Three allegorical murals of the victims of the AMIA bombing on the façade of the Hospital de Clínicas on July 18, 2019 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images.
It was probably the most surreal situation in all my years as an activist for Jewish causes. A mere 48 hours after arriving in Argentina, a country in which I knew nary a soul and did not speak the language, I found myself at the residence of President Carlos Saúl Menem, ensconced by his side in a seat of honor at an emergency meeting of his full cabinet, called for the express purpose of convincing me that I, only lately arrived from New York, was wrong.
The background: a few days earlier, on July 18, a ferocious car-bombing of the headquarters of AMIA—the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, the largest Jewish community center and social-service agency in Buenos Aires—had killed 85 people and wounded 300 more. It was the largest single attack against a Jewish community in the Diaspora since the Holocaust. It was also, as the historian Martin Kramer would argue presciently in Commentary a few months later, the opening of a new phase in jihadist strategy: a shift from anti-Israelism to war against Jews everywhere, a form of anti-Semitism “so widespread and potentially violent that it could eclipse all other forms of anti-Semitism over the next decade.”
In one instant, I knew I had to go. Two years earlier, on March 17, 1992, terrorists had also bombed the Israel embassy in Buenos Aires, resulting in 29 dead and many more injured, and in the intervening years not a single person had been apprehended. When terrorist activity is left unpursued, it sends a message: you’re a soft target, and can be attacked with impunity.
Which is exactly what had now happened again in Argentina, even more explosively. On July 18, CNN’s graphic coverage of AMIA’s shattered seven-story building revealed the broken bodies of men and women amid the smoking wreckage of the blast as, outside, screaming friends and relatives tried desperately to push through police lines for word of their loved ones.
I asked a colleague who ran the Chabad synagogue in my neighborhood if his counterparts in Buenos Aires could help me find my way once there. I also asked Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City, and Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York State, if they could provide signed letters to President Menem supporting my trip—and urging the Argentine government to find, arrest, and punish the perpetrators. They obliged within a matter of hours.
In traveling to the scene, I hoped to make some impact on the morale of Argentine Jewry, to bring them the message that the Jewish people everywhere cared about them and were horrified by the murderous assault against them. And I hoped personally and publicly to underline the message contained in the letters from the mayor and governor.
What I didn’t necessarily expect then, what I didn’t have time to consider before I left, was the possibility of an even more outrageous cover-up than the one that followed the 1992 bombing. Today, after the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, justice still has not been served.
But let me begin from the beginning.
BUENOS AIRES: JULY 20-24, 1994
Upon arrival in Buenos Aires on July 20, I was met by the Chabad rabbi, Avraham Benchimol, who drove me to the scene at AMIA. Though I tried to steel myself, I was sickened by what I found. The AMIA building in the crowded city center had been reduced to a pile of contorted metal, concrete, and brick. The ruins were being poked and prodded by rescue workers engaged in the grisly task of searching for human remains—and the increasingly hopeless hunt for survivors. All around I could hear cries of anguish as workers emerged with plastic bags containing scraps of clothing and pieces of flesh.
As Israeli soldiers and Argentine demolition experts pressed the search for survivors, the loud noise from cranes, picks, and shovels shattered our ears—except for once on that first day when the rescue workers’ sensors needed absolute quiet in order to detect even the faintest sounds of life, and a sudden silence fell as if the world had stood still.
Rabbi Benchimol dragged me away from the scene to AMIA’s makeshift headquarters several blocks away, where families were gathered awaiting news. They sat in somber clutches, hoping against hope, dreading the news that would confirm their fears. With the rabbi as my translator, I stayed there for many hours, offering what little healing I could, otherwise just keeping watch.
Two meetings with victims’ families from that day have stayed with me most vividly. One was with Ana Blugerman, an employee of AMIA, whose twenty-one-year-old daughter Paola Czyzewski had accompanied her to work that fateful morning. Sobbing, at first unable to speak, Ana haltingly explained that, moments before the blast, she had asked Paola to fetch coffee from a machine down the hall. When the explosion hit, Ana, badly shaken, had somehow managed to escape the building, but Paola had not been seen since, and hope was fading fast. At that very moment, word was expected from the morgue about a just-recovered female corpse, badly burned and unrecognizable.
“It’s my fault,” Ana kept repeating in a shattered voice. Later a morgue worker would inform the family that the corpse in question was not Paola. Momentarily relieved, they struggled not to raise their hopes too high; the next day would indeed confirm that their child had died.
In the second encounter, I was sitting with the Averbuch family when they learned that the body of their daughter Yanina, a social worker at AMIA, had been identified. Absorbing the news, Yanina’s father, Dr. Mario Averbuch, and her twelve-year-old brother Jonathan sat facing each other with their knees interlocked, unspeaking, shaking and sobbing in unison.
Beyond the anguish, there was also great fear that the terrorists would strike again, that a Jewish school or synagogue would be the next target. And there was a secondary fear as well: that, as wary Gentiles took steps to keep a safe distance between themselves and such proven targets, the Jewish community of Buenos Aires would become effectively quarantined—in a word, ghettoized.
And then something strange happened. As I made my rounds among the families, I was approached by an elegant-looking man who, guiding me to a quiet alcove where we wouldn’t be overheard, explained that as one who lived part-time in Buenos Aires and part-time in New York, he knew of my activism and wanted to help me. Cautioning me never to refer to him by name in public, he said: “I have little trust in the Jewish establishment here. I do not believe they are willing to press our government to pursue the truth about the bombings. But I have some influence in Argentina and excellent contacts with people in government and the media. Would you like me to arrange a meeting with the president?”
