BUENOS AIRES — Argentina has the largest Jewish population in Latin America, at roughly a quarter-million people. But when the Foreign Ministry holds its annual Holocaust commemoration ceremony Tuesday evening, the country’s most important Jewish organization will not be in attendance.
The rift between the government and the Jewish community here is another consequence of the turmoil wrought by the death of a top prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, earlier this month. For years, Nisman had been the lead investigator into the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center AMIA (the Spanish initials for the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association). But recently, Nisman was focused less on the attack and more on his own government, which he accused of working secretly to freeze the investigation and absolve Iranian officials of blame.
His accusations against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and others, followed quickly by his own shooting death, have outraged Jewish leaders here.
“There are certain moments in life when people have to stand up for their dignity,” Waldo Wolff, vice president of the umbrella group of the country's Jewish organizations, Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations (DAIA), said of the decision not to attend the ceremony. “A large part of the Foreign Ministry is accused of collaborating” in a coverup, he said, and absolving Iran.
Many people at AMIA and DAIA knew Nisman personally and had worked with him, as he had led the prosecutors' team on the bombing case since 2004. Several credit Nisman — who was Jewish, though not particularly active in the religious community — of resuscitating the stalled investigation and working with passion and intensity to find the truth.
“This was an act of war in the middle of Argentina,” said Marta Nercellas, a lawyer formerly with AMIA. “There are answers that the society needs, and the state has the obligation to find them.”
But relations with him were not always easy. The organization’s leadership disagreed with Nisman’s decision not to appeal the results of the oral trial in 2004 that absolved suspects for lack of evidence. More recently, Nisman looked into some members of the Jewish organizations. Even before Nisman’s recent accusations against the government, Jewish leaders here were upset by a 2013 memorandum of understanding between Argentina and Iran to look into the attack jointly. Fernandez has described that rapprochement as intended to move the case forward, but others, including Nisman, saw it as cozying up to the perpetrators to get oil.
“The agreement with Iran does not have any moral legitimacy,” said Jorge Kirszenbaum, former head of DAIA. After the memorandum came out, Kirszenbaum said he wrote a letter to his organization recommending that it consider revoking the membership of Hector Timerman, the foreign minister.
Nisman's death has deeply shaken the Argentine government. In a nearly 300-page complaint that he had prepared, Nisman singles out Timerman — son of Jacobo Timerman, the famous journalist and Zionist who was arrested and tortured during Argentina’s dirty war in the '70s — for carrying out the secret negotiations with Iranian officials to effectively end the investigation. Hector Timerman has denied any wrongdoing.
“The community is very angry with him,” Kirszenbaum said.