A Global Americans Review of Acts of Repair: Justice, Truth, and the Politics of Memory in Argentina

Zaretsky focuses on the role of memory and truth in rebuilding communities that have faced human rights violations.


Source: Rutgers University Press

Natasha Zaretsky, Acts of Repair: Justice, Truth, and the Politics of Memory in Argentina. Rutgers University Press, March 2021.

Price: USD $34.95 | Length: 242 pages

Dr. Natasha Zaretsky is a Senior Lecturer at New York University and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University, where she leads the Truth in the Americas project. She is also the author of Acts of Repair: Justice, Truth, and the Politics of Memory in Argentina. In her book, Zaretsky focuses on the role of memory and truth in rebuilding communities—specifically, communities within the Jewish diaspora—that have experienced repeated human rights violations and genocides over multiple generations. Acts of Repair seeks to answer one principal question: How do individuals and communities survive periods of collective trauma? Argentina, with its large Jewish population, history of violence, and presence of memory in everyday life—on buildings, sidewalks, in the hands of las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, and on the shoulders of people gathering to demand justice decades later—was therefore a natural landing place for Zaretsky’s research. 

The overlapping and intersecting tragedies of Argentina’s history have fostered an uneven terrain of justice that has made fighting for truth a challenging task within the context of everyday life. Today, around 200,000 to 250,000 Argentines identify as Jewish, comprising the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world and the largest in Latin America. The first wave of Jewish immigration to the Southern Cone consisted largely of Russian Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the 1917 Russian Revolution, while the second wave was made up mainly of Jews from Eastern and Southern Europe fleeing the Holocaust. After the Second World War, new restrictions on Jewish immigration to Argentina coincided with the decision—made by the government of President Juan Perón—to embrace former Nazis escaping postwar tribunals in Europe. The acceptance of ex-Nazis into Argentina, Zaretsky argues—facilitating their avoidance of justice for crimes committed by the German regime—normalized the cohabitation of evil in Argentine society, producing the conditions for future episodes of impunity. 

During the military dictatorship, which ruled Argentina from 1976 until 1983, some 30,000 Argentine citizens—deemed ‘subversive’ due to their opposition to the ruling junta’s rightist political agenda—disappeared. This system of organized state violence was made possible by the establishment of over 600 torture and concentration centers—spaces that would have been eminently familiar to Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families. Indeed, the anti-Semitic orientation of the junta, and its adoption of certain tactics of Nazi terror, are reflected in the demographic composition of the dictatorship’s victims; 12 percent of whom were Jewish, despite Jews representing only two percent of the Argentine population at the time. Following Raphael Lemkin’s definition of ‘genocide’—an intentional campaign to destroy a particular group, whether in part or in whole—numerous academics and Argentine activists have argued that this period of Argentina’s history (commonly known as the ‘Dirty War’) constituted genocide. Although trials against leaders of the military junta began in 1985, leading to some convictions against high-level perpetrators, amnesty laws implemented later that decade enabled the release of multiple convicted perpetrators and stymied future efforts at prosecution and transparency.

The 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society, or AMIA)—allegedly carried out by operatives associated with Hezbollah, in coordination with the government of Iran—killed 85, wounded hundreds, destroyed archives, and once again threw Argentina’s Jewish community into crisis, destroying their sense of security and belonging, further adding to their collective trauma. The aftermath of the bombing included protests and demonstrations of solidarity; narratives disseminated in the mainstream Argentine press that distinguished between ‘Jewish victims’ and ‘innocent victims’ (that is, implying that Jews killed and wounded in the bombing were somehow culpable for their own victimization, whereas non-Jewish victims were innocents merely caught in the crossfire); and two trials that have failed to provide justice for victims and their families over the intervening two-and-a-half decades. For many Argentine Jews, the possibility of ascertaining the truth of who was responsible for the bombing, and holding those perpetrators accountable, seems to drift farther and farther away with every passing year. This is especially true for families descended from Holocaust survivors, who sought refuge in Argentina only to lose their children, grandchildren, and community members to the dictatorship and bombing. Within this historical context, and with the understanding that different tragedies provoke distinct social and cultural ruptures, Zaretsky seeks to interrogate the role of truth and memory in the rebuilding of communities that have repeatedly experienced trauma. 

Zaretsky grounds her interviews and research in the anthropological concept of liminality, a term used by anthropologists such as Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner to describe the intermediate stage of a rite of passage. Liminality, an ambiguous state often characterized by uncertainty and subversion, follows separation but precedes reincorporation and resolution. Zaretsky argues that Argentina—and, specifically, Argentine victims of violence—inhabit a state of perpetual liminality. While modern-day Argentina exists in the shadow of the authoritarian violence of the Dirty War period, victims of the regime (and their descendants) continue to lack access to the mechanisms of truth, justice, and reconciliation that would facilitate closure and enable their reintegration into post-authoritarian Argentine society. While this liminal stage is accompanied, in many cases, by despair and irresolution—for instance, the agony endured by the family of a desaparecido whose fate remains unknown—it also provides those who inhabit it with profound powers of transformation and advocacy. The disruption inherent in such liminality, Zaretksy argues, has proved fundamental in the construction of narratives of national identity and belonging in contemporary Argentina: among the descendants of victims of the Holocaust, the Dirty War, and the AMIA bombing alike. 

Zaretsky explores numerous restorative strategies for surviving trauma employed in Argentina, including processes that she terms “acts of repair.” Such transformative acts grant citizens and survivors agency to engage with one another and their communities. According to Zaretsky, such processes of engagement enable survivors and victims to forge a more bearable present, one in which they can find meaning in their personal and collective traumas while holding onto hope for the future. Protests, monuments, and public testimonies all represent spaces of possible repair; meanwhile, spaces of memory, such as monuments and rituals, allow communities to exert their agency to demand justice. 

These acts and spaces are tools of transitional justice, the measures that a society undertakes when traditional mechanisms of justice are unavailable or otherwise unfeasible. Transitional justice, writes Zaretsky, helps communities organize time and meaning by preserving a political space for future, more retributive acts of justice. For instance, as fears of another military coup in Argentina prevented certain measures of traditional, prosecutorial justice from being pursued—such as convicting junta conspirators—transitional justice took the form of the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, or CONADEP), and the publication of the commission’s summary report, Nunca Más. This report was the first document to systematically account for the abuses, concealed and carried out with impunity, committed by the Argentine state during the dictatorship era. While the collective memory that fuels such transitional justice campaigns remains productive and essential, Zaretsky emphasizes that investigatory commissions are not a substitute for criminal trials. 

At the heart of Acts of Repair are the Argentine people who let Zaretsky into their lives and told her their stories. Despite the trauma that they have endured, they have devoted their lives to sharing their experiences, out of a profound sense of obligation to their fellow survivors, victims, and future generations of Argentines. Sofía Guterman, Rebecca Sakolsky, Vera Jarach, Diana Wang, Jack Fuchs, and many others inspire Zaretsky’s work that explores what it means to regain humanity and community.

India Kirssin is a student at Elon University studying International Relations and Spanish with a concentration on Latin America. You can reach her on LinkedIn and via email at ikirssin@elon.edu.

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