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August 24, 2006

Rites Mark ‘94 Bombing of Jewish Center in Argentina

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/rites_mark_94_bombing_of_jewish_center_in_argentina_20060825

<small>Photo by Lisa Hirchmann</small>

<small>Photo by Lisa Hirchmann</small>

Although for most Americans -- or even American Jews -- the date of July 18, 1994, does not strike the melancholy chord that Sept. 11, 2001 does, for the Jewish population of Argentina it is a date as infamous as any in the history of the Argentine nation.

On that morning in 1994, the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires was bombed, demolishing the building and leaving at least 85 dead and 300 wounded -- the most lethal anti-Semitic occurrence since World War II. Among those affected were many members of the small but growing Argentine Jewish community who now reside in Southern California. In total, there are roughly 5,000 Jewish families of Latin American origin in greater Los Angeles -- the majority from Argentina.

Many of them lost friends and relatives that day or were there in the days that followed to sift through the rubble with gloves and masks, looking for survivors and the bodies of victims.

Marcelo Brikman of Simi Valley lost his 20-year-old nephew, Emiliano. Omar Zayat of North Hollywood worked around the corner from the AMIA building. He'd left Buenos Aires on July 17 to go to the beach with friends, without telling his family, and returned on July 18 to find that they had searched for him in the rubble and had concluded that he was dead.

Zayat now serves as the director of the Latin American Jewish Association of Los Angeles (LAJA).

"It made me pay more attention, become more proactive -- it made me work with a "never again" attitude," Zayat said. "I always keep it in mind."

Despite the pain and loss of July 18, 1994, LAJA members remain equally discountenanced by the Argentine government's failure to conduct honest investigations into the attack and punish its perpetrators. Although Argentina, the United States and Israel believe Hezbollah, with the support of Iran, was responsible for the bombing, the Argentine government has failed to hold anyone legally responsible.

There is an ongoing investigation of irregularities in the original AMIA trial. It is widely suspected that the Argentine government of President Carlos Menem accepted bribes from Iran to shield investigations into the bombing. In 2005, the judge that presided over the original faulty legal proceedings was impeached, but Menem has yet to be held accountable.

"The government always treated it as just the Jews' problem, not the entire country's problem," said Mirta Lipzsyc, a LAJA board member who was living in Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing. "Never again. Never again is what I tell myself."

It was with the "never again" spirit that LAJA commemorated the 12th anniversary of the bombing last month at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills.

"Today it is more evident to us than ever that justice will be only served when all those who are responsible -- those who planned, those who executed, those who concealed, those who covered up and those who allowed it -- are found, tried and punished," Lipzsyc read at the commemoration from a statement by Memoria Activa, or Active Memory in English, an Argentine organization that promotes remembrance of the bombing and seeks legal justice for those responsible.

LAJA members also viewed an Argentine docudrama titled, "18-J," a collection of narratives of victims' lives during the period leading up to the attack and those of their families in its aftermath.

The AMIA building was the headquarters of a community-based Jewish network in the Argentine capital. Many of the attack's victims were young people seeking help finding a job at AMIA's employment bureau.

LAJA began in January 2005 with a model similar to that of AMIA in mind, one based around the community center as opposed to the temple. Its founding members were a group of recent Argentine Jewish immigrants fleeing their country's economic crisis and surging waves of anti-Semitism.

The organization soon grew to include Jewish immigrant families from all over Latin America who were unable to afford standard Southern California Jewish life and sought an inexpensive community-based alternative.

LAJA programming at the Milken center, which functions as a headquarters, includes weekly soccer matches, barbecues, Israeli dancing, body expression classes, singles' nights, and children's swimming, arts, crafts and games, among other activities.

The viewing of "18-J" was part of a series of Latin American movie nights and discussions hosted by LAJA for its 400 members.

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