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Argentina's anti-Semitic past

A Holocaust-denying bishop's extradition recalls Argentina's history serving as a refuge for Nazis and anti-Semites.

BUENOS AIRES — When Argentines discovered that they had a Holocaust-denying bishop in their midst, the public outcry was forceful and the government response swift.

British-born bishop Richard Williamson was summarily expelled from the country last month, to the applause of Jewish rights groups and others. The official reason cited by immigration authorities was a visa technicality, but the message was clear: Argentina will not tolerate anti-Semitism within its borders.

The domestic response was part of a larger international debate that erupted after Pope Benedict XVI allowed Williamson back into the Catholic Church earlier this year. On March 12, the Vatican released a letter the pope wrote to bishops worldwide, in which he said the Vatican mishandled the reinstatement. The pope expressed regret for the event, which "upset peace between Christians and Jews."

For the largest Jewish community in Latin America, peace has often been hard to come by: Argentina has a long, dark history as a haven for anti-Semites and Nazis.

Even today, the number of spray-painted swastikas on the streets of Buenos Aires hints at the persistent anti-Semitism below Argentina's politically correct veneer. The graffiti, together with Argentina's history of serving as a refuge for Nazis and anti-Semites, might suggest a strong Argentine neo-Nazi movement.

Raul Kollman, a radio commentator who has written a book on the subject, however, says that there are only two organized neo-Nazi groups in Argentina — both politically impotent and with less than 300 adherents between them.

Sergio Widder — who leads the Latin American branch of the Simon Weisenthal Center, a prominent Jewish human rights organization — says that most anti-Semitism in Argentina these days comes from anti-Israel movements of militant Islamists and radical leftists, rather than from neo-Nazis. Buenos Aires has been the site of two of the deadliest attacks on Israeli institutions in the Western hemisphere: the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in 1994.

Echoes of those attacks continue to this day. On March 6, an investigator into the 1994 bombing was abducted, tortured and interrogated about the investigation for several hours before being released.

It's not yet clear who his kidnappers were. But they left a chilling scar on their victim, whom they knew was of Eastern European Jewish ancestry: a six-digit number carved into his forearm, bearing a sinister resemblance to the tattoos printed on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

That resemblance may or may not have been deliberate — the numerical wound matches the bombing investigation's case number. But whatever the intent, the incident is a reminder of Argentina's history of anti-Semitism and Nazi ties.

The "Dirty War" of the repressive military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 is alleged to have disproportionately persecuted Argentine Jews. And during World War II, with the Nazi party's genocidal frenzy in full swing in Europe, Argentine bard Jorge Luis Borges lamented that anti-Semitism in Buenos Aires was "even worse than in Berlin."

When Borges made his pronouncement, the country had only just disbanded domestic Nazi groups, and would soon cut its ties with the Axis powers in order to remain neutral in World War II. The moves were an about-face: In the previous decade, public pro-Nazi demonstrations took place in Buenos Aires and Argentina strengthened diplomatic and commercial ties to Berlin.