LIMA, Peru – Salomon Lerner sometimes faced schoolyard taunts as a boy in southern Peru 50 years ago. “Other boys would call me ‘Jew’ or say the Jews killed Christ,” Lerner recalled in an interview.
But he had not faced antisemitism since then — until recently. Now he is under attack for his role as chairman of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which named names, both among the military and the rebel Shining Path militia, for nearly 70,000 killings during 20 years of strife that ended in 2000.
“Give thanks to Peru for giving you shelter after Hitler justly killed those before you,” one e-mail said, “but that doesn’t give you the right to consider yourself Peruvian and even less to judge our military officers, you damn Jew!”
One telephone caller in September simply said, “You’re a dead man,” before hanging up.
Ironically, while Lerner’s father was Jewish, he is a lifelong Catholic, as is his mother. His older brother chose to be Jewish. Still, the former chancellor of the Catholic University in Lima said, “I’m proud of my Jewish blood.”
Lerner, 61, blamed military officers for the threats. More than 300 military and police officers — from retired generals on down — face accusations of human rights violations as a result of Lerner’s findings, said Rocio Villanueva, an official with Peru’s ombudsman’s office.
Three of the other 11 commissioners have received insulting e-mails.
The commission spent 22 months collecting evidence in public hearings throughout Peru. It issued its findings two years ago, implicating nearly all facets of Peruvian society — beginning with the Shining Path but also including former presidents, generals and the Catholic archbishop of Ayacucho, who was accused of turning a blind eye to government abuses in the 1980s.
The commission blamed the Shining Path for 54% of the deaths, and the military and right-wing forces for nearly all the rest. Conservative critics have called the commission’s report slanted and a whitewash of the Shining Path.
“The commission has caused a lot of division and hate,” said Martha Moyano, a lawmaker from a small political party that supports former President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori served from 1990 to 2000, when many of the worst military abuses occurred.
New York-based Priscilla Hayner, is the author of “Unspeakable Truths,” a study of truth commissions across the world. Hayner said that commissioners usually face threats during their investigations but she said she’d “never heard of threats after the truth commission finishes its work.”
A report presented recently to Washington’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights details 46 cases of intimidation this year against Truth Commission members, witnesses and investigators. One witness against a general has been shot four times and no longer wants to testify.
Lerner expressed satisfaction with the public support he has received, including a diplomatic luncheon at the U.S. Embassy.
He said he has received a call of support from only one member of Peru’s small but politically influential Jewish community: Efrain Goldenberg, a minister under Fujimori.
Lerner and others complain that President Alejandro Toledo has yet to condemn the threats and that only two of the 120 members of Congress have supported him publicly. Lerner said he believes this is because the report laid blame so widely.
Gustavo Gorriti, co-editor of the daily La Republica, noted that two prominent members of the Jewish community had used their tabloid newspapers to attack the Truth Commission during its investigation. The two, brothers Alex and Moisés Wolfenson, are in prison for smearing Fujimori’s opponents in exchange for payoffs.
The attacks against Lerner don’t surprise Gorriti, who is Jewish and has written extensively on the military and on the Shining Path. “Some of the most reactionary military officials tend to have Catholic sympathies and are antisemitic,” he said.
Another Truth Commission member, Carlos Tapia, recalled appearing in 1991, together with Gorriti, before a group of army officers. Tapia, then a prominent leftist congressman, was surprised to find Gorriti, not himself, the target of the officers’ invective. “Three or four of them attacked him openly for being a Jew,” Tapia said.