August 19, 2019

Alberto Nisman: The 86th victim of the Buenos Aires bombing

UPDATED: The murder this week of Alberto Nisman — and now even the Argentine president has acknowledged his death was no suicide — was every bit as shocking and anti-Semitic a crime as the attacks two weeks ago in Paris.

Nisman was the federal prosecutor appointed by former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner to investigate the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured hundreds more — one of the worst cases of terrorism against Jews since the Holocaust.

Nisman’s body was found in his apartment on Jan. 18, the day before he was to testify before Argentine lawmakers about his findings, which implicated current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, and other officials and activists in a secret deal with Iranians to cover up evidence of Iranian involvement in the mass murder and to cease prosecution of high-level Iranian officials believed to have been involved in organizing it.

In other words, Nisman is the 86th victim.

The tenacious 51-year-old was murdered because he was on the verge of providing more than 500 pages of evidence — including wiretaps of phone conversations — that point to high-level Argentine officials having cut deals with Iranians to help them avoid paying for the crime. Iran would deliver its oil in return for Argentine grain, and the case would go away.

Argentina, in the words of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, “holds a debt with the democratic world” when it comes to terror. But let’s be honest, so do other so-called anti-terror countries. Russia fights against Islamic terror in Chechnya but justifies it in Iran and Syria when its economic interests are at stake. The United States has consistently treated Saudi Arabia with a policy that can only be described as grossly hypocritical. As long as the kingdom that spawns Wahabi terror and breeds oppression and intolerance keeps oil and investment flowing, our criticisms are muted and decorous. 

I would love to hear President Barack Obama say a word in defense of Raif Badawi, the blogger currently in a Saudi prison and being punished with 1,000 lashes for writings perceived as insulting Islam. I won’t hold my breath.

When it comes to the AMIA bombing, Argentina has mastered this cynical game.

It seems the only hope the victims and their families have of justice is for public outrage or private pressure to overcome self-interest and greed. That takes a lot of pressure and outrage.

“A part of me lost hope that something can happen and change in Argentina,” Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Mass., told me by phone last week. “I’m usually not that kind of person, but it’s been impossible to believe justice will be done in Argentina.”

Rabbi Kreiman grew up in Argentina’s 200,000-strong Jewish community. Her mother, Susy Wolynski Kreiman, was working in the AMIA building when the van packed with explosives — which we now know was masterminded by a network of Iranian agents in Argentina — went off. It took seven days for workers to recover her mother’s body from beneath the rubble.

In the intervening 25 years, the investigations have been marked with false starts and accusations of cover-ups. 

“In the years after, it was a sense this was something that happened to Jews and not to Argentina,” Kreiman said. “But now this is about how the whole place is so corrupted. People were finally believing this guy was doing the right thing.”

Those even closer to the tragedy agree.

“We as Jews are suffering,” Rabbi Dr. Abraham Skorka told me, “but this is not a specific Jewish drama. …Nowadays the great majority of the Argentine population perceive it as not just a Jewish drama.”

Rabbi Skorka, the director of the Conservative rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aries—and a close friend of Pope Francis— visited the Jewish Journal’s offices this past Wednesday on a tour of the United States sponsored by the Masorati movement.

Nisman, he said, was a man of great conviction, energy and determination to see justice.

“The first steps that Nestor and Chistina Kirchner took were very important in order to decipher what happened,” the rabbi said. But all of Argentina knows there are “black holes” in the investigation, especially the identity of local agents who cooperated with the Iranian organizers of the attack.

It is “not a matter of faith or belief” whether the government will ever find these people and bring them to justice, it’s a matter of evidence.  (Our full interview with Rabbi Skorka will appear here soon.)

If there is any reason for hope and change in Buenos Aires now, Kreiman told me, it’s the fact that thousands of non-Jews joined together with Jews in a public rally in response to Nisman’s death.

That, it seems, is the lesson of France and Argentina. Terror, injustice, government cover-ups, collusion — slowly the world is learning that the things they think that just affect this minority ultimately affect whole countries. 

As historian Deborah Lipstadt told our reporter Danielle Berrin last week, “It starts with the Jews, it never ends with the Jews.”

In 2005, on the 11th anniversary of the bombing, an Argentine cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition demanding justice — 85 signatures for 85 victims. 

Now that cardinal is Pope Francis, and he should once again raise his voice for justice in the name of Alberto Nisman. We can join him, by writing to the president, to the new ambassador to Argentina, Noah Mamet, and demand an independent investigation into Nisman’s death and into his new findings.

Miguel Steuermann, director general of Radio Jai, Argentina’s full-time Jewish radio station, says even then the struggle depends on Argentines themselves.

“As  with Islamic terrorism, it can be fought against only from the inside. People and media independently struggling to find light and truth in Argentina should be strongly supported,” Steuermann wrote me in an e-mail exchange.   “They have tried to silence us for over 22 years, and more than once they were about to achieve it. One is not very popular when you report the lie that tries to blame the Jews and/or Israel for all the evils in mankind.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told me visited with Nisman early in his investigation. “This was a courageous and focused person,” Rabbi Cooper said.  “He and his team worked behind sandbags. The independence given to him to get the truth about the AMIA bombing was the high point of Argentine democracy. The decision to deal with Iran was a low point — and now what?”

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.