He was Baruch Tenembaum (as I’m now permitted to say): teacher, professor, interfaith activist, humanitarian, a founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, and much more. Stunned, I immediately gave my assent, overjoyed to have found not only an ally but one as convinced as I that, without sustained pressure and protest, the murderers would never be exposed.
The following morning, I visited several hospitals where many victims of the blast had been taken. Some were badly wounded and only just clinging to life; for others, the devastation was more mental and psychological than physical, as with one uninjured but traumatized woman, Rosa by name, who lay mute and motionless. A nurse explained that she had been walking in front of the AMIA building with her five-year-old son Sebastian when the blast hit. Though the mother had emerged physically unscathed, a piece of shrapnel had pierced the boy’s head, killing him instantly.
I also recall vividly the agony of Angel Kreiman, a Conservative rabbi and a wonderful man. (The Conservative movement was strong in Argentina, though unfortunately its rabbis were largely shunned by their Orthodox colleagues.) Angel’s wife, Susy, worked at AMIA helping people find employment. When I saw him that night, he and his daughters were sitting in the temporary building, waiting fearfully for news. We sat together, sometimes conversing in short bursts. When, three days later, I ran into Angel just before flying home, he said tearfully that he had still not received word concerning his wife. I promised I would call the minute I reached New York. By the time I did, Angel and his children were already sitting shiva.
Later that afternoon on my second day, there was a huge rally in the square near the annihilated building. In total, 150,000 people turned out for the demonstration, carrying signs and chanting slogans demanding that the guilty be brought to justice. President Menem appeared on the podium but did not speak. When his name was announced, there was an unmistakable chorus of boos.
It was clear to anyone with ears to hear that the public distrusted Menem to pursue the terrorists. His administration had made no progress on the prior attack on the Israel embassy, in whose wake the security services had shown a puzzling indifference to highly credible warnings from various intelligence sources of likely further assaults against Jewish targets. In general, security in Argentina remained appallingly lax, both at entry points like the Ezeiza International Airport and along the traditionally porous borders with Paraguay and Brazil that for decades had allowed former Nazi mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele to slip back and forth with impunity.
As rain fell over the demonstration, we began singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s haunting melody to the Psalmist’s cry: “I pour forth my heart like water, seeking God’s favor.” The heavens seemed to be shedding tears with us.
Early the next morning, a Friday, I had breakfast with Joe Goldman, a veteran Buenos Aires-based correspondent of UPI and a highly knowledgeable observer of the Argentine political scene. His co-written book, Curtains of Smoke, outspokenly critical of the security forces’ investigation of the 1992 embassy bombing, would appear a few months later.
Our personal connection—I had performed Joe’s first marriage many years before—engendered trust between us, and he readily gave me an insider’s analysis of the bombings. There were concerns among many, he said, about President Menem’s Syrian connections. Of Syrian ancestry himself, Menem was raised Catholic by parents who had converted upon emigrating to Argentina. Meanwhile, Menem’s estranged wife, Zulema, also a member of Argentina’s large Syrian community, had remained an Alawite Muslim, the same sect to which the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad belonged.
When Menem first took over, he had pleasantly surprised people by traveling to Israel, proclaiming his friendship for the Jewish state, and vowing to protect Argentine Jews. Yet, in a worrying sign, he also maintained warm relations with the Syrian dictator.
By then I was aware of a well-known Washington whistleblower, Martin Edwin Andersen, who wrote almost a month before the AMIA attack, on a day when President Bill Clinton was meeting Menem in Washington, urging the former to keep the latter at arm’s length and warning that Menem was “incorporat[ing] many gangsterish elements once purged from public life into his own administration. Under Mr. Menem, Argentina has become a waystation for Middle East terrorists.”
Among the most prominent of those “gangsterish elements” was Colonel Oscar Pasquel Guerrieri, whom Menem had appointed as an adviser to the state intelligence agency (SIDE). During the harsh military regimes in the 1970s and early 80s, Guerrieri had overseen two detention camps, and in 1985 had been a central figure in trying to topple Raúl Alfonsin, Menem’s liberal-democratic predecessor. He did so in part by phoning in death threats to schools throughout the country, the first of which was a Jewish preschool. (In describing Guerrieri’s nefarious activities I draw from Andersen’s piece.) That Guerrieri had been praised and awarded with high positions by Menem—instead of being jailed for participating in a reign of terror—spoke volumes about the latter’s political principles.
As for the Syrian connection and Argentina’s role as, in Andersen’s words, “a waystation for Middle East terrorists,” Menem had, for example, appointed his Syrian brother-in-law, Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, as head of security at the international airport—despite the fact that al-Ibrahim hardly spoke Spanish.
It was also known that Menem had designated “ZaZa” Martinez—a notorious criminal—as director of immigration. Martinez had allowed the entry into the country of Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian thought to have taken part in planning and executing a number of terrorist attacks, including the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Soon afterward, al-Kassar was granted Argentinean citizenship.
It was thus beyond doubt that well before the AMIA bombing, Menem and his allies had helped render the Jewish community vulnerable to attack. In sum, it was highly likely that a nexus of homegrown “gangsters” and Arab jihadists had planned the AMIA attack and could be planning further anti-Semitic violence. Even without proof of the bombers’ specific identities, I believed the best hope for preventing another tragedy lay in warning Menem that failure to pursue the perpetrators could sabotage his all-important relationship with Washington.
