On Sunday, tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist bombing that left 85 dead and 300 injured. As each victim’s name was read out loud, the crowd respectfully, but firmly, cried, “Presente.” The dead were present — in our hearts, in our souls. They continued to inspire. They still counted.
Calling out the names from the stage was Jonathan Averbuch. When I first met Jonathan, he was a 12-year-old boy seated with his parents in makeshift headquarters a few blocks from the destroyed AMIA building. He was awaiting news about his sister, Yanina, who had been in the building. The news came precisely at the moment we were sitting near each other. At that instant, all we could do was embrace for what seemed an eternity. I always wondered what happened to Jonathan, and there he was — no longer a boy but a young man, his voice breaking as he read out his sister’s name.
Standing just a few feet away from Jonathan was Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner. “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. Indeed, all three have since been disgraced.
Then-president Carlos Menem — under whose watch AMIA was destroyed and two years earlier the Israeli embassy was bombed — is in exile in Chile. The chief justice in the case, Jose Galeano, has been removed and is now awaiting his own trial. And the leader of the Jewish community, whose task it was to pressure the government for a full investigation, now sits in jail. Argentina is probably the starkest example of a Western democracy that has failed miserably to mount a serious investigation after a terrorist attack. The result is that terrorists have been emboldened to commit other atrocities — in Europe, the Middle East and, of course, the United States.
Since the bombing of AMIA, I’ve traveled to Buenos Aires three times. Each of these visits coupled political activism with expressions of emotional and spiritual support. The politics always have been singularly distasteful.
At the very beginning, I met with Menem privately, and became convinced that he was participating in a cover-up — that an investigation would have implicated the highest government officials in Argentina, including Menem himself. He responded to these allegations by calling me “delirious,” “loco.” The head of the Argentine Jewish community declared that he “categorically rejects the accusations [of a cover-up],” and Galeano, in effect, arrested me, hauling me into his office, where he held me for six hours. All this, I believe, was meant as a warning that I’d be well advised to stop accusing Menem of covering up.
The Jewish leadership in the United States was equally hesitant to criticize Menem. Just two months after the AMIA attack, Menem was honored by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Jewish community after the bombing of AMIA. The participants at this gala read like a who’s who of American Jewry. Leaders of the major Jewish defense agencies were all there. “He made some impassioned statements,” said one of them. “He said his government is committed to protecting Jewish institutions.”
When my colleague Rabbi David Kalb and I walked into the event to confront Menem, we were asked to leave. Refusing to do so, we called out: “In the name of the victims and their families, you cannot honor this man.” People shouted at us: “You’re wrong, absolutely wrong! You are dishonoring the Jewish people!” In the end, Kalb and I were carried down three flights of stairs and arrested as the crowd looked on.
Today, everyone knows that justice has not been served. While Kirchner has opened to the public the files of the SIDE intelligence service, much of the relevant materials already have been shredded. The Jewish community must remain vigilant. It must judge Kirchner not by his expressions of good will, but by his actions and their results.
Returning last weekend to Buenos Aires 10 years after the bombing, I was drawn most powerfully by the courage and endurance of the survivors.
Rosa Barreiro: I had visited Rosa in an intensive care unit just a few days after the attack. She seemed well; I wondered why she had been hospitalized. The doctor explained — Rosa was walking in front of the AMIA building with her 5-year-old son, Sebastian. A fragment from the blast penetrated the boy’s skull, and he died instantly — the youngest victim of AMIA. Rosa was in the intensive care unit, unable to speak. Today one can see pain in her eyes, but she continues to cope. The terrorists targeted a Jewish building, but Sebastian, like many of the other victims of the AMIA blast, was not Jewish.
Luis Czyzewsky: With other rabbis I sat with him and his wife, Ana, as they awaited news about their daughter, Paola. A doctor came by to inform them that the woman just found in the rubble of the AMIA was not Paola; the fingerprints were different, the doctor said. The family breathed a sigh of relief — but it was short-lived. Today, Luis looks elegant, but an aura of sadness remains. “I miss her deeply,” he said, “but we must go on.”
Rabbi Angel Kreiman: Kreiman’s wife, Susy, was at her desk at the AMIA, helping people find employment. When I left Buenos Aires a week after the attack, her daughters were still in the makeshift headquarters waiting for news. Upon arriving home, I called Angel. “How are things going?” I asked. “We’re sitting shiva. Susy was found.” Now, 10 years later, as the commemoration was about to begin, Kreiman was sharing Torah thoughts with those around him.
Damian Goldenberg: I was with Damian as he and his family awaited news about his sister, Cyntia Veronica. It came, and Damian, sweet and gentle, cried out: “Where is God?” Through the years, I’ve maintained contact with Damian. His father, Luis, now works as a top professional at the IDT office in Buenos Aires. Damian knew I was coming, and promised a surprise. Tears came as he introduced me to Jazmin, his girlfriend. “You’re coming to the wedding,” Damian said. We hugged, and I offered the silent prayer that we always embrace in joy and not in tears. I blessed Damian’s parents that their daughter-in-law be like a daughter to them.
And with me once again were the rabbis who, 10 years earlier, I had joined to offer comfort to the bereaved. Rabbi Daniel Goldman of Conservative Congregation Beth El reminded me of how we had sat with Jonathan, awaiting the news; Conservative Rabbi Abraham Skorka was there when Damian was notified — dear friends and colleagues, from whom I, an Orthodox rabbi, learned so much. Chabad Rabbi Avraham Benchimol, who never left my side as we consoled and tried to give hope, also welcomed me now. We would never forget those terrible moments when our lives intersected, when we were united in purpose. Those moments will bond us forever.
After the Sabbath, on the night before the main commemoration ceremony, 10 people blew shofars in waves, much like a cry from the deepest part of the soul. Carrying torches, we marched from the Supreme Court building to the AMIA site. There, young people gathered to offer a moving presentation of song, dance, drama and video. Many were just toddlers when the blast hit — but still they remember, and remind us never to forget.
The next morning at the official commemoration there was silence as the siren sounded. All you could hear was the wail of the siren — and the weeping of the people. We Jews connect East to West, but not North to South. In truth, the gatherings in North America to remember AMIA were attended by relatively few, this despite the fact that AMIA was the largest attack against the Jewish community in the Diaspora since the Shoah. For most Jews around the world, the AMIA dead are no longer presente.
There is a wall in front of the new AMIA building on which all the names of the dead are listed. And in front of that wall, there are empty chairs, each one inscribed with the name of a victim. I lit a candle for Cyntia Veronica Goldenberg, placed it on her chair and said a prayer.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He serves as national president of AMCHA – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns. His new book, Journey to Open Orthodoxy, is scheduled for publication this summer.