When Jews Faced Torture in South America

Rabbi Roberto Feldmann, 6/4/2004

Dear Arthur,

Unfortunately, during the '70's five countries in South America, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Chile, suffered torture. So we Jews had to cope with it both as an issue in general, as well as when the victims were Jewish. Only in Argentina was there special cruelty vis a vis Jews. Elswhere, Jews among tortured people were persecuted just like anybody else, in equal proportions, for political motives.

So we have had to confront the issue of our own countries' "tumah" -paraphrasing you-, trying to convey a particularly Jewish ethical answer to it, both during the dictatorships and afterwards, when these issues began -albeit slowly- to cry for the collective consciousness' recognition.

I understand that the contexts are so different: The USA is a democracy, the media is free and the judicial system works. (I am aware that some people would contest these three assertions with some degree of skepticism, but everyone can agree it is nothing like a military dictatorship in South America.)

So we Jews here have formed our own front adding our voice for reparation to the victims, to the broader society's demand. Jewish voices came sometimes inexcusably late and fearfully to condemn it, yet many young Jewish psychologists and social workers I know, are active interviewing victims, and often the fact the interviewer is Jewish comes up in the so painful, dramatic conversations, and the response of torture survivors is surprisingly good: Almost invariably, these survivors feel lucky or that their interviewer, because of being Jewish, will have a special empathy and ear and heart to receive the tales, choked in tears or paralyzed in the terror of memory.

During the dictatorship, some of us were active in the "Sebastian Acevedo" group against torture. Some of them acted also out of their Jewish conscience, not only their political or universal humanitarian convictions -being in harms way for raising their voices-. There were Jews among the persecuted and disappeared, as well as enjoying the economic advantages for entrepreneurs and enthusiastic fans of Pinochet (at least that's the case in Chile). Some were communists, some were socialists, some were applauding the military and just turning a blind eye. Others were -believe it or not- convinced the dictatorship "saved the country" from
God knows what evil.

Lately, antisemitism has accused Israel of playing a part in training torturers. The same accusation is thrown at Israel in the case of torture of prisoners in Iraq. That accusation is specially unfair and insidious.

The phenomena is complex, but not new. The School of the Americas has been the Hub of Torture in the Americas and its hallmarks are there in Abu Ghraib.

I humbly suggest: Don't tear down Abu Ghraib -I hope the Iraqi people turn it into a museum- BUT TEAR DOWN THE SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS, so that no torture training camp may ever exist in the USA. If all Jewish voices would just demand that clear, concrete step, a noble Mitzvah might be achieved.

Rabbi Roberto Feldmann,
Santiago, Chile.