in the July 10 municipal elections.

Meanwhile, Macri’s main challenger for the mayoralty is Jewish. Daniel Filmus, a former Argentine education minister, will be facing off against Macri for the city’s top job for a second time. Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, picked Filmus to run as the candidate of her center-left Victory Front .

That the president and the mayor both would tap Jews as key political partners in Argentina’s largest city has not escaped notice among members of the country’s Jewish community. Depending upon what definition of Jewish identity is used, estimates of Argentina’s Jewish population range from 180,000 to 280,000. It is Latin America’s largest Jewish community, but it has suffered the sting of anti-Semitism during its history.

“This is a very shocking moment, an unprecedented situation,” said Aldo Donzis, president of DAIA, Argentine Jewry’s primary umbrella organization. “Had a similar panorama occurred during my teenage years, the Jewish community would have been terrified, assuming this situation to be highly risky, given that if any of the candidates were to obtain an official post and subsequently make mistakes, anti-Semitism would violently arise.”

The selection of a rabbi to head the mayor’s list for city legislature has elicited particular notice — from Jews and non-Jews. Bergman, the senior rabbi of the traditional Congregacion Israelita Argentina, is the founder of Active Memory, a group that demonstrated every Monday for a decade in front of Argentina’s Supreme Court seeking justice for the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center. The Pagina12 newspaper published a full-page article on his selection headlined “A head of the list that comes with a kippa.”

Asked why he is becoming involved in politics, Bergman told JTA that Argentine society is “in a deep crisis of values,” adding that “I believe that Torah can also be taught in the legislature.”

He dismissed the notion that his candidacy could put the Jewish community at risk.

“If the society knows us better, the level of anti-Semitism will become lower,” Bergman said. “I have many non-Jewish voters. The only doubt today is if Jews will vote for me.

“What I can assure is that I can be criticized for many things, but not for being a rabbi. I receive criticisms that I’m on the right or that I ask for law and order, but nobody criticizes me for being Jewish. If I receive attacks for being a rabbi, the first to come out to defend me are the non-Jews.”

On the other side of the partisan divide is Macri’s rival, Filmus, who served as education minister under the country’s previous president, Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of Argentina’s current leader.

While more secular than Bergman, Filmus has not shied away from his Jewish identity. He sent his youngest daughter to the Jewish ORT high school and, as education minister, organized a 2005 ceremony commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. Filmus also announced the Argentine government’s decision “to teach children about the Holocaust in all the schools throughout the country because this will help us build a better society and prevent history from repeating itself.”

Another Jewish mayoral hopeful is Jorge Telerman, who had been the city’s vice mayor before taking over as mayor for nearly two years following the 2006 impeachment and removal from office of Anibal Ibarra. Running to retain the office in 2007, Telerman placed third behind Macri and Filmus.

A poll of Buenos Aires voters published May 29 showed Macri leading with the support of 32.9 percent of voters, followed by Filmus with 24.9 percent. Telerman was a distant fourth with 4.8 percent.

Amid the proliferation of prominent Jewish candidates, Buenos Aires voters also will have the opportunity to cast their mayoral ballots for a neo-Nazi: Alejandro Biondini of the Social Alternative party. He has openly espoused anti-Semitism and his previous party, New Triumph, was banned by Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2009.

The country’s electoral court rejected calls recently from members of the Buenos Aires legislature to ban Biondini from running for mayor — a request that was backed by DAIA and other Jewish groups.

Yet in contrast to the high-profile candidacies of Filmus and Bergman, the controversy surrounding a fringe figure like Biondini is little more than an electoral sideshow. Indeed, the prominence of Jews in Argentine politics today is all the more striking in light of the nation’s history.

Argentine Jews are a small minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. In the decades after World War II, they found themselves living in a country that became notorious as an all-too-willing refuge for prominent Nazis who had escaped justice in Europe. Under the right-wing military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983, Jewish dissidents and leftists were targeted for persecution.

While Argentine Jews have been active participants in Argentina’s business, cultural and academic spheres, they have not been prominent traditionally in its political life. Two traumatic events brought the Jewish community greater visibility in the public sphere: the bombings in 1992 and 1994, respectively, of the city’s Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center — both carried out by Hezbollah at Iran’s behest, Argentine prosecutors eventually concluded.

In loudly demanding that the perpetrators of the two terrorist attacks be brought to justice, Argentina’s Jews moved decisively into the public eye.

Today, prominent Jewish politicians are not unusual. Argentina’s current foreign minister, Hector Timerman, is the son of a famed dissident, the journalist Jacobo Timerman. The elder Timerman was imprisoned by the military junta and eventually fled for Israel before returning to Argentina following the restoration of democracy.

Argentine Jewish politicians benefitted from changes in Argentine society, which has become more secular, argues University of Buenos Aires sociologist Daniel Scarfo. He noted the 1994 constitutional reform removing the requirement that the country’s president be a Catholic. “The religion of the candidates is less relevant to the majority,” Scarfo said.

“On the other hand,” he added, “it seems healthy for political life in a democracy, the resurgence of the voices of the Jewish culture that in this country had been severely repressed during the times of dictatorship.”

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