Cry for Me, Argentina

Feb. 5, 2015

By Dalia Wassner

On Jan. 19, as the United States honored Martin Luther King and his message, Argentines awoke to a situation in stark contrast: the tragic news that Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment.

While Americans honored the courage of a man who fought for the equality, honor and inclusion of members of this society who were shamefully mistreated, Argentines found more injustice. Nisman, a prosecutor, was on the day of his death to testify before the Argentine Congress about his government's alleged collaboration in obstructing the prosecution of those responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society, (AMIA) which also housed the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires. Nisman, who had investigated the case for 10 years, was scheduled to testify that the current regime, led by President Cristina Kirchner, had conspired with Iran to obstruct further investigation into the AMIA bombing that killed 85 people and injured 300.

His testimony, expected only hours after his death, was to focus not only on the alleged Iranian-backed Hezbollah culpability for the bombing itself, but on the ongoing post-script of impunity 20 years after the largest terrorist attack on the American continent before 9/11. The AMIA bombing is the greatest act of anti-Semitism in the Americas whereby the perpetrators remain today unidentified and unpunished by the victimized nation’s government.

In stark contrast to Argentina's refusal to face up to this crime, the recent events in Paris have seen government officials respond by denouncing attacks on Jews at a kosher market alongside those on journalists at Charlie Hebdo, thereby strongly denouncing anti-Semitism and national acts of terrorist in equal measure. Alberto Nisman's murder, an act that the Jews of Argentina understood as furthering the impunity of the AMIA bombing, was not met with national condemnation. Instead, Cristina Kirchner's government responded only insofar as evading blame for the murder itself.

Unlike French government leaders, President Kirchner first denied that Nisman was murdered and then, via social media alone, admitted that the death was indeed a murder. Yet, she bemoaned his murder not insofar as a setback to justice, but rather as a staged act aimed to further defame her presidency.

In a striking case of life imitating art, this murder was eerily foreshadowed by Marcos Aguinis , the former Argentine Minister of Culture who, one decade ago, wrote a novel accusing the Argentine government of being an accomplice in both the AMIA bombing and its ongoing impunity under then-President Carlos Menem. In his 2003 novel, "Assault to Paradise," he clearly denounces Argentina's collaboration in the second anti-Semitic attack on Argentine soil in two years, the first being on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 (and that too remains unprosecuted.)

In his prescient novel, Aguinis paints Argentines, not Jews, and the Argentinian democracy as the victims of the attack. In his narration of the crime, the victims include also the custodians of the AMIA (non-Jewish), children in a nearby nursery school, and residents of a home for the elderly down the block. It was a building for Jews in Argentina, which meant that an Argentine building within the city blocks it was located, was targeted and victimized.

Of note, rather than producing this book after the attack on the AMIA in 1994, Aguinis, a public intellectual, publishes it in the aftermath of America's Sept. 11 attacks, almost a decade after the events in Argentina. Perhaps understanding that his message was more poignant in relief, Aguinis uses the American response to terror on its own shores in juxtaposition to Argentina's shameful lack of response. Jews' lack of integration in the national consciousness is thus posited as an affront on the country as a whole. In so doing, Aguinis clearly advances that until Argentina denounces and persecutes terrorism addressed to any of its citizens as an attack on its very nation and that nation’s sovereignty and way of life, Argentina is effectively aligning itself with forces of terror rather than with those of democracy.

In his novel, Aguinis chooses for his protagonist, a woman named Cristina as his prophet of justice. It is through her journalism and her mission to mobilize public opinion that Aguinis literarily aims to transform Argentina into a country that demands to be a true democracy. Aguinis states explicitly throughout his literary works that he understands Argentina’s equal treatment of its Jews and of its women as key to Argentina's modern democratic identity. One way to literarily pursue this was to create a protagonist that united the plight of Christian Argentines to that of the Jews through the professional activities of a woman in the public sphere.

Today, as Argentina sorts out the events leading to the murder of Nisman, the national and international press wait for another Cristina, not that of Aguinis' "Assault to Paradise," but rather President Cristina Kirchner, to unite her voice with all those who denounce terror, violence, and unlawfulness, with those who state with pain and passion: "I am Martin Luther King," "Yo soy Nisman," "I am Charlie," "Je suis Juif," the myriad cries of conscience no country that claims or aims to be a democracy would ignore.

Dalia WassnerDalia Wassner is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her recent book is Harbinger of Modernity: Marcos Aguinis and the Democratization of Argentina" (Boston: Brill, 2014).