That day I’d planned to hold a demonstration to reinforce that message. But to my surprise I learned that my anonymous stranger/friend had indeed already secured a meeting with the president, and I was soon taken to his palatial residence and ushered into the living room.
Menem, accompanied by a woman translator, smiled broadly and shook my hand with a show of great warmth—“show” being the operative word. Immediately after shaking hands he launched into a recital of his agonized emotions over the AMIA attack and the heavy loss of life of his Jewish compatriots.
I waited for a pause in this flowery outburst before interjecting, “Mr. President, why Buenos Aires? Why a second time?” Handing him the letters from Cuomo and Giuliani, I emphasized especially the mayor’s strongly worded point: “It is imperative that those who committed the crime be brought to justice. The swift resolution of this case will send the message that future attacks will not be tolerated.” Then I asked why the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York could be found soon thereafter while, two years after the Israel embassy bombing in Buenos Aires, no one had yet been apprehended.
Predictably, Menem embarked on a defense of his government’s actions. Argentina’s situation, he said, was shared by many countries victimized by acts of terror—but was I aware that he had invited an elite Israeli army unit to pick through the rubble of the AMIA bombing, even though the invitation had angered many powerful people, especially in the military? Besides, his intelligence services had already concluded that a terror group, based in southern Lebanon and backed by Iran, had been behind the earlier bombing.
Menem shook his head dismissively when I pointed out that, if the terror group in question operated out of southern Lebanon, then Syria, which at the time physically controlled the area, was also likely involved. Whether for reasons of ethnic and familial solidarity, or because Syria was then a “respectable” member of the world community, he seemed to prefer laying full blame on Iran.
After again stressing his deep sympathy for the victims, Menem changed the subject by launching a personal attack on Rubén Ezra Beraja, president of the preeminent Argentine Jewish community organization DAIA (Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas). Angrily, he charged Beraja with failing to silence those who had booed him at the mass rally the day before.
From my point of view, while it was true that Beraja had not quieted the crowd, his speech at the rally had been bland; it lacked intensity and emotion, and didn’t challenge Menem to do more. While listening to the speech I had wondered whether Beraja was free enough to speak out given that the large bank he headed was dependent on the Menem government.
Notwithstanding those concerns, I was determined not to let Menem use me to discredit the Jewish leader. “I agree with Beraja 100 percent,” I answered. “It was important for you, Mr. President, to hear the sentiments of the crowd.” And I continued: “You are accusing Iran of being behind these bombings. Why not investigate the possibility that they were carried out by Syrians, or by domestic neo-Nazis, or by some combination of the two?”
“It is inconceivable that Arabs and neo-Nazis could have worked together,” Menem rejoined. He seemed especially sensitive to the charge that neo-Nazis were involved, perhaps because they could have included some whom he had placed in high intelligence and security positions.
“Why not?” I asked. “Hitler worked closely with the mufti of Jerusalem. It is critical that you open a serious and comprehensive investigation, one that examines all possible variants.”
If Menem was stung by my impertinence, he didn’t show it. Instead, after more than an hour of give-and-take, he invited me to attend a full cabinet meeting that same afternoon. Why so solicitous? Perhaps the letters I gave him from Giuliani and Cuomo led him to believe that I had more influence than I did. And perhaps Baruch Tenembaum had convinced him that if he could win me over, I’d be useful in defusing the criticism of others.
Whatever the reason, Menem urged my attendance even after I noted that the early onset of the Sabbath prohibited my showing up at the appointed time. He solved the problem by offering to hold the cabinet meeting earlier, and—breaking his previous stipulation that I be the only Jewish leader there—even accepted my condition that the DAIA president also be allowed to take part.
The scene when I arrived back at the presidential residence that afternoon was even weirder than earlier. There must have been 40 men in the living room. Taking me by the arm, Menem introduced me to the foreign minister, the defense minister, and then to the interior minister, Carlos Corach—who, the president hastened to inform me, was Jewish. Next he gestured me to sit beside him in front of the room. Noticing Beraja standing in the very back, and risking Menem’s irritation, I gestured him to come forward and sit next to me.
On a signal from Menem (who had also encouraged me to take notes), the defense minister played a video documenting his department’s efforts to solve the Israeli embassy bombing—efforts, he noted, that had never been made public. The film reenacted the government’s scenario of how the attack took place and identified the Iranian-linked Ansar Allah group as the prime suspect. The president dozed off during the video; roused after it ended, he pressed into my hands a supposedly confidential report on the embassy bombing.
Realizing that it was now almost sunset, I explained to a taken-aback Menem that I couldn’t stay; in fact, the imminent onset of the Sabbath required that I leave immediately. “Please understand,” I told him, “the Sabbath Queen is very loving, but very demanding.” “I like people of faith,” he responded, and then added: “I, too, know some women who are very demanding.”
Over the next several days, I shared Menem’s report with Israeli security operatives who were helping to search for the missing. Their unanimous opinion, pithily stated by one, was that it amounted to “a lot of horse manure.” Every expert I would later consult verified that the report was basically a compilation of rumors and speculation, the net result of which was to confirm that the government had made no serious effort to crack the case.
