Iran, Treason and Cover-ups: Argentina's Jews Still Seeking 'Truth or Justice' on Country's Worst Terrorist Attack

No one has ever been convicted for the terror attack on the AMIA Jewish community center that killed 85 and injured hundreds more on July 18, 1994. Community leaders reveal how the atrocity is still having an impact

Pablo Mendez Shiff
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People holding up pictures of the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 17, 2015.
People holding up pictures of the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 17, 2015.Credit: Victor R. Caivano / AP
Pablo Mendez Shiff

At 9.53 A.M. on July 18, 1994, a suicide bomber carried out a terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center, killing 85 people and injuring another 300 in central Buenos Aires.

Twenty-five years on, little is known about the largest terror attack in Argentina’s history. Even though the Argentine judicial system has long believed Hezbollah was behind the attack, acting as a proxy for Iran, no one has been convicted for committing the atrocity.

But the bomb that day did more than devastate a seven-story building and hundreds of lives. It also created a divide in Argentina’s Jewish community that would eventually pit families against families in a tragedy that features cover-ups and allegations of treason in the highest places.

>> Read more: The bloodiest attack against the Jewish diaspora since the Shoah: Death, but no justice | Opinion

The AMIA bombing (the acronym stands for Argentine Israeli Mutual Association) came two years after a terror attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people, including four Israelis. Together, the two attacks left “a deep wound” with lasting effects on the Jewish community, says Susana Gelber, 55, a former director of Tzavta, a secular community center connected to the Hashomer Hatzair youth group.

Two Jewish men at the center of the AMIA aftermath: Former Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and special prosecutor Alberto Nisman.Credit: AFP / AP

The most noticeable change within the Jewish community is the increased security at all of its institutions. But it is the mental scars of the judicial probe and subsequent scandals that have arguably affected the community most. “With two unresolved terrorist attacks, we cannot allow ourselves to have a third one. Not having a good protection system could eventually be suicidal. And we, as community leaders, have to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” says Gelber.

One community, many groups

Rescue workers searching for survivors and victims in the rubble after a powerful car bomb destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the AMIA, killing 85 people, July 18, 1994.Credit: Reuters

“Twenty-five years after the attack, we haven’t found either truth or justice,” says Diana Wassner Malamud, 60, who lost her husband Andrés in the 1994 attack. She is the founder of Active Memory (Memoria Activa in Spanish), one of the first pressure groups to form in the months after the attack, fighting on behalf of the victims. From the very start, Malamud’s group was highly critical of the role played by Juan José Galeano, the first judge appointed to oversee the legal investigation, and Rubén Beraja, the then-president of the Argentine-Jewish political umbrella organization DAIA (the Delegation for Argentine Jewish Associations).

“We are in this situation because the first judge didn’t do his job and instead committed crimes,” Wassner Malamud says, “and because our community leader ended up being part of these crimes and selling our dead ones for money.”

Earlier this year, Galeano received a six-year prison sentence for concealment and violation of evidence during his handling of the initial probe, which was declared null and void in 2004. An Argentine court found in February that Galeano paid $400,000 to a used car dealer, Carlos Telleldín, to implicate a group of police officers in the 1994 bombing. Telleldín himself had been the last owner of the van that was used in the suicide bombing, which was allegedly perpetrated by a Lebanese Hezbollah operative acting at the behest of Tehran. (Telleldín was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for his involvement.)

In a number of dramatic twists in the story, it later emerged that the bribe had been provided by Argentina’s intelligence services, whose former chief, Hugo Anzorreguy, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years for his involvement.

Former Argentine President Carlos Menem (who is now a senator) and Beraja were among those accused of being involved in the cover-up. Both men were cleared of all charges in the trial, whose judicial process had started back in 2005.

People holding placards that read "Justice" during a rally in front of the headquarters of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires, January 21, 2015, following the death of Alberto Nisman.Credit: AFP

Beraja, 80, who during his tenure at DAIA was also president of the Latin American Jewish Congress and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, rarely gives interviews. However, speaking with Haaretz last week, he says that the division of the Jewish community has been the terrorists’ “biggest success.” He also laments that some of the victims’ relatives hold a “hostile and unfair attitude” toward him.

“The division of the Jewish community has done nothing but weaken the investigation,” Beraja says. “I think that every faction should rethink and realign their positions for the sake of the higher objective of punishing the ones who put the bomb there. The goal of the terrorists was not only to generate material damage and kill people, but to actually inflict moral damage to the Jewish people — and leave us in a weaker position.”

That division will be clearly visible on Thursday when no fewer than four different memorials will be staged. The “official” ceremony, organized by Relatives and Victims of the Relatives — the organization closest to AMIA and DAIA — will take place at the new AMIA building at 9.53 A.M. (15.53 Israeli time).

Credit: Haaretz

Simultaneously, members of Active Memory will gather outside the country’s main courts of justice to stage their own memorial/protest. A splinter group from Relatives and Victims of the Relatives, 18 J, will stage its own memorial event at the new AMIA building later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, President Mauricio Macri’s government will hold a ceremony to present a book published by the Latin American Jewish Congress on the bombing and international terrorism. He will be joined by some victims’ relatives, but no one from Active Memory, 18 J or another pressure group, APEMIA (which itself split from Active Memory in 2002), will be present.

Acts of treason?

Two Jewish figures were central to the AMIA tragedy in the years following the attack: Alberto Nisman, who became the investigation’s special prosecutor in 2004; and Héctor Timerman, the Argentine foreign minister who was one of signatories to a memorandum of understanding with Iran in 2013, creating a “commission of truth” to investigate the bombing.

In an incident that reverberated around the world, Nisman was found dead from a gunshot wound in his apartment in January 2015, days after publicly accusing the Argentine government — including then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — of having colluded with Iran to obstruct justice.

