From the Spanish colonial era to the present, the experience of Jews in Argentina has often been one of “uncertain belonging” (Lesser and Rein, 2010, 149). Even in periods where some came to consider themselves Argentines first and Jews second a sense of otherness lingered. The bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994 recharged a fading uncertainty of belonging. This essay examines how three post-bombing developments have changed what it means to be an Argentine Jew, specifically: lack of resolution with respect to the bombing; warming diplomatic relations with Iran; and rising anti-Zionism.
The 1994 bombing of the AMIA building killed 85 and wounded hundreds more, but 22 years later, no one has been brought to justice. Instead, there has been obfuscation and obstruction at the highest levels of Argentine, Israeli, and Iranian government. Most recently, on January 18, 2015, prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead of “suicide”—mere hours before he was to defend his allegations of a cover-up by Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (“Jewish Centre Bombing”, 2015, n.p.). Although many consider the bombing an attack on all Argentines, undoubtedly the Jews have been most affected. The fotonovela, Once@9:53, depicts this impact, using photos and text to narrate the morning before the bombing—an ordinary day in the lives of ordinary citizens, until a singular act fractured the citizenry into Jews
Figure 1. Representative images of El Once, district where the AMIA building stood, with Jews as Argentine citizens, a regular part of every day life on the morning of the bombing. Source: Stavans, Ilan, and Marcelo Brodsky. Once@9:53. Buenos Aires: la marca editorial, 2010.
and others (fig. 1). Along with this sense of being part of the political whole, the bombing destroyed concrete evidence of Jewish settlement, including “the largest Judaica library in South America” (Faulk, 2013, p. 14), leaving the community bereft of cultural memory and in need of forming a new communal identity. From 1994 to 2004, a group called Memoria Activa gathered on Monday mornings to the call of the shofar, legendary for its help in bringing down the walls of Jericho (Faulk, p. 94-5). The adoption of the shofar as “a symbol of Jewish identity” explicitly links modern Argentine Judaism with a grassroots (small, minority) movement to end impunity for those in power and for crimes against the Jews (Faulk, p. 95). While the shofar calls Jews together, concrete barriers separating Jewish buildings from the streets in Buenos Aires prevent additional attacks. But they also visually reiterate “segregation and distance” (Faulk, p. 93-94), especially between Jews and non-Jewish Argentineans whose buildings have no such barriers to ingress and egress. In these ways, the failure of justice and community response have driven a wedge between “Argentine” and “Jew” that challenges the authenticity of Jewish citizenship.
Argentinian efforts to improve diplomatic relations with Iran have exacerbated that schism. Jews have watched “their” government negotiate with a country shielding suspects in bombing, while the rest of the world condemns it (Romero, 2012, n.p.). Some Jews are angry, seeing the diplomacy as betrayal; others are supportive, hoping stronger ties will lead to cooperation achieving justice. Any Argentine citizen might have a strong opinion, but only Jews must choose between Argentina and their cultural identity. Further, it is Jews specifically who feel unsafe because of Iranian institutional anti-Semitism. The Argentine government has invited the fox into the henhouse, and Jews are justifiably unsettled by their presence. Pro-Iranian diplomacy has destabilized the Jewish community, causing fear, insecurity, and doubt about the protection it can expect from the Argentine government and their place within the body politic.
The flip-side of pro-Iranian diplomacy, anti-Israeli sentiment, entangles Jewish identity with political Zionism, regardless of the opinions of individual Jews. To some extent, this phenomena is embedded in Argentine Jewish identity from the outset. In the 1940s, the options for a Jewish homeland were “Palestine or the Argentine.” The new Jerusalem would, therefore, be Jerusalem or, perhaps, Buenos Aires, but it could not be both. So, on one hand, Jews in Argentina have already implicitly chosen an Argentine homeland, but on the other, according to Lesser and Rein (2014) in their discussion of immigration and national identity, “Zionism appears to be one of the strategies espoused by Jews in order to become national citizens of Argentina” (154). They explain that to be like other immigrant citizens, Jews needed to have a “Madre Patria”, so “Israel was constructed as a nation of origin rather than a political project to safeguard the future” (154). This entanglement of Jews with Israel means that even if political rejection of Israel isn’t per se anti-Semitic, it is virtually impossible for Jews not to take anti-Zionism personally. And furthermore, “in Spanish-language social media, mostly among young people . . . condemnation of Israel is often accompanied by anti-Semitic diatribes” (Krauze, 2014, n.p.). So wherever an individual Jew may fall on a spectrum of identity as Jewish Argentine or Argentine Jew, the threat implicit in prejudice forces him or her to “self-essentialize” to mobilize against the effects of prejudice and bias as a result of anti-Israeli sentiment (Rein, 2010, p. 5).
For Jews in Argentina, the AMIA bombing is a watershed event. For decades, the uncertainty of their belonging was minimal. But now the government has proven unreliable with respect to the rights of the Jews as a collective. In its failure to bring the perpetrators of the AMIA attack to justice, Argentina has expanded the zone of uncertainty from belonging to encompass welcome, safety and, ultimately, identity.
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- Stavans, Ilan, and Marcelo Brodsky. Once@9:53. Buenos Aires: la marca editorial, 2010.