On March 15, 2016, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, introduced the recently elected President of Argentina Mauricio Macri to more than four hundred delegates from Jewish communities around the world who had gathered in Buenos Aires for a special WJC plenary assembly. The timing of the event was symbolic. Twenty-four years earlier, almost to the day, a car filled with explosives had destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing twenty-nine people and wounding 242. Two years later, on July 18, 1994, in an even deadlier terrorist attack, eighty-five people were killed and hundreds injured when another car rammed into the Jewish Center of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association). More recently, on January 19, 2015, Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor investigating the AMIA bombing, was found dead in his home, the victim of what is widely suspected to be a homicide, five days after issuing a report accusing Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman of covering up Iranian responsibility for the 1994 terrorist act.
“For more than twenty years,” President Lauder said, “the terrorists of three great crimes still have not been brought to justice President Macri, you have promised that after all this time, Argentina will bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. We believe you. We believe you, we trust you, and the World Jewish Congress stands with you to help in any way we can.”
President Macri’s response was unequivocal:
As Ronald said, we do not forget that here we suffered the ravaging consequences of two bomb attacks, which brought a lot of pain, a lot of sadness and grief, and even today haunt us since we are still in the dark as to what actually happened or who was responsible for what happened. And on the other hand, a little over a year ago a prosecutor died, a prosecutor who was trying to elucidate the truth about one of these attacks. And he had prepared a very important report as to why we were actually signing a memorandum of understanding with Iran, which he considered to be unconstitutional. Our government, only a few hours into office, decided to go ahead with what it had promised during the political campaign and make the memorandum unconstitutional. And we are fully committed to helping in anything that may depend on us in order for the investigations and inquiries to make headway, and I know that is a feeling shared by the highest authorities in the Argentine judiciary.
The following day, President Lauder reiterated his position and that of the WJC in an article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:
Argentina owes it to the victims of both terror attacks, to the Jews of Argentina, and to the international community at large to pursue this matter to the end, and to ensure that justice is served, albeit belatedly. Impunity for the perpetrators of grave acts of international terrorism sends a dangerous signal to the world and encourages others to engage in such activities without jurisprudential concern.
The WJC had been closely and deeply involved from the very beginning in the international campaign to bring to justice the perpetrators of the bombings of the Israeli embassy and AMIA. WJC Vice President Kalman Sultanik represented the WJC at the funeral of the victims of the Israeli embassy bombing, and within days of the AMIA bombing, WJC President Edgar M. Bronfman traveled to Buenos Aires as a demonstration of solidarity with the Argentine Jewish community. While he was there, it became known that Iranian officials were implicated in this terrorist attack. At a press conference, Bronfman said that Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem had promised to break off diplomatic ties with Iran if it were established that Iran had played a role in the bombing. Subsequently, Menem retreated somewhat from this position, telling reporters only that Argentina’s diplomatic actions with regard to Iran would depend on the eventual evidence.
Bronfman, accompanied by Ruben Beraja, President of the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA; Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations) and a WJC Vice President; WJC Secretary-General Israel Singer; and Manuel Tenenbaum, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress (LAJC), a regional affiliate of the WJC, also met with Argentinean Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella, who said that his government would place the fight against international terrorism on the international agenda. Bronfman, Singer, and LAJC President Benno Milnitzky then participated in a special session of the DAIA. There, Beraja declared that “thanks to the WJC, no Jewish community in need is left alone but is supported by the entire Jewish world.” Subsequently, the WJC supported a resolution drafted by US Senator Howard Metzenbaum and adopted by the US Senate, which condemned “the worldwide targeting of Jewish communities by terrorists determined to disrupt the Middle East peace process.” Beraja, accompanied by Israel Singer and WJC Washington Representative Douglas M. Bloomfield, also testified before the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations, and Human Rights.
In January 1995, Bronfman and Israel Singer met with United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to discuss the rising threat of terrorism and the targeting of Jewish centers, specifically both Buenos Aires bombings and a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv. On September 28, 1995, Beraja testified for a second time before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. His testimony prompted the Argentine government, and later INTERPOL, to intensify the investigation and issue arrest warrants for suspects in the AMIA bombing case. In his testimony, Beraja said, “We criticize the fact that difficulties [in the AMIA case] were increased by the lack of cooperation between security and intelligence agencies.”