My final two days before leaving Buenos Aires were devoted mainly to visiting with families still anticipating their grim tidings. After the end of Shabbat I sat with the Goldenberg family, who had set up a permanent vigil at the makeshift AMIA building, awaiting word about their twenty-year-old daughter Cynthia Veronica. Like the rest of the family, her brother Damian, a bright-eyed, long-haired young man, hadn’t been home since the blast six days earlier, so I joined Abraham Skorka, another prominent local Conservative rabbi, in trying to convince him to take a break. Our efforts were cut short when news broke that his sister’s body had been found. Damian sobbed and cried out with fury: “You are rabbis. You are supposed to have the answers. How could this happen? Tell me!” Subsiding into silence, he then cried out: “Elohim! Where is God?”
The worst response from a spiritual leader at such a moment is to intellectualize about the mystery of God’s will. We held Damian in our arms and tried to reassure the family that Jews the world over were grieving with them.
On the final day of my trip, I attended the funeral of Yanina Averbuch and visited the home of the Czyzewskis as they sat shiva for their beloved Paola. Those painful encounters reinforced my will to act.
Just before heading to the airport, I held a well-attended press conference near the site of the bombing. Determined to make clear that I had not been bought off by Menem’s reception, I asked the assembled reporters: “If Menem is so sincere about having done everything to prevent further terrorism after the Israel embassy bombing, why is the Buenos Aires airport still so unsafe? Why is there an almost complete lack of security at the border crossings?”
Arguing that this made smuggling a bomb into the country child’s play, I ventured my opinion that, until security was improved, the U.S. government should consider forbidding flights to Buenos Aires. At a minimum, American citizens should be warned that the country’s security standards were wholly unacceptable.
NEW YORK: SEPTEMBER 26, 1994
Arriving home, I was disheartened to learn that the AMIA bombing had not gotten the attention it deserved in the American media. Fortunately, however, the House committee on foreign affairs was about to conduct hearings on the matter. And so, I flew to Washington where I hoped to discuss my trip with Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Cal), the committee chairman. Lantos was the only Jewish Holocaust survivor serving in Congress; surely, I thought, in him I would find an ally. But instead he was aloof, showed only perfunctory interest in my report, and said it would be impossible for me to participate in the hearings since the list of speakers—mainly, DAIA president Beraja and Raúl Ocampo, Argentina’s ambassador to the U.S.—had already been set.
The hearings did not go well. Ocampo blandly assured the committee that the Menem government was vigorously investigating the bombing. Beraja was also disappointing, declining to criticize his government directly. As a result, the event was largely a squib, eliciting little media interest and accomplishing nothing toward pressuring the Argentine government to investigate more seriously.
Painfully, soon after attending the hearings I would learn that the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, a Jewish-sponsored initiative, was holding a glittering event at New York’s Pierre Hotel on September 26 to honor, as its World Statesman of the Year, none other than Carlos Menem. The announced guest list read like a “Who’s Who” of American Jewish leadership, featuring the heads of many major organizations and, to boot, Israel’s consul general.
This was obscene: while Argentine Jews were mourning their dead and remained fearful of another murderous attack, Menem, under whose watch two major bombings of Jewish institutions had taken place, would be feted and in effect tendered a free pass by the world’s largest Jewish community. The award wasn’t just an affront to the Jews of Argentina; it could place them at even greater risk.
I decided to organize a protest outside the hotel and then to attend the event along with Rabbi David Kalb. Our intention once inside was not to disrupt the proceedings but to find a way of posing a number of direct questions to Menem about his promise to crack the AMIA case. Unfortunately, we never got the chance. Hotel security approached to say they’d been requested by the Appeal of Conscience leadership to ask us to leave. We replied that we couldn’t in good conscience accede to their request. As the security team moved to escort us out, the two of us sat down on the floor.
Sitting there on the floor, we were subjected to angry insults by dinner guests denouncing us for being “an embarrassment” and “bringing shame” to the Jewish people. We retorted that we were there for the families of AMIA victims, and that they, by honoring Menem, were desecrating the memory of the murdered.
The police grabbed David and dragged him by the shoulders head first down two steep flights of stairs and out of the hotel. Two officers, pulling me by the arms, did the same to me. They then threw us into a paddy wagon. At the local precinct, we were placed in a holding cell for several hours, fingerprinted, and—despite the fact that we’d been passive throughout—charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest. The media reported that our arrest had been requested by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
In time, the organized American Jewish community would come to recognize that Menem was a fraud and would do what it could, in its way, to hold him accountable. But that day, its representatives erred grievously.
As for us, while the arrest was brutal, we were heartened by the wide coverage given our protest both in the Argentine media and in Latin American newspapers in New York. To that extent, at least, not all of Menem’s efforts to sweet-talk the American Jewish community had succeeded.
Eight more months went by with little discernible progress having been made toward solving either bombing. In all that time only one man, Carlos Alberto Telleldin, had been detained—though not indicted—in connection with the AMIA bombing. Telleldin was the last owner of the automobile thought to have transported the fatal device. His arrest smacked of a stratagem to produce a low-level scapegoat, thereby shielding higher-ups from suspicion. The investigation was a sham.
BUENOS AIRES: JULY 17–19, 1995
I returned to Buenos Aires for the first anniversary of the AMIA bombing. It was important, I felt, to express solidarity with Argentine Jews—as well as to exert whatever further pressure I could on the government. About a month earlier, it was announced that several Middle Easterners believed connected to the attack had been extradited from Paraguay to Argentina. But no solid evidence was subsequently produced against them, and in fact they would be quietly released once the events marking the anniversary were over.
