Twenty-Five Years After Attack, Philadelphia Remembers AMIA Bombing

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A wall lists the names of those who died in the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina
The names of those who died in a 1994 bombing are posted on the wall of the AMIA Jewish community center. (Photo by Liz Spikol)

It’s a day that has remained with Pedro Feldman, even after all these years.

On the morning of July 18, 1994, a car bomb went off at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The explosion killed 85 people and injured about 300 others, making it the deadliest anti-Semitic attack since World War II.

Feldman, who grew up in Buenos Aires but now lives in Philadelphia, was grabbing breakfast with a friend the morning of the bombing while in town for a business trip.

“It was terrible,” he said. “And we could feel the blast.”

The American Jewish Committee’s Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey chapter hosted a lunch at the Pyramid Club in Center City on July 18 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the terror attack. Joining Feldman there was Liliana Elkouss of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a fellow Jewish Argentine. She remembers how she felt upon hearing news of the attack from friends. A close friend of hers was on his way to AMIA, but arrived shortly after the explosion.

“I talk and my skin crawls,” Elkouss said. “When it happened, lots of people I knew had been going there, had been there, some second-, third- degree acquaintances. So it was a very difficult day, and proceeded by difficult weeks for me.”

While no individual has ever been charged for the crime, both Argentina and Israel have long blamed Iran and implicated several former Iranian officials and Hezbollah in the attack. But governmental corruption in Argentina has stymied investigations, with members of the Argentine government accused of participating in a cover-up. In 2005, a federal judge was found to have paid a witness $400,000 to change testimony in a case accusing several Argentine police officers of involvement in the bombing plot. And in 2015, Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor who had been investigating the attack and government complicity, was murdered a few days after filing a report accusing then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of covering up the role of Iranian officials in connection with the bombing. His body was found the night before he was scheduled to testify regarding these accusations. Jewish pundits and community groups in Argentina and in Israel have long called for justice, but the case remains unsolved.

Argentina is home to the sixth-largest Jewish population in the world, and the largest in all of Latin America. Only two years prior to the attack, another bombing occurred at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992. That attack killed 29 and injured more than 200. Both Iran and Hezbollah have denied responsibility for either attack.

Fernando Treviño has attended the commemoration in Philadelphia for the last five years or so. His wife is Jewish, and he’s a member of the AJC Latino-Jewish Coalition. He said the event is an opportunity to bring the Jewish and Latino communities together.

“It’s always really powerful. It’s always really emotional to remember what happened,” Treviño said. “And a little bit frustrating that one of the biggest acts of terrorism in Latin America never got resolved.”

Speakers at the commemoration included Almog Elijis, consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, and Alicia Falkowski, minister and head of consular section at the Embassy of Argentina in Washington, D.C. Jason Isaacson, AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer, spoke to the event’s audience of traveling to Argentina two days after the bombing.

“There are certain things I cannot forget, the mission of solidarity and sympathy,” Isaacson said of the AJC. “And there are certain things I try not to remember. I will be pleased to forget precise details of the devastation on Pasteur Street, the burnt smell that still lingered in the neighborhood, or the songs of weeping heard in the synagogue.”

On the anniversary of the 1994 attack, Argentina declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization. All assets of Hezbollah and its members within the country have been ordered frozen. The labeling of the group as a terrorist organization was the first by any Latin American country. This announcement coincided with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Elijis spoke of the significance of this declaration in Israel and beyond.

“We honor the memories of the innocent victims who lost their lives, not only by commemorating them, but also by pursuing justice,” Elijis said. “Israel welcomes the important decision of Argentina President Mauricio Macri to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. A crucial acknowledgment for the Israeli people and an important step forward for our shared pursuit of justice.”

The event ended with a candle-lighting ceremony where community leaders read aloud the names of each person killed in the blast. One name of note was that of Augusto Daniel Jesus. He was the last victim to be identified, the result of a DNA test in 2016.

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