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From survivor of 'dirty war' to diplomat
JTA / August 5, 2008

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — Iran must own up to the crimes it has committed, the same way Argentina did after the "dirty war" of the 1970s, if it ever hopes to cleanse its collective soul.

So says Héctor Timerman, Argentina's ambassador to the United States, and a survivor of that war — one of the darkest chapters in modern Latin American history.

The 54-year-old diplomat is the son of the late Jacobo Timerman, an outspoken newspaper editor who was tortured not only for exposing the atrocities of Argentina's military dictatorship, but for being a Jew and a Zionist as well.

"I have learned through Argentine history that no country can hide from justice," Timerman told JTA. "Iran must accept that some of its citizens are criminals. It happened to Argentina, too. Nothing is more important than knowing the truth, and cooperating will help Iran become a better country."

Timerman was interviewed at the Argentine Embassy in Washington last week, following a memorial service marking the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attack that destroyed the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The July 18, 1994, truck bombing left 86 people dead and 300 injured, and occurred only two years after a similar bombing destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people.

"This was the worst attack against Jews outside Israel since World War II," said the ambassador, who was in New York at the time of the AMIA explosion. "It created for many people the impression that we are living through something we thought was behind us: the possibility of Jews in the diaspora being killed because they are Jews."

Last November, the general assembly of Interpol — meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco — voted to issue arrest warrants against five Iranians and one Lebanese in connection with the AMIA attack. Officials in Buenos Aires say they have hard evidence linking Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives to the bombing. But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied his country was involved in any way, accusing Argentina and Israel of hatching a Zionist plot against Tehran.

In a touch of irony, Argentine officials used that same "Zionist conspiracy" slander against Jacobo Timerman more than 30 years earlier.

On Apr. 15, 1977, the generals who ruled Argentina shut down Jacobo's left-leaning newspaper, La Opinión, imprisoning and subjecting him to electric-shock torture for the next 30 months. Among other things, the elder Timerman was accused of masterminding a plot to establish a Jewish homeland in the remote Patagonia region of southern Argentina.

Hector set out to free his father, launching a massive letter-writing campaign that eventually gained the attention of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Alexander Solzhenitzyn and the Vatican — all of whom pressured Buenos Aires to release Timerman.

"What happened to me was no different than what happened to thousands of people in Argentina," he said. "My family was lucky because none of us were killed, and because we were more well-known than the other victims."

Timerman added: "They told him they were not going to kill him, because they wanted to show the world there was a Jewish conspiracy, in order to justify the military repression. We think this saved his life."

Eventually, all charges against Timerman were dropped for lack of evidence, though in a final insult to his dignity, the government stripped him of his citizenship and his property, and put him on a one-way flight to Tel Aviv. Once in Israel, the exiled newspaper editor finished his book, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number" — which became a bestseller and was made into a Hollywood film starring Roy Scheider as Timerman and Liv Ullman as his wife, Risha.

Yet the ardent Zionist wasn't too popular in Israel either.

In 1983 — following the Sabra and Chatilla massacres — he wrote "The Longest War," a scathing critique of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The following year, he returned to a newly democratic Argentina, where he was unsuccessfully sued for libel by former President Carlos Menem. In 1999, Jacobo Timerman died of a heart attack in his Buenos Aires apartment while working on his memoirs.

"He felt his place was to support the return of democracy to Argentina. He could do that better by being in Argentina," said his son. "And even though because of his opposition to the Lebanon war he felt out of place in Israel, he remained a Zionist all his life. Before dying, he said to me there were two decisions he didn't regret: one was to become a Zionist, and the other was to marry my mother."

During the course of the "Dirty War," some 30,000 people disappeared and were never seen again — 1,500 of them Jews.

The memory of that awful time came flooding back to Argentina's Jewish community two decades later, on the day of the AMIA bombing.

"We were subject to abuses just because we were Jews. The idea of anti-Semitism and attacking Jews was very much connected with the story of the dictatorship," said Timerman. "So on that day, we saw again two things: the image of the Holocaust, and the image of state terrorism in Argentina."

Timerman is not the first Jew to serve as Argentina's ambassador in Washington. That distinction belongs to Diego Ramiro Guelar, who represented then-President Menem in the late 1990s.

The diplomat, who is here with his wife Anabelle, an architect, and their two daughters, Jordana and Amanda, says he can be a good bridge between the United States and Argentina because he feels at home in both countries.

"I have a deep debt to the American people, who saved my life during the dictatorship," he said.

Timerman dismissed as speculation the idea that Iran ordered the AMIA attack in retaliation for Menem's decision to suspend a bilateral nuclear cooperation program and join U.S. forces in 1991, during the first Persian Gulf war.

"I think it's too serious to publish speculations. We should let the judicial system work," he said. "I don't like Menem, but what we need now is to focus on what we know. An attack like that couldn't have been done without local help. It bothers me that so far, we haven't found the local connection."

To that end, Timerman said he's confident that his boss, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is determined to "go to the bare bones" to solve the riddle of who carried out the AMIA attack.

"The president is committed to the AMIA cause. From the beginning, as a member of Congress, she supported the investigation. We have been to Israel many times together," he said. "Although she grew up in a Catholic family, she can understand the Jewish situation. When a Jew talks about discrimination, she understands. For her, it's not an intellectual discussion, it's something that comes from her soul."

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