If there was one Argentine official who made himself available to American Jewish leaders concerned about the AMIA bombing, it was former President Carlos Saul Menem — the man The New York Times said this week was paid $10 million to cover up Iran’s links to the terror attack.
Most major Jewish leaders met with Menem over the years — some repeatedly — always with the hope that he might cut through the legal tangle that was impeding the investigation into AMIA and the car bombing of the Israeli embassy two years earlier.
According to the Times report, he was more likely the cause of the tangle.
In addition to the AMIA issue, Jewish leaders believed the always-accessible Menem, whose parents were Syrian immigrants, could help with Jewish concerns in the Middle East. Officials of the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents, the Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee met with him on the issues of Syrian and Iranian Jews.
Jewish leaders found Menem unusually helpful on the issue of escaped Nazi war criminals. Leaders of B’nai B’rith worked directly with Menem to win the extradition of alleged Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke; the World Jewish Congress gained his help in opening up records of assets looted by the Nazis and moved to Argentina.
But most of those same leaders also expressed strong reservations about Menem’s sincerity, especially as the AMIA investigation began to look more like an all-out cover-up.
One Jewish activist questioned Menem from the outset — and protested Jewish efforts to work with him.
Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns met with Menem several times after the AMIA bombing, and became one of few foreigners to attend one of his cabinet meetings, an experience he described as “surreal.”
Rabbi Weiss was ejected from a 1994 Appeal of Conscience Foundation gala at which Menem was awarded the group’s World Statesman Award.
The leader of that group, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, now says he is “bewildered” by the charges against the man he once honored.
During his 10-year reign Menem “was hailed for his close collaboration with the United States, and he was received at the White House,” Rabbi Schneier said. “And he was saluted for his privatization efforts.”
Rabbi Schneier added that “If [Menem] is re-elected I would want to meet with him and hear what he has to say on this charge.”
He also urged that Jewish groups not rush to judgment before the Time allegations against Menem are substantiated.