During the following decade, the WJC continued to take an active part in efforts to prod successive Argentine governments into taking more resolute steps in the investigations of the two Buenos Aires bombing attacks. In 2001, Bronfman led a WJC delegation that met in Buenos Aires with Argentine President Fernando de la Rua and the presidents of Argentina’s Supreme Court and the upper and lower houses of Congress to discuss the lack of progress in the investigations. “I would like to say I was satisfied with what took place in our meetings,” Bronfman told the media afterward, “but I cannot go that far. We made it clear that this was high on our priority list and not something on the back burner.” WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg was blunter, saying that “[i]n the Western world, no investigation like this has progressed so little.”
In July 2006, Bronfman and other members of the WJC Executive met with Argentinean President Néstor Kirchner on the twelfth anniversary of the AMIA bombing. In October of that year, after the Argentine state prosecutor investigating the AMIA bombing called for the arrest of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, among others, for ordering and orchestrating the terrorist attack, WJC President Bronfman issued a strong statement of support:
The official report of the state prosecutor confirms that the Iranian regime ordered and orchestrated the terrorist attack on a Jewish and civilian target. It specifically outlines that this was not the act of a radical group within Iran, but the work of the Iranian government and its terrorist proxies Hezbollah. This makes clear yet again that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and shows for all the world the threat we now face. The entire international community has a moral responsibility to ensure that Iran is held accountable for its terrorist actions. It is time for the United Nations to take a strong stance against a sovereign state that violates the UN Charter by calling for the destruction of other nations and employing terrorist activity to murder civilians.
In June 2008, one year after he was elected President of the WJC, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder and WJC Secretary-General Michael Schneider visited Argentina to meet with newly elected Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. During this meeting, Ambassador Lauder also met family members of the victims of the two terrorist attacks, as well as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires— today Pope Francis I—and the then mayor of Buenos Aires—today President of Argentina—Mauricio Macri.
In 2009, on the fifteenth anniversary of the AMIA bombing, Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor on the case, announced his suspicion of Iranian involvement in the bombing, telling the public that Hezbollah infiltration ran deep in Argentina, as well as many other Latin American countries. He believed the terrorists had been stationed in mosques around the continent to find local individuals who could be easily radicalized and provide assistance for their operations.
One year later, leaders of the Argentinean Jewish community were frustrated with the sluggishness of the justice system. In a statement released by WJC President Lauder at the time of the sixteenth anniversary commemoration, he declared:
On this sad anniversary, we express our solidarity with the survivors, the families of the victims, and with the Argentine people. We applaud the remarkable efforts undertaken by the Argentine authorities and Prosecutor Alberto Nisman in recent years, to determine who committed this atrocity. However, yet another year has passed, and justice still hasn’t been done. This is because the regime in Iran—a sponsor of terrorism worldwide—is refusing to cooperate.”
Ambassador Lauder continued to urge the United Nations to take action, not only in this case, but to combat state-sponsored terrorism throughout the world.
Beginning in 2007, the LAJC held its annual meeting with parliamentarians from across Latin America to mark the anniversary of the AMIA bombing. In 2011, on the seventeenth anniversary, the LAJC sought support from lawmakers for a petition that called for the acceleration of the investigation and cooperation with the Argentine government. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, LAJC Executive Director Claudio Epelman told reporters, “The masterminds of the attack have not been brought to justice yet, but only Iran is to blame since they refuse to cooperate with the Argentinean justice.”
In July 2012, on the eighteenth anniversary of the AMIA bombing, the LAJC hosted the sixth conference of regional parliamentarians focusing on the prevention of terrorism, with the participation of Argentinean Vice President Amado Boudou, former President of Uruguay Julio Sanguinetti, and lawmakers from nine South American countries. LAJC President Jack Terpins told the gathering, “It is lamentable that some nations, including in Latin America, are still fostering their relationship with Iran. We urge them: Think again! What happened in Buenos Aires can happen again, anywhere, and governments have a responsibility to protect all their citizens against such heinous crimes.” On this occasion, Ambassador Lauder reiterated his accusation against Iran:
It is now almost five years that Interpol issued Red Notices, calling for the arrest of several Iranian suspects in the case, one of them being none other than Iran’s current Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. Tehran has so far failed to hand them over to the Argentinean judiciary. The Iranian regime has blood on its hands, not only by suppressing dissent at home but also by sponsoring terrorism worldwide.
