Unprecedented in Argentina: Jewish candidates aplenty

buenos aires  |  In the capital of a country that has suffered more than just the sting of anti-Semitism, two Jews — including a rabbi — are suddenly front and center in the political world.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, one of Buenos Aires’ most prominent spiritual leaders, has been tapped by the city’s incumbent mayor to lead his party’s list for the municipal legislature.

As a result, Bergman has become a high-profile candidate who is virtually assured of securing a spot in the city legislature in the July 10 municipal elections.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman (with microphone) speaks his piece during an introduction of candidates by Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri (left). photo/jta/eliana krumecadyk

Moreover, the incumbent mayor, Mauricio Macri, once again is being challenged by Jewish candidate Daniel Filmus in the mayoral race.

Although Filmus lost to Macri (who is not Jewish) in the last election in 2007, the former Argentine education minister has the backing of Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

That the president and the mayor both would tap Jews as key political partners in Argentina’s largest city has not escaped in Latin America’s largest Jewish community (between 180,000 and 280,000 people, depending on what definition of Jewish identity is used). Argentine Jews are a small minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

“This is a very shocking moment, an unprecedented situation,” said Aldo Donzis, president of DAIA, Argentine Jewry’s primary umbrella organization. “Had a similar panorama occurred during my teenage years, the Jewish community would have been terrified, assuming this situation to be highly risky, given that if any of the candidates were to obtain an official post and subsequently make mistakes, anti-Semitism would violently arise.”

Bergman, the senior rabbi of the traditional Congregacion Israelita Argentina, is the founder of Active Memory, a group that demonstrated every Monday for a decade in front of Argentina’s Supreme Court seeking justice for the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center. The Pagina12 newspaper published a full-page article on his selection headlined “A head of the list that comes with a kippah.”

Asked why he is becoming involved in politics, Bergman said that Argentine society is “in a deep crisis of values,” adding that “I believe that Torah can also be taught in the legislature.”

He dismissed the notion that his candidacy could put the Jewish community at risk.

“If the society knows us better, the level of anti-Semitism will become lower,” Bergman said. “I have many non-Jewish voters. The only doubt today is if Jews will vote for me.”

The same question applies to Filmus, who served as education minister under the country’s previous president, Nestor Kirchner, the late husband of Argentina’s current leader.

While more secular than Bergman, Filmus has not shied away from his Jewish identity. He sent his youngest daughter to the Jewish ORT high school and, as education minister, organized a 2005 ceremony commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. Filmus also announced the Argentine government’s decision to teach children about the Holocaust in all schools throughout the country.

Another Jewish mayoral hopeful is Jorge Telerman, who was the city’s vice mayor before taking over as mayor for nearly two years following the 2006 impeachment of Anibal Ibarra. Running to retain the office in 2007, Telerman placed third behind Macri and Filmus.

A poll of Buenos Aires voters published May 29 showed Macri with the support of 32.9 percent of voters, followed by Filmus with 24.9 percent and Telerman a distant fourth with 4.8 percent.

Buenos Aires residents also will have the opportunity to vote for a neo-Nazi mayoral candidate: Alejandro Biondini of the Social Alternative Party. He has openly espoused anti-Semitism and his previous party, New Triumph, was banned by Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2009.

The country’s electoral court rejected calls from members of the Buenos Aires legislature to ban Biondini from running for mayor — a request that was backed by DAIA and other Jewish groups.

While Argentine Jews have been active participants in Argentina’s business, cultural and academic spheres, until now they have not been prominent in politics.

Argentina’s current foreign minister, for example, is Hector Timerman, the son of a famed dissident, journalist Jacobo Timerman, who was imprisoned by the military junta before fleeing for Israel and then returning to Argentina.

Argentine society has become more secular, said University of Buenos Aires sociologist Daniel Scarfo. “The religion of the candidates is less relevant to the majority,” he added.