Post Pinochet

Jewish women lead rights battles in South America

in memory of Susy Kreiman, killed in the bombing

On July 18, 1994, at 9:50 am, a powerful bomb blew up a square block in downtown Buenos Aires. The immediate objective of the explosion was the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, the AMIA, a building housing most of Argentina’s major Jewish organizations. Despite its primary intention to murder Jews and burn Jewish property, the bomb did not discriminate: Jews and non-Jews, some one hundred of them, were killed that day, and apartment houses, schools, and stores in the area were destroyed. Images of the block on Pasteur Street where the AMIA stood resembled cities like Sarajevo or Beirut or Kosovo, a city’s guts ripped out by ethnic violence.

The bomb that exploded at the AMIA is painful testimony to the fact that Argentina, like many other Latin American countries, is yet to cohere a pluralistic national polity. Despite its manias de superioridad, its European airs, with Buenos Aires styled the Paris of the South, Argentina is painfully Latin American, still struggling with issues of human rights, diversity, equality for peoples of varying social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, of different sexual orientations. The mask of Europeanness Argentina wears not only erases the existence of its indigenous and mestizo peoples, degradingly called cabecitas negras, blackheads, but also the presence of non-European immigrants, such as Afro-Asian Sephardic Jews and Arabs. For instance, the current president, Carlos Saul Menem, is the son of Muslim-Syrian immigrants; he had to convert to Catholicism in order to run for the presidency. The mask of Europeanness further erases the divergence among so-called Europeans; not all descendants of Europeans have similar clout.

Most of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews, the largest community in Latin America, are of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European stock, but Steimberg or Aizenberg do not have the same weight as Rodriguez or Borges, nor do their cultural-linguistic heritages. Argentine-Jewish writers, among them many women like Siliva Plager, Manuela Fingueret, Reina Roffe, Alicia Steimberg, and Ana Maria Shua caustically take on this linguistic and onomastic bigotry in some of their best works. Here is Steimberg from her award-winning novel, Cuando digo Magdalena (When I say Magdalena): “Remember how Borges used to say that he would speak to one grandmother in one way and to another grandmother in another way, and that those two ways of speaking were called Spanish and English? [the author Jorge Luis  Botrges had an English immigrant grandmother.] Well, something similar happened to me, except that in my case one way of speaking was Spanish and the other Yiddish. But since Yiddish sounded harsh and unpleasant to me, I refused to speak it. It was a mysterious language that could reveal to me who I really was. From childhood I was expected to hide, to cover up, who I ‘really’ was and to pretend that I was someone else, who, strangely, I also was.” Her Magdalena is a marginal being, wit ha Jewish and womanly identity so questioned that even her name is unstable: “When I say Magdalena”; it’s just a provisional name.

Shua gives an analogously tragicomic picture in her Libro de los recuerdos, recently translated into English as The Book of Memories (University of New Mexico Press). “The surname Rimetka was the result of a combination of auditory expertise and orthographic arbitrariness of some civil servant who attempted to decipher a document written in another language by providing his own interpretation of a surname that he thought a foreigner from Poland should have. … Like so many other immigrants, the Rimetka family has acquired an intensely national name, a truly indigenous product, much more authentically Argentine than a correctly spelled Spanish surname.”

For one hundred years, since the time Argentina pursued a pro-European immigration policy aimed at populating and modernizing the land, there has been an ongoing battle between those forces who wish to retain the discourse of exclusion and those who wish to embrace a discourse of inclusion that mirrors what the nation really is. The events surrounding the AMIA bombing, especially the subsequent investigation, give a good picture of the struggle. First, who planted the bomb? Apparently, international terrorists, under the direction of Iran. But nothing is sure. Four years after the explosion, there is “still no justice,” to cite the painful title of a report issued by the American Jewish Committee. Those who destroyed Argentina’s main enter of Jewish life have not been found; nor, for that matter, have those who perpetrated the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier.

Why? Because, most observers believe, powerful local Argentine interests are implicated. Police groups with ties to the military, to neo-Nazis, to right-wing activists—in short, to those elements in Argentine society who have always viewed Jews as an alien, diabolical body, and who have attacked Jewish institutions and denounced “Jewish” professions, such as psychoanalysis. On the other hand, soon after the bomb there was a mass march of tens of thousands of Argentines of diverse backgrounds and creeds to show solidarity with the victims and to repudiate the violence. There were also many expressions of support from the intellectual community, a community that understands all too well the dangers of murder and destruction as forms of political coercion and cultural censorship.