If I’d arrived anonymously the previous year, by my second visit I’d become something of a public figure. Upon my early-Monday arrival, bleary-eyed, I was met at the airport by reporters and television cameras. Specifying that I’d returned to demand that the Menem government stop dragging its heels, I headed off to several emotional meetings with survivors’ families, who after all were the primary reason for my return.
Then I plunged into a series of interviews with reporters from several of the country’s leading newspapers. This time I was accompanied to all of my meetings by Andy Worms, a bright, indefatigable eighteen-year-old and a member of the local B’nei Akiva religious-Zionist youth movement. Andy spoke fluent Spanish and English, and appeared to be absolutely committed to the cause of winning justice for the victims.
The most important interview turned out to be the one with La Nación, a leading Argentine newspaper. The reporter, Adrian Ventura, pressed me hard as to whether I could concretely prove my assertion that the government was covering up for the real culprits in the two bombings. I was careful with my words. “I believe the government has the wherewithal to find the culprits, but does not have the will,” I said, voicing my expectation that in fact there would be no thorough investigation, since such an investigation “would reveal that high officials in the government or those who worked for them would be implicated.” Noting that the lack of progress in the AMIA case rendered Argentina vulnerable, I told Ventura: “I believe that Buenos Aires is a city that awaits its next terror attack.”
Though Ventura dutifully probed for weak points in my account, he also seemed sympathetic to my claim of a government cover-up. The front-page news story containing my accusations ran in La Nación the following morning. In an op-ed piece published a few days later, Ventura wrote: “What is certain is that after the rabbi’s visit the volume of the discussion has been raised and is now centered on the actions of the security forces.”
Menem, of course, angrily rejected my charges and attacked me personally as “totally delirious.” Beraja concurred, declaring that he “categorically” rejected my accusations. Menem then went farther, pronouncing that whatever I had to say about the investigation had “hurt the Jewish people.” This last comment clearly seemed aimed at Jewish leaders, a warning that if they knew what was best for them, they would separate themselves from me and disavow my charges. Andy told me that Menem’s choice of words wasn’t surprising. In recent days, the president had begun to differentiate between “Argentine” and “Jewish” victims.
Despite my having been criticized by Beraja, scores of Jews greeted me warmly at the morning’s commemorative event. The message from each was essentially the same: “Thank you for saying out loud what we are unable to say.”
That evening, in the largest and most official event, almost 2,000 worshippers crammed into the large Conservative synagogue on Liberdad Street to pay tribute to the AMIA victims. I was escorted to the event by Abraham Skorka, the Conservative rabbi with whom I’d counseled grieving families the year before. Skorka led me to the bimah, filled with many of the top leaders of the Jewish community, and began introducing me to the assembled dignitaries.
Beraja stepped forward to shake my hand. Looking him straight in the eye, I said, “You know I’m right about Menem.” In a voice tinged with disgust, he responded sotto voce, “Do you want to know what kind of man our president really is? Did you know that he played golf last night, on the eve of the anniversary of this terrible bombing?” Privately, at least, the DAIA president seemed to consider Menem a conscienceless lowlife.
Skorka then moved to introduce me to a man I’d seen before but couldn’t immediately place: it was Interior Minister Corach, the Jewish henchman of Menem’s whom I’d met at the ginned-up cabinet meeting a year earlier. I offered to shake his hand, but he turned away, creating a noticeable stir on the dais. Skorka hurriedly steered me from my assigned seat next to Corach (“inadvisable for political reasons,” he whispered delicately) to one near the synagogue’s rabbi. I later learned that Corach had been the only political leader to appear at a memorial program earlier that afternoon, where he’d been roundly booed.
Cantor David Montefiore’s voice filled the vast hall with the kaddish prayer for the dead. From the dais I could see young Jonathan Averbuch and his parents, with whom I had been sitting a year ago as they learned their daughter Yanina’s body had been identified, and Ana Blugerman, who had said she’d never forgive herself for sending her daughter Paola on a fatal mission to fetch coffee.
Afterward on that same evening I went off to a live interview on the Grandona television program. The show, hosted by Mariano Grandona, was a mix of personality profiles and investigative journalism à la 60 Minutes.
Grandona offered to question me in English and translate my responses into Spanish. He began by reading passages from my accusations in La Nación, summarizing for his millions of viewers the thrust of my message. He then asked me: “Do you have any proof for what you have charged, or is this just speculation?” I responded: “My charges are far more than speculation,” and proceeded to spell out my reasons for them. And so it went.
Later that evening I received a frantic call from Andy. Juan José Galeano, the federal judge leading the probe into the bombing, had called the Grandona show after I’d left and demanded that I appear in court the next morning. Was this an invitation, or a subpoena? Unclear. To complicate matters, the next day’s schedule was packed. I was flying back to New York the following evening, but not before joining a small group I’d organized to cross the river separating Argentina from Uruguay in order to test what, if any, security measures were in effect on each side. If they were as bad as those at the airport, they would help prove that Argentina’s borders presented no obstacle to terrorists. Not wanting to change plans, I decided that if Galeano really wanted to see me, he could call me directly.
Early the next morning we headed to the harbor for the hour-long trip by ferry across the Rio de la Plata. We boarded without encountering any demand for passports or a security inspection. My baggage—including a tape recorder and camera, devices commonly used to hide sophisticated bombs—was not checked. Upon our return to Argentina, I jumped over the side railing of the boat onto the street without being required to pass through passport control. The exercise had confirmed our worst suspicions.
