Prosecutor’s death and decades-old terror attack leaves Argentina’s Jews divided

Gabi Fryszberg (left) and Jacobo Furman at a memorial site for the 85 people who died in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fryszberg was in the building that day and Furman lost a son.
Gabi Fryszberg (left) and Jacobo Furman at a memorial site for the 85 people who died in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fryszberg was in the building that day and Furman lost a son. Miami Herald Staff

On the same day that hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor who spent a decade trying to unravel the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center that left 85 dead, Jacobo Furman was far away from the crowds, lighting a candle for one of the victims of that attack — his son.

Furman said he was sorry for Nisman’s family but that he wouldn’t be attending the rally, even as the country’s most powerful Jewish groups were inviting followers to join in. For better or worse, the prosecutor was one of the reasons that the 21-year-old terrorist attack is still unresolved, he said. And he feared Nisman’s death had been co-opted by the opposition.

“My interest is in solving this case,” said Furman, 75, who visits the site of the bombing once a month with a small group of Argentines who also lost relatives. “Everything else is just politics.”

Argentina is home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population, with anywhere from 180,000 to 250,000 members. Starting with the arrival of eight families in 1888, the community has blossomed. Synagogues and delis punctuate the cityscape of cafés and pastry shops, and Jews are in positions of political prominence, from the cabinet to congress.

While the community has never been monolithic, the events of recent months are bringing divisions to the surface amid orchestrated attempts to divide the population, local leaders said.

“The community is heterogeneous, but we’re also living in a country where the strategy is to try to divide us,” said Waldo Wolff, the vice president of the Delegation of Israeli Argentine Associations (DAIA), an umbrella group for more than 100 Jewish organizations. “There is unity, but there will always be a sector that gravitates toward those in power.”

At the heart of the recent tensions are Nisman and the case he was trying to crack. For a decade, the Jewish prosecutor had been pursuing the theory that Iran was behind the deadly bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association, or AMIA.

Based in part on his work, Interpol issued arrest warrants for seven officials in 2007, including Mohsen Rabbani, Iran’s cultural attaché in Buenos Aires at the time of the attack.

The case took an abrupt turn in 2013, when Argentina and Iran agreed to form a truth commission. Administration officials here argued that the deal would help illuminate the case, but Nisman saw it as a way to undermine his investigation.

In the days before Jan. 18, when Nisman was found in his home with a single gunshot to the head, he had accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her Jewish Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, among others, of trying to cover up Iran’s role in the bombing in exchange for a grain-for-oil deal.

The administration denies the allegations and has ridiculed the charges, saying Iran’s sulfur-rich oil is incompatible with local refineries and that Teheran isn’t an important export market for Argentine grain. But Nisman’s unresolved death, which came just hours before he was to make his case to congress, started a political firestorm.

Traditionally, the Jewish community has been part of the establishment and willing to adapt to whoever is in power, said Sergio Bergman, an opposition deputy and a rabbi. But Nisman’s death and the memorandum of understanding with Iran changed the equation.

“After the memorandum, there was no more maneuvering room for us,” he said. “The community could no longer be compliant.”

As powerful Jewish organizations like the DAIA and the AMIA became more vocal in their opposition to the administration, the government nurtured and formed groups that would fall in line.

A recent example is a movement unveiled last month by Jorge Elbaum, the former head of the DAIA, who doesn’t hide his ruling-party sympathies. In interviews, he has accused Nisman of serving CIA interests and speculated that his death was a suicide.

Elbaum has also accused the DAIA and AMIA of being opposition pawns beholden to foreign interests. Both organizations were at Wednesday’s massive demonstration to mark the month since Nisman died, and which the government has said was an anti-administration rally. Elbaum’s unnamed movement has called for a meeting later this year with the aim of providing an alternative to the powerful pair.

There’s a fine line, however, between organizational sniping and something darker, said Wolff with the DAIA.

“Every Jew has the right to feel or not to feel represented by us,” he said. “What we will not allow is those who say we represent foreign or economic interests. That’s the same diatribe, the same message, that anti-Semites from the right and the left have made for years. It’s a lie.”

Attempts to divide the community are a longtime administration tactic, Bergman said.

“This is the same method used by the national government to co-opt institutions, groups, social movements and just causes,” he said. “[Elbaum’s] group really doesn’t exist, it’s just political maneuvering.”

But some see a legitimate need for alternate points of view. Furman, who lost his 30-year-old son in the attack, is a member of 18J Association — a reference to July 18, 1994, the day of the bombing.

The organization is seen as an administration front-group by many. But Furman said it reflects his belief that the Iran-Argentina truth commission was a step in the right direction, rather than a cover-up strategy, as the opposition press and groups such as the DAIA maintain.

“We spent 20 years going around in circles with nothing to show for it,” he said of the investigation. “And then came the memorandum. At the very least, it was a thread of hope. But now the memorandum is dead.”

Even some who don’t support the government believe that the Iran connection is a dead end.

Pablo Gitter is a member of APEMIA, a lobbying group pushing to solve the AMIA case. APEMIA broke away from Memoria Activa, another community advocacy organization, in 2001, alleging it was too cozy with the government.

Gitter’s group maintains that Argentine intelligence forces played a role in the bombing and that the government, Nisman and mainstream Jewish groups have been reluctant to expose the truth.

“Why am I going to believe them just because they say it was the Iranians?” asked Gitter, who is pushing legislation that would open sealed state archives. “Before the Iranians, they accused the Syrians, and before the Syrians they accused the Libyans and before all of them … they accused the Russians.”

He said his group had cordial relations with Nisman but was frustrated by the prosecutor’s insistence of going after Teheran rather than looking for local connections.

“We will never solve the AMIA case if the government of Argentina and the DAIA keep investigating with their back turned on the truth,” he said.

The kaleidoscope of views and attitudes has made for tension. Gabi Fryszberg, a 52-year-old survivor of the AMIA bombing, says he’s learned to keep his opinions to himself at the synagogue and during community meetings.

In many corners, Nisman is now seen as a hero and champion of the Jewish cause, but Fryszberg said he didn’t share that view.

“He didn’t help clear anything up,” he said of Nisman’s 10-year investigation. “And the whole thing has been completely politicized.”

If there is a bright side to recent events, it’s that the AMIA case is back in the news. And while Nisman’s death was seen as an attack on Argentina as a whole, the Jewish community was particularly affected, Bergman said.

“We always come together when there’s an outside threat,” he said. “When there’s no threat, all we have is internal squabbles.”

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