The next development in connection with the AMIA bombing was not only controversial but was viewed by most Jewish leaders as negative in the extreme. As early as 2011, Argentinean Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman had suggested that due to the international nature of the AMIA allegations, a neutral committee should judge the citizens of Iran accused in the AMIA case. At first, Timerman’s suggestion seemed to many people to be an acceptable and workable solution. Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 28, 2012, President Cristina de Kirchner put forward the same idea and assured the international community that she would not proceed with any possible Argentinean-Iranian deal without first discussing it with the families of the AMIA bombing victims. The families of the victims, Kirchner said, “have an obligation to voice an opinion publicly on a matter of this importance They are the ones who truly need answers; they need to understand what happened and who is responsible this President will not take any decisions on any proposals put forward without first and foremost consulting them and the parliamentary representatives of my country.”
Kirchner’s speech was generally well received. Indeed, there were expectations that the Kirchner government wanted to make progress in the investigation. The day before Kirchner’s UN speech, following a meeting with Timerman, WJC President Lauder said, “The World Jewish Congress stands with the families of the victims. Justice cannot be delayed, and answers to the families and the Jewish community are long overdue.” As it turned out, such positive expectations proved to be unfounded. On January 27, 2013, the Kirchner government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Iran without the promised consultations with the families of the AMIA bombing victims. In the eyes of many Jews, both in Argentina and elsewhere, this was an act of ultimate betrayal. LAJC President Terpins said, “I don’t understand how one can have relations with a country that is an enemy, a state which Argentina’s own judiciary considers the mastermind of the bombings.”
The MOU provided for the establishment of a so-called Truth Commission made up of five supposedly nonaligned judges. In moving responsibility for the prosecution of accused Iranians from the Argentinean and Iranian governments to a third party, however, the MOU granted immunity to former Iranian diplomats from extradition to Argentina to stand trial. This Truth Commission, according to LAJC Director Epelman, was “an important step backward in the search [for] justice,” with the accused nearly untouchable and the case’s diligence compromised.
It soon became clear that Iran had no intention of complying with the terms of the MOU under any circumstances. Evelyn Sommer, chairperson of the WJC’s North American Section, said, “This Iranian refusal to abide by Argentinean jurisprudence is truly unacceptable.” Later that year, she added, “Iran is not concerned with the AMIA [bombing]; it is concerned with its larger economic issues.” Lead prosecutor Nisman offered to fly to Iran to record statements by the accused to comply with the MOU’s premise that the Iranians were not to be extradited, but the Iranians refused to speak to him, and the trip never took place. Ambassador Lauder called the MOU unconstitutional, and an agreement that was “flawed in its very conception.”
In February 2013, there were demonstrations in front of the Argentinean parliament and outside the Holocaust Museum in Buenos Aires to protest the MOU, while world leaders expressed outrage and disappointment in Argentinean legislation. In a joint statement Terpins and Lauder said, “This deal with Iran is an affront to justice. The Iranian government cannot be considered a neutral interlocutor in this affair because its leaders are involved in terrorist activities themselves.” On May 29, 2013, less than four months after the signing of the MOU, Nisman published and filed an indictment against Iran, accusing its government of infiltrating Latin American countries, setting up espionage bases, and coordinating the attack on the AMIA center. After the report was published, Ambassador Lauder again urged governments to take the Iranian threat and accusation seriously, stating, “It is inconceivable that those who perpetrated heinous crimes against civilians and who continue to prepare acts of terrorism against people in Latin America oversee the legal investigation into these crimes. It is just like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”
On the nineteenth anniversary of the AMIA bombing, the LAJC hosted Nisman in Buenos Aires to present his case in front of Jewish leaders. Nisman had been invited, along with Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council, to testify before the US House of Representatives hearing on the Iranian threat to national security, but was denied funding for the trip by Argentine Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbó. Although he could not go to New York, he presented his case before the LAJC and the Argentine Jewish leadership, and later attended the official ceremony at the site of the bombing. It should be noted that President Cristina de Kirchner did not attend the briefing or the ceremony because of Jewish backlash against the signing of the MOU.