I had barely put my feet again on Argentine soil when I received a call from Joe Goldman. “Avi,” he said urgently, “it’s hit the fan. It’s all over television and radio that you didn’t show up at Galeano’s office as required. This is serious.” Clearly I had no choice but to appear in court.
For a judge to have taken this kind of action against a foreign national strongly suggested pressure from high government officials, possibly the president himself. Given that Menem had denounced me as “delirious”—and given that Argentina was only a few years removed from an authoritarian regime known for murdering its citizens—my trepidation was palpable. Arriving, I was caught up in a swirl of reporters shouting questions before being quickly swept away into a tiny room with several youngish-looking legal staffers. Then Galeano walked in and directed me to another small room where his assistant sternly read out an endless series of laws and warned me that if I lied I would be subject to prosecution.
The longer this exercise went on, the more I became convinced that the real point was to scare me into recanting my allegations. Energized by the thought, I quickly and visibly lost patience at being treated like a criminal when all I had done was to state, albeit forcefully, what I believed to be the truth about the government’s culpability. There I was, deprived of my liberty and being relentlessly cross-examined while the perpetrators of two horrific bombings remained at large. Angrily I told Galeano that I felt under semi-arrest and resented being treated like a criminal. “I will not tolerate this kind of treatment,” I shouted. “I have done nothing wrong.”
His demeanor abruptly softened. “All we are trying to do is to get at the facts in this case. We want you to give us as much information as you have.” In reply, I challenged him to expand the investigation by seeking out those responsible for Argentina’s egregious security lapses—recent proof of which I was only too glad to provide.
In this way, six hours passed, until finally Galeano said I was free to leave. As I emerged from the building, I was again surrounded by a crush of reporters shouting questions. Then a man pushed his way through the knot of reporters and embraced me. Explaining that he had lost a relative in the bombing, he said: “Thank you for saying what we feel but are afraid to say.” Soon after, I learned that a high official of DAIA had defended me in similar terms, stating, “I agree with Rabbi Weiss, but I can’t say what he says to the media.” If only temporarily, the words lifted a heavy weight from my heart.
Before leaving for the airport that evening, I stopped off at Rabbi Skorka’s Benei Tikva synagogue. By meeting with Conservative leadership, I was trying to send a message that it was critical for Jews of all denominations to come together. At the meeting we devised the idea of a twinning program between synagogues in the U.S. and Argentina. This, I hoped, would create a connection that might help ease the fear felt by Argentine Jews of more terror attacks or of another overthrow of democracy like the mid-1970s military coup.
As my plane took off, images from this visit flashed through my mind:
- Sergio Bergman, a Reform rabbi, leading a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court building on the morning before the July 18 anniversary—just as he had done every week for the previous twelve months.
- The widows Diana Malamud and Liora Ginsburg proclaiming that “all that we can do for our murdered husbands,” Andres and Kuki, “is to find justice.”
- Moshe Chaufan, whom I had seen close to death in the hospital the year before, telling me “I cannot hear or see from the left side, but I’m here alive.”
What bravery. By comparison, it was easy for me to come in and stir things up for a few days before heading back to New York while they lived every day in fear of local neo-Nazis and Islamist terrorists, and without justice for their loved ones.
In fact, some people, then and now, have questioned my right as a foreigner to parachute in, as it were, make waves for a few days, and then leave, thereby possibly exposing the local Jewish community to even greater danger. It is a serious question. But if the Holocaust, and for that matter, the successful struggle to free Soviet Jewry, taught us anything, it is that strong, nonviolent protest, far from rendering a threatened community more vulnerable, tends to secure it more protection. Thus, it is the sacred responsibility of Jews worldwide to raise a powerful voice of outrage and protest and to mobilize at every level the active intervention of their own governments.
Once back in New York, I contacted Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY), the new chairman of the House committee on international relations, who readily agreed to hold a new set of hearings on the bombings. I was among those invited to address the September 1995 hearings, as was Beraja as head of DAIA. We locked horns. Beraja refrained from criticizing Menem; I denounced Menem.
At the close, through an interpreter, Beraja spoke again: “I will not have a confrontation with Rabbi Weiss,” he said, “but I cannot agree on such a dramatic vision of Argentina. We, the Jewish leadership, have the total freedom to say what we believe we have to say. If we don’t say more, he can criticize us.” While these comments did not surprise me, they saddened me greatly.
BUENOS AIRES: JULY 16–19, 2004
I returned to Buenos Aires to join many thousands of Argentine Jews in observing the tenth anniversary of the bombing of AMIA. After the Sabbath, on the night before the main commemoration, ten people blew shofars in successive waves of notes as, carrying torches, we marched from the Supreme Court to the AMIA site. There, young people gathered to offer a moving presentation of song, dance, drama, and video. Many had been just toddlers when the blast hit—but still they remembered, and reminded us never to forget.
At the next morning’s official event, each victim’s name was read out aloud, to which the crowd respectfully, firmly, cried, “Presente.” The dead were not only present but counted. The names were read by Jonathan Averbuch, the boy, now a young man, whom I’d embraced as he learned his sister’s body had been found. His voice broke as he read Yanina’s name.
The rabbis whom I had joined ten years earlier in offering comfort to the bereaved were also present: Daniel Goldman of Conservative Congregation Beth El, Abraham Skorka, Avraham Benchimol of Chabad—dear friends and colleagues.
