July 18th marks the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, that left 85 dead and 300 injured. It was the largest attack against the Jewish community in the Diaspora since the Shoah. The Argentine government deserves to be excoriated for its gross and duplicitous mishandling of the investigation.
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Experts argue that the early days of a terror investigation are critical. With the passage of time, the trail to the culprits dries up. In the case of AMIA, three of the major figures in the early inquiry have been disgraced.
Then-Argentine president Carlos Menem, under whose watch AMIA was destroyed, was ordered to stand trial for covering up the Iranian-Hezbollah connection to the attack. The chief justice assigned to the AMIA case, Jose Galeano, was removed for mishandling it. And the leader of the Jewish community, whose task it was to pressure the government for a full investigation, sat in jail for a period of time. Argentina is probably the starkest example of a western democracy that had failed miserably to mount a serious investigation after a terrorist attack.
With the passage of time, matters have gotten worse. In 2012, the Argentine government announced a joint “truth commission” with Iran to find the attackers. An obscene decision, as Iran is the chief suspect in coordinating the AMIA atrocity. It is absurd to think that the government of Iran will investigate itself. Recently, and as the result of great pressure, an Argentine federal court blocked the truth commission. Government officials vowed to appeal, speaking volumes about the farce of this investigation.
Since the bombing of AMIA, I’ve traveled to Buenos Aires several times. Each of these visits coupled political activism with expressions of emotional and spiritual support. The Argentinian politics I encountered have always been singularly distasteful. At the very beginning, I met with Menem privately, and became convinced that he was covering up—that an investigation would have implicated the highest government officials in Argentina, including Menem himself. He responded to these allegations by calling me “delirious,” “loco.” The head of the Argentine Jewish community declared that Menem “categorically rejects the accusations [of a cover-up],” and Chief Justice Galeano, in effect, arrested me, hauling me into his office where he held me for six hours. All this, I believe, was meant as a warning that I’d be well advised to stop accusing Menem of covering up.
The Jewish leadership in the United States was equally hesitant to criticize Menem. Just two months after the AMIA attack, Menem was honored by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Jewish community after the bombing of AMIA. The participants at this gala read like a who’s who of American Jewry. Leaders of the major Jewish defense agencies were all there. “He made some impassioned statements,” said one of them. “He said his government is committed to protecting Jewish institutions.” When my colleague, Rabbi David Kalb, and I walked into the event to confront Menem, we were asked to leave. Refusing to do so, we called out, “In the name of the victims and their families, you cannot honor this man.” People shouted at us, “You’re wrong, absolutely wrong! You are dishonoring the Jewish people!” In the end, Rabbi Kalb and I were carried down three flights of stairs, and arrested as the crowd looked on.
As the twentieth anniversary approaches, my mind wanders to the images of the courageous survivors I came to know.
Jonathan Averbuch: When I first met Jonathan, he was a twelve-year-old boy seated with his parents in makeshift headquarters a few blocks from the destroyed AMIA building. He was awaiting news about his sister, Yanina, who had been in the AMIA building. The awful news came precisely at the moment we were sitting near each other. At that instant, all we could do was embrace for what seemed an eternity.
Rosa Barreiro: I had visited Rosa in an intensive care unit just a few days after the attack. She seemed well; I wondered why she had been hospitalized. The doctor explained – Rosa was walking in front of the AMIA building with her five year-old son, Sebastian. A fragment from the blast penetrated the boy’s skull and he died instantly—the youngest victim of the AMIA bombing. Rosa was in the ICU, unable to speak.
Luis Czyzewsky: With other rabbis I sat with him and his wife, Ana, as they awaited news about their daughter, Paola. A doctor came by to inform them that the woman just found in the rubble of the AMIA was not Paola; the fingerprints were different, the doctor said. The family breathed a sigh of relief, but sadly short-lived.
Rabbi Angel Kreiman: Rabbi Kreiman’s wife, Susy, was at her desk at the AMIA, helping people find employment. When I left Buenos Aires a week after the attack, her daughters were still in the makeshift headquarters waiting for news. Upon arriving home, I called Angel. “How are things going?” I asked. “We’re sitting shiva. Susy was found.”
Damian Goldenberg: I was with Damian as he and his family awaited news about his sister, Cyntia Veronica. It came, and Damian, sweet and gentle, cried out, “Where is God?” Through the years, I’ve maintained contact with Damian. When returning for the tenth anniversary commemoration, Damian promised me a surprise. When seeing him, tears came as he introduced me to Jazmin, his girlfriend. “You’re coming to the wedding” Damian said. We hugged, and I offered the silent prayer that we always embrace in joy and not in tears.
At each of the AMIA commemorations that I have attended in Buenos Aires, thousands join in as the siren is sounded at 9:53am, the precise moment of the AMIA attack. Weeping, even sobbing, accompanies the siren. As each of the victim’s names is called out, the crowd lovingly responds: “Presente.” The dead are present – in our hearts, in our souls. They continued to inspire, they still count.
The gatherings in North America to remember AMIA will be attended by relatively few. The sad truth is, we Jews connect East to West, but not North to South.
The most personally powerful image for me occurred years after AMIA, when Damian married Jazmin. I flew to Buenos Aires and stood under the chuppah, together with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the Conservative rabbi I met in the aftermath of the attack, and close friend of Pope Francis. Years back, as Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, the pope was the first to sign a letter in support of a strong investigation of AMIA.
Looking into the faces of Damian and Jazmin, who today are blessed with two children, the scene of the moment when Damian was notified of his sister’s death flashed before me. At the instant when the glass was broken, I thought of the brokenness of countless families forever ripped from their loved ones in the AMIA attack.
But as those attending joyously called out “mazal tov” and danced bride and groom away, I thought of the words from Song of Songs: “Place me as a seal upon your heart, for love overpowers death.”
Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale - the Bayit, and the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat. His most recent book, Holistic Prayer, was just published by Maggid Press.