In 2014, Pope Francis, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, recorded a video message to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the AMIA bombing, in which he said that he stands “side-by-side with all those who have seen lives cut short, hopes destroyed, and ruined.” He continued, “Terrorism is lunacy; its only purpose is to kill. It does not build anything; it only destroys.” The video was recorded by LAJC Executive Director Epelman, a personal friend of the Pope for many years, and screened at the twentieth memorial ceremony in Buenos Aires. The Pope concluded his message with a cry for diligence in the AMIA bombing case: “Together with my solidarity and my prayers for all the victims, comes my desire for justice. May justice be done!” Ambassador Lauder thanked the Pope for making his opinion “known so forthrightly,” adding that “the world needs to hear his message.”
On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the AMIA bombing, WJC CEO Robert Singer wrote in the New York Jewish Week of July 21, 2014: “We at the World Jewish Congress approach the AMIA anniversary, as we do each year, with a heavy heart. We grieve for our many friends lost and who are living with the aftermath of the atrocity.” Singer said that the only way to right the wrong is to bring those responsible to justice, and for that to happen, the world must see Iran for what it is: a danger to the world at large. The AMIA tragedy, according to Singer, was an act against all Jewish people. “We’ve learned,” he wrote, “that the world loves to forget. But as Jews, we must heed the commandment of zakhor— remember Some people say that ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ but we will keep insisting until justice is done.”
On January 14, 2015, Special Prosecutor Nisman filed a criminal complaint against President Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Timerman, accusing them of having covered up the AMIA case and of signing the MOU with the intention of protecting the accused Iranian diplomats in exchange for enhanced trade with Iran. The case looked promising; a closed-door congressional hearing was scheduled for January 19, 2015 at which Nisman was to present evidence for the president’s indictment. The AMIA case took a turn for the worse, however, when Nisman was found dead in his apartment in what the Argentinean authorities initially called a suicide on January 18, 2015— only one day before the scheduled congressional hearing. Nisman’s death was a blow to the Jewish community of Argentina and sparked controversy among Argentinean and global audiences. Shortly after Nisman’s death, Jewish neighborhoods in Argentina were vandalized with signs that read “A Good Jew is a Dead Jew; Nisman is a Good Jew.” The Jewish community, with some support from the Argentinean society at large, reacted by holding signs that read “I am Nisman” in multiple languages, a display of solidarity among the Jewish community.
On January 21, 2015, thousands gathered outside the AMIA center in a rally organized by the AMIA and the DAIA protesting Nisman’s death. Julio Schlosser, president of the DAIA, and Leonardo Jmelnitzky, president of AMIA, spoke to the audience and read a list of those killed by the bombings. The eighty-sixth and last name on the list was Alberto Nisman. Among those present, bowing his head in respect, was then-Buenos Aires mayor and current Argentinean president, Mauricio Macri.
At a solemn commemoration in Buenos Aires marking the twenty-first anniversary of the AMIA bombing, WJC CEO Robert Singer, representing WJC President Lauder, sharply criticized the Argentinean government for having signed the MOU. “No matter how long it takes,” he said, “we will not rest until justice has been done!” Also on stage that day was Nisman’s oldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Iara, who lit a candle for her father and the victims of the AMIA bombing. During the ceremony, Singer made special mention of Iara’s father:
After the tragic and mysterious death of Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman last January, a man who did so much to advance this investigation and who is sadly missed, we are now faced with a crucial question: Will we ever see justice in the AMIA case? Will the Argentine government continue to have the worst terror attack in this country’s history investigated, or will it try to close this chapter?
Less than one year later Singer and Iara met again at the special WJC plenary assembly in Buenos Aires when the delegates honored her father’s memory. This time, the atmosphere was more hopeful. Still, the perpetrators of the Israel Embassy and AMIA bombings had not been brought to justice, nor had those responsible for Alberto Nisman’s death. The conclusion of this tragic chapter of both Jewish and Argentine history remains to be written, and it is a chapter in which the two histories have become intertwined.
As Ambassador Lauder emphasized, the two bombings were not just attacks on Jews, but attacks on Argentina, and “the killing of Alberto Nisman was not just an attack on a Jewish lawyer. This was an attack on Argentina’s entire system of justice.” It is precisely because the Israeli embassy and AMIA bombings and the assassination of Alberto Nisman were not just attacks on Argentina but also, if not primarily, attacks on the Jewish community of Argentina that the WJC has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community of Argentina to demand that justice be done.