There was a newcomer as well: Nestor Kirchner, the recently elected president of Argentina. “The eyes of the world are watching you,” some in the crowd called out. During the rally, speaker after speaker excoriated the Argentine government for its gross and duplicitous mishandling of the investigation of the AMIA bombing.
Three of the major figures in the investigation were roundly booed whenever their names were mentioned. All three had by then been disgraced. President Carlos Menem was in exile in Chile, having fled to avoid trial for embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Justice Galeano was removed from the AMIA case for offering a bribe to Carlos Telleldín in return for false testimony implicating local police officers in the bombing. And Rubén Beraja, head of DAIA, was spending time in jail after being found guilty of financial improprieties.
At the exact moment of the attack, 9:53 a.m., a siren wailed to signal a moment of silence in memory of the victims. Some in the crowd were openly weeping.
A wall in front of the new AMIA building bore the names of all the dead. In front of that wall, on the morning of the tenth anniversary, stood empty chairs, each one inscribed with the name of a victim. As the ceremony concluded, I along with scores of others lit a candle, placed it in a holder on one of the chairs, and said a prayer.
BUENOS AIRES: JULY 15-18, 2019
Fifteen more years have passed since 2004—a full quarter-century since the July 1994 bombing.
One might think that no one could have done a more thorough job of covering up than Carlos Menem. After all, experts say the best time to capture terrorists is immediately after the attack; for every day they are not found, the trail gets colder. Yet for years afterward, in the face of continuing widespread criticism, his successors faithfully did what they could to stymie any investigation that might have ended in bringing the guilty to justice.
The most egregious insult may have been a memorandum of understanding with Iran, masterminded by the late foreign minister Hector Timerman and the then-president Cristina Kirchner (Nestor’s wife, elected several years after his term ended). In this outrageous document, signed in 2013, Argentina joined with Iran in establishing a “truth commission” (!) to investigate the AMIA attack. This was as absurd as asking al-Qaeda to join in investigating the pilots who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.
Alberto Nisman, then the federal prosecutor in charge of the AMIA case, railed against the memorandum’s architects. Back in 2006, Nisman had identified eight high Iranian officials, including the former president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, as having been involved in the AMIA attack, and added one Hizballah operative, Imad Mughniyeh, then the head of the terrorist group’s “external security” branch. Soon afterward, an Argentinean federal judge issued international arrest warrants for these individuals, and Interpol subsequently placed five of the Iranians and Mughniyeh on “red notice.”
Although Mughniyeh and Rafsanjani are now dead, the other Iranians are still alive and at large, traveling the world freely and advocating on behalf of Iran. One, Ali Akbar Velayati, is senior adviser on foreign affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Now, a decade later, on January 18, 2015, Nisman was about to present evidence proving Kirchner and Timerman’s own roles in the cover-up and revealing the bloody hand of Hizballah backed by Iran. A day before his scheduled appearance, he was murdered. He had become AMIA’s 86th victim. And today, rather than having been hauled into court and tried for their egregious crimes, both Menem and Kirchner serve as senators in Argentina, positions that have given them immunity from punishment.
I must not overlook the halting steps taken by others, and especially by Mauricio Macri, Kirchner’s democratically elected successor and Argentina’s current president. Not only did Macri void the infamous memorandum with Iran immediately upon assuming office in December 2015, but this year—on the day before the commemoration—he signed an executive order naming Hizballah as a terrorist organization, freezing its assets in the country, and creating a list of groups and individuals tied to terrorism. In addition, as the Buenos Aires Times reported, Argentina’s lower house of Congress has initiated steps toward a trial of the AMIA perpetrators “in absentia”—and former federal judge Galeano has been jailed for “concealment and violation of evidence” in the AMIA case.
These moves, however belated, can only be gratefully welcomed and praised. And yet they are fragile signs, capable of being overturned: Argentina is struggling economically, and October will see a new presidential election, in which Macri will be challenged by, among others, now-Senator Cristina Kirchner, running for vice-president on another ticket.
Meanwhile, over the past years, those of us in New York had been gathering often at the office of the Argentinean consul general and the Argentinean mission to the United Nations to protest the absence of progress in the case and express solidarity with our brethren in Argentina.
Concomitantly, American Jewish defense agencies were doing their share, more softly, to urge the Argentinean government to action. As the 25th anniversary of AMIA drew closer, they together with Argentinean officials announced joint commemoration ceremonies throughout the U.S. Still, no major street protests were planned or mobilized to raise a voice of moral conscience, loud and clear.
And so I felt the need to continue doing my own share by returning once more to Buenos Aires. I knew the trip would not be easy. The flight is long and arduous, and the agenda for the week leading up to the major commemoration would be both rigorous and, given my past history in Argentina, perhaps on some level dangerous. As, very wisely, my wife Toby no longer allows me to travel alone, I was fortunate to be accompanied by Rabbi Michael Stein, whose help throughout the trip was indispensable.
Waiting at the Buenos Aires airport to greet us was Rabbi Avraham Benchimol, who had been at my side throughout each of my first visits. Our first stop was to see his parents; decades earlier, they had calmed my nerves with music when I was subpoenaed to Judge Galeano’s office. His father Itzjak, almost ninety, still plays the violin magnificently—and did so again for us on the spot.