The novelist Tomás Eloy Martinez reminded Argentines on the pages of the daily Página Doce that it was not so long before that Argentines disappeared under a brutal military dictatorship, and death squads roamed Buenos Aires. The current evil, Martinez insists, cannot be disconnected from the past. Argentines want to forget what happened then, to pardon the perpetrators, and they want to forget now as well through cowardly calls for isolating Jews. But repressed horrors return with a vengeance, Martinez warns. Let us not fear; let us not forget. A similar cry was sounded by Marjorie Agosin, the Jewish human rights activist and author, now a professor at Wellesley College, who has chronicled terror and memory in Argentina and in her native Chile, still reeling from the blood-chilling Pinochet years. “Silence shrouded us with a great sinister cape,” Agosin writes in Always from Somewhere Else (Feminist Press). “Fear shaved our souls.” Her loving memoir, newly published in English, is dedicated to her immigrant father who left Chile to escape persecution, and to the Jewish and non-Jewish victims of European and Latin American fascism. The AMIA bombing, Agosin says painfully and defiantly, wanted to erase memory, but did not succeed, since many, many people, especially daughters, wives and mothers, refuse to forget.

The most vocal group in the fight to remember and to bring those responsible to justice is Memoria Activa, the significantly-named grassroots organization of private citizens, most but not all Jewish, most but not all relatives of the AMIA explosion’s victims. Women are the motor behind Memoria Activa, so much so that they have been called “las madres de la calle Pasteur,” the mothers of Pasteur Street, in analogy with the now-legendary Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared who during the seventies dictatorship weekly circled Buenos Aires’ main square clamoring for information about their children, clamoring for justice.

Led by Norma Lew (president), Diana Malamud (secretary), and Laura Ginsberg (treasurer), three mothers and wives who lost children and husbands in the AMIA catastrophe, Memoria Activa refuses to play ball with the government, unlike Argentine Jewry’s official representatives. It dismisses the authorities’ so-called investigation as a sham that diverts attention from local culprits by concentrating on the supposed Iranian connection. Every Monday since the bombing, Memoria Activa members and sympathizers gather at another Buenos Aires Square, across from the Supreme Court, under thee banner of the command from Deuteronomy, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue.

Memoria Activa has garnered considerable media attention and significant moral weight. The list of those who have stood with Memoria Activa on so many Mondays, and who have spoken at vigils, reads like a who’s who of democratically-minded Argentina. Here is what Laura Bonaparte of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo said on Monday October 20, 1997: “Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And this society is trying to put together the broken body of its mother institution. And we have to do this together. Because what happened happened in each and every one of our homes. All of us discovered that state terrorism was alive and well…the state whose silence makes it complicit. The AMIA didn’t abandon us, it was assassinated. Those responsible for the act and for the silence are right here. The legacy of the crime will be perpetuated until such time as the testimony of truth becomes part of the search for justice.”

The conflict between Memoria Activa, the Jewish establishment, and the Menem government became public at the 1997 ceremony marking the third anniversary of the bombing, when the crowd of 30,000 gave a rousing ovation to the tough speech delivered by Memoria Activa’s Laura Ginsberg, and, in the presence of several government ministers, repeatedly interrupted Ruben Beraja, the president of the DAIA, Argentine Jewry’s representative agency. After the fiasco, Beraja was summarily summoned by the Minister of the Interior, Carlos Corach (who, incidentally, is Jewish) to explain the embarrassing protest.

 It is clear, then that the explosion at the AMIA raises serious questions about pluralism in Argentina as it attempts to enter the late twentieth century by overcoming outmoded legacies. Argentine cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo puts it bluntly: Can we find an idea of nation that doesn’t derive from fundamentalism or dictatorship? Will Argentina be a space of oneness—one religion, one language, one color? Or will it be a kaleidoscopic space of multiplicity, where women no longer need to grieve over their shattered dead?

Edna Aizenberg, Professor and Chair of Hispanic Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, is an activist for Jewish rights in Latin America. She is the author of books and essays on Jewish, Latino and women’s issues, including The Aleph Weaver: Bible, Kabbalah and Judaism in Borges.

“The Echo of Memory,” pictured above, was painted by Alicia Messing in memory of those killed in the AMIA bombing. It contains the names of those killed, and is cut in two by a crack, representing the two buildings that were bombed.