Anti-Semitism flap leads Argentina minister to quit

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BUENOS AIRES — Argentine Justice Minister Rodolfo Barra has resigned in the wake of revelations about his past membership in a violent anti-Semitic group.

Barra, who oversaw the investigations of the still-unsolved bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish community headquarters in 1994, was replaced after he resigned July 10 by Deputy Justice Minister Elias Jassan, who is Jewish.

Barra belonged to the right-wing group UNES when he was a high-school student, according to a recent story by the local weekly magazine Noticias.

UNES was a youth group affiliated with Tacuara, an organization responsible for hundreds of anti-Semitic actions including attacks against synagogues, a violent riot in the Jewish neighborhood here and the murder of Jewish lawyer Alberto Alterman.

In a recent letter to the Argentine Jewish umbrella organization DAIA, Barra admitted belonging to UNES. But he denied that he was a Nazi or a racist.

"I was a nationalist and an anti-Zionist, because I was told all Jews were Communists and I was adamantly anti-Communist," Barra wrote in the letter.

But after he wrote the letter, a local magazine charged that the minister had belonged to the extremist group Patria Grande.

In 1974, when he was 27, he worked at the University of Buenos Aires for Argentina's most notorious fascist, Alberto Ottalagano. Then-Argentine leader Gen. Juan Peron made Ottalagano dean and president of the school.

Ottalagano wrote a book titled "Yes, I Am A Fascist, So What?"

Barra's case created deep concern and division among Argentine Jews.

DAIA's answer to the minister's letter was cautious, lauding Barra's repudiation of Nazi ideology and racism. But several Jewish groups called for his resignation.

Some DAIA members tried to defend Barra's recent record, which includes facilitating the extradition of former Nazi Erich Priebke, who is now on trial in Italy.

Before Barra's resignation was announced, several Jewish organizations and rabbis were planning a demonstration this week to call for his replacement.

The government confirmed Barra's resignation July 10. President Carlos Menem refused to comment on the loss of a minister he once described as "a personal friend and close ally." Barra had also served in the Menem government as a legal consultant and a Supreme Court justice.

Barra resigned when he felt "the pressure [was] unstoppable," sources said.

He had offered to resign July 7 during a private conversation with Menem, sources said. At the time, the president asked him to "hold on to the post for a few more days."

On July 10, DAIA president Ruben Beraja met with Interior Minister Carlos Vladimiro Corach, who is Jewish, and told him, "Argentine Jews are not comfortable with a former Nazi in the Cabinet."

According to sources, Corach withdrew his support from Barra, a move that sealed the minister's fate. Menem accepted Barra's resignation later that day and promoted Jassan.