God Bless South America: Meet the First Rabbi in Argentina's Parliament

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Two years ago, a court in Argentina had to grapple with an unprecedented question in the country's legal and political history: Could the title "Rabbi" appear on an official voting ballot? The matter came before the court when Rabbi Sergio Bergman decided to run for a seat on the Buenos Aires city council.

Bergman has since made the big leap straight into national politics. Last week, he was elected to the top spot on the PRO party's list for the important parliamentary election scheduled for October. The center-right party is positioning itself as a viable alternative to President Cristina Kirchner's government, which is facing growing dissatisfaction. But even if the PRO does not take the reins of government this time around, Bergman is sure to become the first rabbi to serve in the Argentine National Legislature.

Bergman, 51, was born in Argentina and earned degrees in pharmacy and biochemistry from the University of Buenos Aires. But then he turned to a different field altogether. After studying at a rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires he came to Jerusalem, where he studied education at the Hebrew University and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College. Subsequently, he returned to Argentina to serve as rabbi of the legendary Libertad Synagogue, the first synagogue founded in Buenos Aires, dating from 1897.

In 2011 he decided to run at the head of an independent list for the Buenos Aires city council, but he ended up joining the PRO party, headed by the mayor at the time, Mauricio Macri, who plans to run for president in 2015 and is expected to do well. Bergman, one of President Kirchner's harshest critics, may one day find himself among the top leadership of a major Latin American country. This week, in an interview with Haaretz, he opened up on this and other issues.

What does your election to the top spot on the party slate mean to you? Do you see it as a first step toward the top level of leadership in Argentina?

"It's a great honor for me, a big challenge and responsibility. To take part in politics on the national level is to be a part of Argentinean history as well as Jewish history, of integration in society - with our uniqueness - and to bring our spiritual values to what is offered by the Argentinean national constitution, which invited our grandparents, the immigrants, as well as all men and women of goodwill, to settle on the blessed land of this country.

"The movement of which I am a member, PRO, is a varied framework that in party politics represents the cultural integration of the religions and traditions that make up the Argentinean identity."

For the Haaretz reader who isn't so familiar with the ins and outs of the political system in Argentina: How significant is your election to the top spot on the party list?

"It's a very prominent stop in these fateful times for Argentina. The National Congress will be the site of the debate surrounding the desire to make constitutional reforms, and the ability to place a limit on the unreasonable ambitions of President Cristina to continue to hold on to power and to hurt the republic's democracy by means of popular demagoguery.

"This will also be the first time in the country's history in which a rabbi is elected to the national parliament. It will be an achievement for integration, for peaceful coexistence among the different religious groups that make up Argentine society."

The movement you belong to is currently fighting Kirchner's policy from the opposition benches. Do you see a possibility in the future of becoming the ruling party?

"I have no doubt that PRO offers the best alternative to the present government - in the person of its leader, who will be the candidate for president in the 2015 election, Mauricio Macri. His vision talks about rehabilitation and a return to a normal life of social peace at home - and a renewed involvement in world politics, promoting a progressive policy that will enable economic growth and a narrowing of the social gaps, and a departure from pointless confrontations, in order to achieve a serious, law-abiding Argentina that is scrupulous about the separation of authorities and fosters relationships with the world's most developed countries rather than partnerships with the worst of them - which is the situation today."

Apropos the current situation: What do you think is really behind the agreement between Argentina and Iran regarding the joint investigation into the terror attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s?

"No one can explain what's behind this. We do know, however, what we have before us: a completely unacceptable move by Argentina, which signed an agreement with a fundamentalist terrorist regime that perpetrated, as indicated by the investigation, two terror attacks - in 1992 against the Israeli embassy and in 1994 against the Jewish community center. Thanks to deception on the part of Foreign Minister [Hector] Timerman, who lied to the families and to the parliament, and to a change of policy by the Cristina Kirchner government, which claims it wants to make progress in investigating the incidents, the matter has become subject to the manipulations of Iran, at the expense of Argentinean sovereignty on the matter. The Foreign Ministry played the Iranian game, the parliament in Buenos Aires voted to approve the agreement - but the Iranian parliament did not do so. [Iran's outgoing President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad alone signed it.

"There's a theory that it's all a ploy to isolate Argentina and distance it from the world's developed countries, and to push it into the group of Tehran's allies, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as to pave the way for the oil trade and also obtain technical assistance and materials for the Iranian nuclear program via a third party, Venezuela.

