Memorials mark 20-year anniversary of Buenos Aires Jewish center bombing

Thousands gathered outside the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, the institutional headquarters of the Jewish community of Argentina, in Buenos Aires on July 18, marking 20 years since the bombing of the AMIA that left 85 dead and more than 300 injured.

A siren sounded at precisely 9:53 a.m. — the time of the attack — and as the name of each victim was read the audience responded “Presente” (present), holding up photos of the victims and signs that read “Justicia.” Many students from Jewish day schools attended, as did some from Catholic schools, and the ceremony included a video-transmitted message from Buenos Aires native Pope Francis.

“It’s been 20 years — I had friends, relatives, everyone [at the AMIA],” said Mauricio Bal, 70, who had rushed to the building immediately after the attack.

“The least I can do is come every year — I need to renew my memories. For me, it helps.”

After two decades, no one has been convicted for the AMIA bombing, which occurred two years after the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people, and that also remains unsolved. The AMIA investigation has gone through many stages, including a multilevel Argentine government cover-up that allegedly included Rubén Beraja, the then-president of the DAIA, Argentina’s umbrella Jewish organization, who is currently standing trial for his role in the cover-up. The AMIA maintains that Beraja is falsely accused of participating in the government cover-up, while other groups formed by families and friends of the victims, like Memoria Activa (Active Memory), hold that by defending Beraja, AMIA is obstructing the investigation.

Four separate memorial ceremonies by AMIA/DAIA and groups formed by family members and friends of victims took place on July 18, plus an event at the Colón Theater in Buenos Aires the night before. For the first time, Memoria Activa held its ceremony at the same time as that of the AMIA. In a flier made public before the anniversary, Memoria Activa explained its decision, saying that “the leadership of AMIA-DAIA has not accompanied us, protected us, or shared our pain or our push for justice” and that “to protect Beraja, they [AMIA-DAIA] have dedicated themselves to obstruct and delay the case.”

“I consider Memoria Activa’s position with respect to the investigation correct, but [in previous years] I went to AMIA’s memorial to show the world that the gathering of people at the AMIA was massive,” said Sofia Tarlovsky, 82, who attended Memoria Activa’s memorial instead this year. “It is difficult to recognize that things aren’t done perfectly by the central institution.”

Nevertheless, many still attended AMIA’s memorial, which is nationally televised each year.

“I’m here so there will be more people, so there will be more presence,” said Mailen Knoblovits, a 24-year-old student. “I don’t identify politically with either group.”

Ralph Thomas Saieg, AMIA’s current vice president, spoke at AMIA’s ceremony condemning a memorandum of understanding signed in 2013 by the Argentine government with Iran to form a joint commission to investigate the bombing. An international investigation of the bombing has focused on Iran, and in 2006 Argentine prosecutors in charge of the investigation accused the Iranian government and Hezbollah of organizing and carrying out the bombing. At the ceremony, Saieg called for Argentina to renew its Interpol “red notices” for its Iranian suspects, which included several government officials and former Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. Continuing in the same vein, Alfredo Leuco, an Argentine journalist who also spoke, said that Héctor Timerman, Argentina’s foreign minister and a Jew, who negotiated the agreement with Iran, had “betrayed the Jewish people and the Argentine people.”

“A non-Jewish foreign minister would never have dared to do so much,” he said, receiving cheers from an otherwise silent crowd.

At Memoria Activa’s memorial rally in front of the Argentine Supreme Court about 20 blocks away, Diana Malamud, a leader of the organization whose husband, Andrés Gustavo Malamud, died in the bombing, blamed the AMIA leadership for obstructing the advancement of the case. Describing the investigation as a hoax, Malamud called for the removal of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation.

“It’s a shame that 20 years later we have so many divisions,” said Sofia Guterman at AMIA’s ceremony, whose daughter, Andrea, died in the bombing. “All the family members want justice. But [the divisions] are respectable. Every group fights for justice in their own way.”