Many of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews – the largest community in South America – are descended either from Russian pedlars who fled pogroms to become gauchos on land acquired by Baron de Hirsch or from Holocaust survivors welcomed by Juan Peron (alongside Nazi fugitives buying entry visas with looted Jewish property!) to a bountiful nation once the fourth richest on earth. Jews are socially and politically well-integrated and Argentines are as likely to claim Cesar Millstein or Daniel Barenboim as “one of ours” as they are Chris de Burgh or Lionel Messi.
When 85 people were killed by the bomb that devastated the AMIA Jewish Community Centre in 1994, they were mourned as fellow Argentines; and it was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires (now Pope Francis) who drafted the petition that persuaded President Nestor Kirchner in 2004 to revive an investigation neglected by his predecessors and seek justice for the victims of the deadliest ever terrorist attack on Argentine soil.
The appointed investigator (Alberto Nisman) was so diligent that within two years Interpol had issued “Red Flag” warrants to apprehend the prominent Iranians and Hezbollah agents suspected of planning and carrying out the attack. Iran predictably denied any involvement.
The Argentine governments preoccupied with recurrent economic crises cynically used widely-publicised disputes between Jewish communal bodies as an excuse to allow Nisman’s files to gather dust. Moreover, while British politicians are encouraged to “connect with ordinary people” and expected to show resolve and convene COBRA in times of crisis, the default response of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (when rebuffed over the Falklands, ordered to repay US bondholders or upstaged by the leaders of Brazil and Chile) seems to be to share her feelings on social media.
So it was that when Alberto Nisman was found dead on the eve of telling a Congressional Committee (in a report that has now been published) that the unconstitutional “Truth Commission” set up in 2013 by the President and Foreign Minister was a fig leaf for a deal whereby Argentina would call off Interpol (granting immunity to several indicted Iranians) in return for cheap oil. So it was the President appeared neither sorrowful nor shocked at the tragic death of a public servant but simply tweeted “why would he want to kill himself?” as if casually blogging about a cliff-hanger in a TV soap opera.
When subsequent forensic analysis suggested that Nisman had been murdered, she tweeted again. Ignoring the despairing public’s yearning for truth and justice (not only for Nisman but for the 85 people killed in the attack on AMIA more than 20 years ago), she chose to air the first of her many conspiracy theories.
Arguing that former spies in the pay of her right-wing political opponents had fed Nisman false information so as to discredit her, she concluded that while his death was “sad”, their treachery was “the real scandal.’’ She went on to point the finger at the colleague who gave Nisman a gun, the police who failed to protect him and even the journalist who reported his death. The Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges wrote that reality “is not always probable or likely.” Commentators soon began to ask whether the President was actually losing her grip on it; and her promise to disband the SIDE Intelligence Service “out of control for 30 years” was met with derision.
Numbers can never adequately measure or describe the loss of a life cut short but graffiti such as “Nisman is victim 86” and “1 dead, 40 million injured” spoke poignantly to the anguish of a traumatised nation. However, while the Paris attacks brought millions on to the streets to claim “Je suis Charlie” and the tragic silencing of Alberto Nisman saw thousands chanting “Yo soy Nisman” in Plaza de Mayo. Argentina’s Jews declined to attend Holocaust Memorial events with the (Jewish) Foreign Minister accused of using the murder of 85 Jews by Hezbollah in 1994 as a bargaining chip with Iran in 2013.
The recent attack on a mountain lodge popular with Israeli backpackers sadly recalled the Plan Andinia, a notorious forgery that claimed Jews planned to colonise Patagonia and “build a second Jewish homeland.” Overt antisemitism is rare in today’s Argentina. Many Jews emigrated for political reasons during the military dictatorship, many more have left (for Spain or the USA rather than Israel) because of perennial economic crises.
A friend in Buenos Aires used to say he was happy and secure as long as he could afford a new suit each year, a counselling session each month and a ticket to Uruguay (to visit his savings) each week. If he’s unhappy and insecure today, however, it’s not as a proud Jew who openly supports Israel but as an Argentine who dearly loves his country and wants to respect rather than fear its institutions.
As rumours and conspiracy theories abound, the one certainty is that Alberto Nisman spent 11 years seeking truth and justice for fellow Argentine citizens and lost his life before he could finish the job. It is not only the AMIA victims and their families who deserve justice and closure after more than 20 years but a nation of 40 million that deserves and expects its leaders to restore their self-respect.
David Safir is a member of the International Division of the Board of Deputies. A regular traveller to the region he is responsible for monitoring Latin American affairs.