The mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman in January 2015 has disrupted the political landscape in Argentina and eroded public trust in President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government.
Nisman’s death has also had a profound effect on Argentina’s Jewish community—the largest in Latin America—that once again faces age-old accusations of double loyalties, raising questions about their full inclusion in Argentine society. But worse, Nisman’s death and the official reaction have also presented serious risks for broader civil society in Argentina that go beyond the country’s Jewish community.
Since 2004, Nisman had been investigating the 1994 AMIA bombing (the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history, which killed 85 people and destroyed the AMIA or Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society). The AMIA was established by immigrant Jews in the late 19th century along with other community organizations, social clubs, schools and places of worship. In response to fascism and rising anti-Semitism, the community also created the DAIA (Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations) to represent its political interests. AMIA, DAIA and IWO (a Yiddish archive) were housed in a single building that was destroyed in the 1994 bombing, a case that remains unsolved.
This January, days before he died, Nisman had made controversial claims against President Fernández de Kirchner and key members of her administration in relation to their alleged negotiations with Iran about the AMIA case in exchange for better trade relations. (They denied the allegations.)
The Argentine courts have since dismissed Nisman’s claims, though that does not necessarily mean they are without merit. Meanwhile, the investigation into Nisman’s death continues, leaving more questions than answers.
Following the AMIA bombing in 1994, then President Carlos Menem famously called Israel to offer his condolences, even though the association was actually an Argentine organization. His act underscored the historic problem Argentine Jews have faced: accusations of double loyalty and questions as to their full belonging to, and inclusion in, Argentina.
Argentina’s Jews responded in various ways. On the one hand, Memoria Activa (one of the advocacy groups formed after the attack) prominently displayed Jewish traditions in public spaces (such as blowing the shofar, a ram’s horn traditionally used in Jewish religious tradition) during their weekly protests in the plaza facing the high courts of Argentina. On the other, certain Jewish practices and spaces became more separate from the rest of public life. Security and cement barricades were stationed at every Jewish space (a change that was adopted in other Latin American Jewish communities as well), suggesting they felt unprotected without private security, but further creating a symbolic distancing for Jewish customs and traditions from the rest of the society.
The Nisman case has created new fault lines in the Argentine Jewish community – internally and in relation to the government. A new group identifying as “Argentines of Jewish origin,” organized a petition challenging the leadership of the AMIA and DAIA, arguing that they do not feel fully represented.
Of greater concern, however, is how the case has given rise to accusations against AMIA and DAIA’s leadership, including treason and obstructing the AMIA investigation.
Last month, President Fernández de Kirchner accused AMIA and DAIA leaders of having connections with the “vulture funds” —the New York-based hedge funds that have held out on Argentina’s debt, refusing to accept a buy-out. The President even went so far as to suggest that Nisman played a role in bringing the principal holders of those bonds together with Jewish community leaders.
According to the government’s account, ATFA (American Task Force Argentina, noted as being supported by hedge fund manager Paul Singer) wanted to undermine Argentina by challenging its 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Iran to create a “truth commission” to investigate the bombing. The government alleged that Nisman pressured the Jewish community to join him in challenging the MOU, thereby smearing the government.
It may very well be true that the hedge funds sought to weaken Argentina’s credibility as a way to further their own cause. Yet, this does not mean there weren’t legitimate reasons for questioning the MOU with Iran and the idea of a “truth commission” to be held there—which from when it was announced in 2013 seemed of questionable judgment to many.
AMIA and DAIA leaders are now facing a judicial investigation accusing them of treason (traición a la patria), charges they vehemently deny. These are troubling accusations for any member of a society. And although the government did not initiate this particular trial, accusations from official sectors against the Jewish community raise questions about the possibility for dissent and critique, so central to civil society, irrespective of the community.
The trials and investigations related to the AMIA bombing and the Nisman death continue in Argentina. We can hope that at least in some cases, they will result in truth and justice. Yet, in the process, it is just as important to fully support civil society, including freedom of expression and maintaining an open space for dissent—values just as critical to the very fabric of an inclusive democracy.