The special prosecutor, who had opposed the diplomatic arrangement from the beginning, contended that there was a “secret deal” between Argentina and Iran to close the AMIA case. Nisman based his accusations on press clippings and secret wiretaps of Luis D’Elia and Fernando Esteche — two far-left, marginal politicians with ties to Iran who also backed Kirchner’s government. In their recorded conversations, they claimed to be acting as a bridge between the two countries.

Argentina's then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner inspecting Chinese honor guards during a welcoming ceremony hosted by China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, February 4, 2015.Credit: \ REUTERS

According to Nisman, the main objective of the memorandum of understanding was to drop the international arrest warrants (Interpol red notices) against six senior Iranians accused of orchestrating the attack. The former secretary-general of Interpol, Ronald K. Noble, said in an interview at the time that Argentina never requested that the warrants be canceled.

Nisman’s body was discovered on January 19, 2015, hours before he was due to appear at a congressional hearing to provide more details about his allegations.

Waldo Wolff, who at the time was DAIA’s vice president, tells Haaretz that, for him, Argentina suffered four terrorist attacks: one on the Israeli Embassy; the AMIA bombing; the signing of the memorandum of understanding with Iran; and the “assassination” of Nisman.

However, journalist Pablo Duggan, author of a best-selling book about Nisman’s death, begs to differ. “This was a suicide, and the only reason to keep the case open is to persecute Cristina Kirchner in an election year,” he alleges, referring to Argentina’s upcoming presidential election (whose primaries start on August 11).

Following Nisman’s death, two new cases were opened: One focused on Nisman’s accusations against Kirchner and Timerman as initially formulated by Nisman; and the other centered on the circumstances surrounding his death. Both cases are ongoing.

Former AMIA President Agustín Zbar, left, and Argentine-Jewish Call Organization founder Jorge Elbaum.Credit: Courtesy / Aitana Elbaum

The circumstances surrounding Nisman’s death played an important role in the 2015 presidential election. That February, a group of prosecutors, members of the opposition, the AMIA and DAIA organized a march in Buenos Aires demanding answers into his death, with some implying that Nisman had been assassinated.

DAIA’s Wolff quit his position at the institution to stand in the election as a legislative candidate against Kirchner’s Front for Victory. He joined the Republican Proposal party of current president Macri, following in the footsteps of other Jewish leaders. These included Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who is now the government’s environment minister, and Claudio Avruj, an ex-executive director of DAIA who is now secretary of human rights.

As a result of these political developments, a new Jewish association was formed: the Argentine-Jewish Call Organization. It was founded by Jorge Elbaum, another former executive director of DAIA, and he tells Haaretz that his group was needed because AMIA and DAIA “do not represent the entire Jewish community as they claim to do.”

Whereas AMIA and DAIA clashed with Timerman, Argentine-Jewish Call supported him and even named him its honorary president.

The foreign minister was a prominent Jewish figure and the son of Jacobo Timerman, a legendary Argentine journalist who was tortured by the military junta in the 1970s and later exiled to Israel.

People observing a moment of silence during a commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, July 18, 2003.Credit: REUTERS

Nisman formally accused Héctor Timerman of “treason against the Fatherland,” a rarely used part of the Argentine Constitution to charge those who allegedly collaborated with enemies of the state in a context of war.

Although that case was never pursued, Timerman was indicted in December 2017 for allegedly seeking to cover up Iran’s responsibility for the AMIA bombing. He was placed under house arrest, having recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Javier Timerman tells Haaretz that his brother Héctor “was the Argentine foreign minister; the fact that he was also Jewish was not relevant for the mission he had. My brother wasn’t defending the interests of the Jewish people — he was defending the interests of Argentina.”

Héctor Timerman’s lawyer, Graciana Peñafort, adds that “nothing hurt Héctor so much as the accusation of having committed treason against Argentina. He always said that this was the history of the Jewish people, or the nonspoken anti-Semitism. ‘We have been always persecuted with the idea that we have dual loyalty,’ he told me. ‘I have only one loyalty and that is to Argentina.’”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara standing alongside Agustín Zbar in front of a wall with names of the victims of the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, September 11, 2017.Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Héctor Timerman succumbed to cancer on December 30, 2018. After his passing, neither AMIA nor DAIA sent a letter of condolence to his family.

Yet another division

Earlier this year, a new division arose when AMIA President Agustín Zbar sent a letter to his counterpart in DAIA, asking it to remove itself from a lawsuit charging Kirchner with treason for her part in the 2013 Iran pact.

Zbar’s main argument was that the lawsuit was playing a part in domestic party politics, and he argued this was not the role of the Jewish community. He warned that the political and legal dispute over the bombing had caused a deep divide, known as “la grieta,” within Argentine society. Two days later, he was forced to “temporarily step down” from AMIA.

Members of the Argentine-Jewish community standing in front of a wall with the names of the victims of the AMIA bombing Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, July 18, 2004.Credit: REUTERS

“The reaction against my position was so harsh because I was actually interfering in the attempt to keep using this case politically,” says Zbar, 57, in his first interview since stepping down in January.

“I don’t think that [seeking to put Kirchner in jail] is the cause of the Jewish community. When was it a good idea for the Jewish people to be against the majority of the people of the country we live in?” he asks, with an eye on the upcoming presidential election.

A quarter of a century on, Argentina’s Jewish community is still in grief and torn asunder. Adding insult to injury, the likelihood of the victims’ families ever receiving reparations is seen as highly unlikely.

“Twenty-five years ago, the Jewish authorities and the Argentine state abandoned all of us, as relatives of the victims,” says Active Memory’s Malamud. “I haven’t been able to tell my two daughters what actually happened on July 18, 1994, because I still don’t know — and I don’t think I ever will.”

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