On Chameleons and Argentinians

May 6, 2014 by jewish journeys

I like the rhythm of the title. It works in some sort of lyrical way. The words seem to balance each other beautifully, chameleons and Argentinians. Truth is that I mean no insult to either, Argentinians or chameleons. I do not expect a response from chameleons; I am not as sure about Argentinians.

It is strange how the words entered my brain together. I am trying to unravel how this happened. It is true that I saw a very beautiful chameleon at the lake in Cuba near Cienfuegos, but almost a week has passed since we saw the chameleons and they were less impressive than the pink flamingoes doing their imitation of scenes in gardens in Florida (and New Jersey). Perhaps the colours in the Mario Testino exhibition were the determining factor. What an exhibition. “In Your Face” is provocative, just what I love, provocation. It asked many questions, but none more than the questions around erotica, art, pornography and context. Extraordinary beauty, which if reproduced in less glamorous surroundings than the Malba, the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the clientele looks as if they are at a gathering of HNWIs, might be available only on the top shelves, wrapped. Testino pushed the envelope, teasing with his camera. Part paparazzi, part voyeur, part artist, part celebrity, he invites us to visit with Naomi Campbell, Candice Swanepoel and especially with Kate Moss and see them in the most intimate way and just to make sure that all of our potential is catered for, he adds a slightly off center homoeroticism which is the source of seduction.

After Cuba, this was exactly what I was missing and I made up for it with an hour of fantasy.

But it is actually not the colours of Testino as chromatic as he is. It is of course, as it always is for me, excuse my obsessions, something about the Jewish community over here that brings the chameleon image to the foreground. A wonderful few days in the community. Warm, vibrant meetings with people who are Jewish in a way which I remember form my life growing up in South Africa. The ones I meet are of course the involved ones. The ones who care about being Jewish, worry about the future of their community, feel strongly about Israel. But it is as always a smaller story that captures my imagination and brings a question up a hard question.

The Argentinian Jewish Community has its 9/11, 7/18 (1994). It also has its Ground Zero, the AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina) building on Pasteur 633. On this day some twenty years ago around Tisha B’Av, around the centennial of the organization 85 people died in a terrorist attack on the Jewish Community. A chilling coincidence: the original document incorporating this umbrella organization of the Jewish Community was signed by… 85 people.

This moment, more than any in the history of this community was and remains the seminal  moment. On the high wall surrounding the rebuilt AMIA building there are as was with Ground Zero, the rough names of the victims as they were recorded twenty years ago as the original memorial to them. Once inside there is an additional memorial created in splendid colour by the Israeli artist Agam. But this is not the reason for the chameleon image.

It is actually about how the community has found its way to live with the responses to the crime by the surrounding society. When the rubble cleared after the explosion and the extent of the disaster became known the insults began. A newspaper describing the disaster talked about the dead as both “Jews and innocent bystanders”. Is there something I do not understand in the English language? Is there something we are guilty of by being Jewish? I think not. The real insult however came as a result of the realpolitik  of the Argentinian government. It became patently clear that the attack had been co-ordinated via the Iranian Embassy and the Iranian Secret Service. However the commercial links between Argentina and Iran were and are important and therefore something had to be sacrificed. Justice. Today, twenty years after this crime nobody has been brought to justice and as the relationship between Iran and Argentina strengthens it is clear that nobody ever will.

There is a famous dance in Buenos Aires, the tango. Everywhere tourists are invited to pose with gorgeous women wearing black dresses with a high split up one leg. The music on the tourist bus which travels around the city has as its soundtrack tango music. But there is another dance with steps as sharp and precise as that of the tango. It is the dance danced every July 18th on Pasteur Street. It takes two to Tango and the dancers are the Argentinian Government and the Jewish Community. The government sends a representative who is given a platform to express condolences on behalf of the President, government and people of Argentina (their part of the dance). The Jewish Community receives this speech with whistles, hisses and boos (their part of the dance). The only question is of course ‘who is leading?’

That is why the image of the chameleon comes to mind. I am now beginning to feel bad for the chameleon. Chameleons were actually one of my favorite creatures as a boy. I loved playing with them and moving them from one surface to another watching with delight as they changed colour. But there is something very hard for me to accept when I see a community prepared to play at being a chameleon, even if only for a day.

Don’t cry for me; cry for Argentina and for chameleons.


Julian Resnick




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