"This move is impossible to understand: It's a betrayal of the victims' memory."

How would you describe your connection with Israel?

"My commitment to Israel is related to preserving its centrality to the memory, the present and the future of the Jewish people, through a creative and symmetrical dialogue with the Jewish communities in the world. Israel must always be an option for every Jew who chooses to become an Israeli citizen. But if he chooses to live in another country, his civil commitment must be given to the country in which he lives, while continuing to support the existence, sovereignty and security of Israel - especially given the great challenge of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the other neighbors in the region."

What memories do you have of your time in Jerusalem?

"I have the best memories from the City of David, the place holy to our prophets and sages, and at the same time the holy city to the three major religions. Jerusalem is in my heart, in my prayers that it may be a city of peace, as it says in the Psalms - 'Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.'

I have unforgettable memories from my time as a rabbinical student there, and from my graduate studies at different places in the city, at the Hebrew University where I studied education, at Hebrew Union College, at the Beit Shmuel center, where I was ordained as a rabbi and did a degree in rabbinical literature, at the Jerusalem Fellows center in Rehavia where I developed educational and social programs that I implemented upon my return to Buenos Aires. And I of course remember the Beit Midrash for Judaic studies where I supplemented my studies in Judaism, and the strolls through the Old City, the colors and aromas of Mahane Yehuda, and the neighborhood where we lived - on Ha'etzel Street in French Hill.

"I also remember the difficult moments - in the time of the [1991] Gulf War, with the gas masks and the protective crib we had to use for our eldest daughter Maya, who was just two then, and the moments of joy when our son Yonatan was born at Hadassah Hospital, and the graduation ceremony at the Hebrew University in which I graduated with honors, and the rabbinical ordination ceremony at Hebrew Union College, facing the Old City walls ..."

Do you follow Israeli politics?

"Of course! I pay close attention to what is happening in the political, cultural and social life in Israel. I'm always concerned about its security, and at the same time I also admire it for all of its progress and development in science and technology, in which is quite exemplary."

What is your view of the way the Israeli government and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel treat the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and in other countries?

"The Israeli government cannot maintain its current positions, to deny or delay full recognition for the Conservative and Reform movements. There has been progress, but it's not enough. Orthodoxy has to preserve its rights, but it doesn't have the right to impose anything on others' liberty. Pluralism is a goal that must be reached, a position that must develop to the point of total and full recognition of the range and multitude of streams - as always existed in Judaism - without extortionist actions by coalitions with the ultra-Orthodox.

"We need to keep working to support a total separation of matters of freedom of conscience and religion, and state. Just as we are protected in this in places where we are a minority - there is the same necessity to respect this in the place where we are the majority ..."

How would you assess the level of anti-Semitism in Latin America? Has the situation improved, or gotten worse? In the recent presidential election in Venezuela, there were anti-Semitic attacks against opposition candidate Henrique Capirles Radonski, who is of Jewish background.

"In Latin America you don't find anti-Semitism as an ideological or cultural phenomenon, but there are many anti-Semites who keep trying and failing to introduce hatred and prejudice. Yet you also have anti-Semitism manifesting as anti-Zionism, and Iran, via its 'ambassador' in Latin America, which is Venezuela, trying to 'conquer' the continent with its perverted ideas about Holocaust denial, and its ideology of Israel's destruction.

"Operating with total impunity, Iran's embassies in the region, together with Hezbollah cells and other Islamic groups, are busy raising funds and gathering support and promoting fundamentalist Islam, anti-Zionism, hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, Argentina is now a partner of Venezuela and Iran, and Israeli diplomacy isn't doing enough to denounce these things.

"When we win the election we'll carry out a revolution on these issues. And when the right time comes, there will be a need - in the Jewish community - to make an ethical judgment about current Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who even though he is a Jew signed the agreement with Iran and betrayed the memory and dignity of the victims of terrorism."

In the upcoming parliamentary election, as in the 2011 municipal election, the ballot will feature Bergman's name but not his title. The court ruled back then that although the candidate was better known to the public as Rabbi Bergman than as Sergio Bergman, the addition of the title "Rabbi" would impart to the candidate an "added positive weight," which is not permitted on the voting slips. Well, at least the court gave him a compliment.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman. Made the leap into national politics. Credit: courtesy
Jewish men looking on as rescuers sift through the rubble at the site of a car-bombing at the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 18, 1994.Credit: Bloomberg

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