How anti-Semitism corrupts democracy
On July 18, 1994, unknown attackers bombed the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (whose Spanish acronym is AMIA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. This still-unresolved terrorist attack killed 87 people and injured more than 100. It stands as the world’s most lethal anti-Semitic attack since World War II.
This week, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the greatest single loss of Jewish lives outside Israel since the Holocaust, it is imperative that we grapple with anti-Semitism as a global issue. An ideology that combines racism and right-wing politics, anti-Semitism has long pervaded Europe and the United States — and South America. This region’s anti-Semitism, however, has long been neglected and ignored by international bodies like the United Nations.
To combat anti-Semitism, countries like the United States and Argentina must grapple with forces of populism that enable anti-Semitism today. As the attack on the AMIA showed, when anti-Semitism in a democracy is not called out and stopped, the democracy itself is at risk.
The AMIA was established in 1894 to promote the development of Jewish life in Argentina, where it has a long and rich history. In addition to creating one of Buenos Aires’s first Jewish cemeteries, it provided charity to the needy, created a health-care cooperative, and sponsored educational, recreational and cultural activities.
Over the course of the 20th century, as the organization continued to provide key services to the community, other associations like the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA), which was also housed at the AMIA building, responded to local and global anti-Semitism. During the 1930s and 1940s, DAIA denounced fascist violence in Argentina and Germany, and it helped collect funds for Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust. Four decades later, both the AMIA and the DAIA tried, and often failed, to challenge the anti-Semitic dimensions of Argentina’s dirty-war dictatorship in the 1970s.
By the 1990s, the organizations’ activities included research on Jewish history. The country had extended a warm reception to Nazi war criminals after World War II. The DAIA’s research investigated Nazi activities and anti-Semitism in Argentina after the war. (One of the authors of this piece, Federico Finchelstein, worked for the DAIA at 19 years old as a research assistant for a project about Nazism and anti-Semitism in Argentina.)
When the AMIA building was bombed, Argentina’s government, headed by populist President Carlos Menem, was not interested in bringing the perpetrators to justice. In fact, Menem was later indicted (but ultimately cleared) on charges that he had conspired to derail the investigation.
Rather than investigating the crime, the president’s populist brand of “Menemism” enabled a discussion about whether Jews were truly Argentine. In a country that often assumed a Catholic identity, Jews, no matter how long-established, were often regarded as second-class citizens. They faced particular discrimination and anti-Semitism during the country’s dictatorships.
The 1994 attack provided an opportunity to revive an old Argentine tradition of racism. Television news reports on private and state-operated channels repeatedly distinguished between “Argentines” and “Jewish” casualties. Instead of focusing on the horrific loss of lives, the official response and media reporting invigorated a culture of racism and anti-Semitism.
Even after succeeding the right-wing Menem, Argentina’s left-wing, populist Peronist leaders have done little to investigate the attack on the AMIA. In 2004, the Peronist government of Nestor Kirchner named a special prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, to finally solve the case. He prepared a case showing government complicity in the cover-up of the attack.
On Jan. 19, 2015, he was due to present to the Argentine Congress his evidence implicating the country’s president, Cristina Kirchner, in protecting the Iranian government from accountability for its alleged role in the bombing. But Nisman died the day before his testimony, his death ruled officially a suicide. In practice, the investigation into the AMIA case died with him.
Twenty-five years later, Argentine populist leaders on both the left and the right have failed to secure justice for the 87 victims killed in the AMIA attack. They have chosen not to pursue a thorough investigation because doing so would open an inquiry into the dark dimensions of Argentina’s security apparatus, which has long condoned, and at times even endorsed, racism and anti-Semitism.
But failure to consider racism and anti-Semitism as dangerous and harmful to Argentine society only emboldened the attackers of the AMIA in 1994. Official indifference at the political level also fueled continued anti-Semitism. Recently, this indifference continued under neoliberal President Mauricio Macri, who chose for his vice-presidential candidate in this fall’s presidential elections a Peronist senator who infamously differentiated the AMIA victims as being either “Argentines” or “Jews” — rather than recognizing most victims as the Argentine Jewish citizens they were.
The unsolved AMIA bombing is of critical historical importance, not only for the Jewish community in Argentina or for those who lost family members, colleagues and friends in the attack, but for Argentina itself.
Today, anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence is increasing around the world. If the United States once showed an interest in deterring such attacks, the Trump administration’s embrace of white-nationalist slogans and supporters has undermined its global leadership combating anti-Semitism. American and Argentine politics are finally aligned in disturbing ways.
As Elie Weisel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Continued indifference is not an option. As Argentina’s response to the 1994 attack shows us, when anti-Semitism in a democracy is not called out and stopped, the democracy itself is at risk. When a nation is indifferent to violence and racism facing Jews and other vulnerable populations, the nation is not safe at all.
Federico Finchelstein y Rebecca Kobrin