That evening I spoke at an AMIA memorial program in Rabbi Benchimol’s synagogue. On another evening, I shared thoughts at Rabbi Uriel Romano’s Conservative synagogue and gave a class to rabbinic students in memory of the AMIA victims at the Conservative Seminario Rabbinico. As I intimated earlier, such ecumenicism is uncommon in Buenos Aires, where the Orthodox clergy maintain few relations with non-Orthodox rabbis.
Nor, sad to say, is this the only division within the Jewish community. In a pattern all too familiar in Jewish history, even or perhaps especially when under extreme pressure from without, splits have opened not only in the area of religion but also over issues of politics and strategy.
The bereaved families themselves differ, and indeed have done so from the beginning. Although most identify with the AMIA/DAIA establishment, almost immediately after the bombing an activist group, Memoria Activa, emerged, with whom I felt a deep sympathy as they seemed to me to speak out with greater independence.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when on this trip a few leaders of the latter group told me that some members support Kirchner and, even, her 2013 memorandum of understanding with Tehran; some also believe that Nisman committed suicide. So deep and wide are the divisions that this year two separate memorial events were scheduled at the exact same time.
I appealed to leaders of Memoria Activa to put differences aside and join the mainstream event—but it was not to be. Even as I will always view these leaders of Memoria Activa as heroes, I disagree profoundly with the position they have taken on these issues.
In this same connection, perhaps my most emotionally exhausting meeting was with Rubén Beraja, the man with whom I had publicly disagreed and now felt the need to make peace. After all, as one who cared about his community, he had been caught in a bind as the head of a major bank dependent on government support, which hindered his freedom to advocate the cause of his people as president of DAIA. One cannot, he acknowledged, wear both hats simultaneously.
I asked his frank opinion of my actions on previous visits. In reply, he raised the complaint I’ve mentioned earlier: that I had come from the “tranquility of America” to demand justice but would soon be safely returning home, leaving him and other Jewish leaders to bear the consequences not only of their own words and actions but of mine. He also pointedly mentioned one occasion when he had stood up to an infuriated Menem on behalf of one of the bereaved who had accused the president of being an accessory to the attack. Although disagreeing with the accusation, he’d said to Menem, every individual had the right to speak his or her mind. To this, Beraja now added that a few months later the government launched the investigation of his bank that would land him in jail.
As our meeting ended, we embraced and exchanged blessings.
There can be no threading this needle. The establishment, by dint of its very nature, makes political calculations, wary lest speaking out forcefully render its community more vulnerable. I persist in my belief in the value of demanding more. So, buoyed as I was by the Macri government’s designation of Hizballah as a terrorist organization, by any measure an important step forward, I strongly urged in interviews with newspapers and TV stations, and later with some leaders of DAIA, that pressure be put on the government to cut relations with Iran altogether, the regime of which Hizballah is a puppet and proxy. Everyone knew that Iran masterminded the bombing. Since it couldn’t have taken place without inside help, it’s plausible the Iranian embassy was involved as well. Who knew what was in the works now?
As expected, the DAIA leaders I spoke to were reluctant to make such a demand; severing ties with Iran would be too much to ask. With elections just a few months away, they did not want to say or do anything that could be viewed as critical of Macri. For myself, I was carrying a letter to Macri from my congressman, Eliot Engel, current chairman of the House committee on international relations, encouraging him to be even bolder. I’d also been promised a one-on-one meeting with the president to which I would be escorted by Claudio Avruj, the minister for human rights. But I was told that at the last minute the appointment had been canceled. No doubt this meeting, just as when my seat in the synagogue had to be hurriedly changed, had become “inadvisable for political reasons.”
All through my days in Buenos Aires I heard in my ears the words of God to Cain: “the voice of your brother’s bloods cries out to me from the ground.” Why “bloods,” in the plural, ask the rabbis? The AMIA attack offers an answer. The victims’ bloods were shed once on July 18, 1994. Every day no arrests are made, they are shed again, and again, and the bloods will continue crying out until justice is done. The dead won’t come back to life, but a moral reckoning, and an historical cleansing, will give the dead and their still-grieving survivors a measure of peace.
But I also cannot conclude on that note, for I left Buenos Aires once more moved to the root, and uplifted anew, by the families whom I’d returned to Argentina to see. One of my deepest moments was with Damian Goldenberg, the young man who had despairingly cried out “Where is God?” when told his sister Cynthia Veronica’s body had been found.
Over the years, I’d kept up with him, flying to Buenos Aires in 2007 to co-officiate at his wedding. Blessing Damian and his bride Jazmin at the ceremony’s conclusion, just before the traditional breaking of a glass to remember at our moment of joy the destruction of the ancient Temples, I prayed that we would remember also the brokenness of the AMIA victims and their families, continue to work to bring the murderers to justice, and, to the extent we could, respond to brokenness with good deeds and acts of lovingkindness. As the ḥasidic masters say, a little bit of light pushes away the darkness.
And so, a dozen years later, the highlight of my hectic week in Buenos Aires was spending time not only with Damian, Jazmin, and their daughters Chana and Shiri, the latter of whom is soon to be bat mitzvah, but also with the other astonishing human beings whom over the decades I’ve had the honor of coming to know and to cherish.
My life has been forever altered by the miraculous fortitude of these individuals whose ultimate response to catastrophe, a quarter-century on, has been to live and to love, to bring children and grandchildren into the world, to celebrate births, weddings, anniversaries, and bar and bat mitzvahs in Argentina, in Israel, in America, and around the world: these friends, these survivors, these indomitable menders of the broken pieces.