BUENOS AIRES — In a plush office in Argentina’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Minister Sergio Bergman smiles confidently for a photograph in front of a crowded bookshelf, his desk strewn with papers.
“Every citizen has the right to a healthy and well-balanced environment,” reads a picture on the wall. Next to Bergman stands an Argentinian flag.
Aged 55, Bergman, a pharmacist and writer, is the first Conservative rabbi ever to run for public office in Argentina. With a colorful kippah that can’t be missed upon his head, Bergman clearly does not hide his Jewishness. He says his colleagues know they can’t call him on Shabbat.
His path to politics was remarkably shot: In 2011, he was named by now-President Mauricio Macri to lead the center-right Republican Proposal (PRO) party’s list of parliamentary candidates for the Buenos Aires legislature. He went on to become the head of the National parliamentary candidates’ slate and succeeded in those elections. A few years later he was chosen through executive power to serve as Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development.
In an exclusive two-hour conversation with The Times of Israel, Bergman doesn’t hold much back. In a broad-ranging interview, he speaks about his daily work in politics, anti-Semitism, Argentina’s relationship with Israel and Israel’s enemies, and the case of Alberto Nisman’s mysterious death.
What prompted you to get into politics? Did you find there was something missing in your experience as a rabbi?
It was a journey, a process that started after the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish center bombing. It was a very traumatic situation; I wanted to do what I thought had to be done. I’ll admit that my last job as a teacher and rabbi before I got into politics was far more comfortable, so the change wasn’t convenient for me — but it was consistent with my values.
I started thinking that teaching Torah lessons and simultaneously observing how [the Torah] was profaned in the street was completely irrational. Besides, I figured that we couldn’t rely on God’s help without making any efforts of our own to improve things. It’s really easier to diagnose what’s wrong and express your opinions as an outsider [rather than as an active instigator of change].
You must have gone through different obstacles in politics. Have you ever asked yourself what you’re doing here, or if this is the right place for a rabbi?
I exercise my governmental responsibilities from the point of view of a rabbi. I never quit being a rabbi and I never will. I’m just putting my communal duties on hiatus as I can no longer lead a community and be at the disposal of the people — though I do miss it very much. I didn’t have to suspend the institutional side of my rabbinical responsibilities, and I’m still actively working with “The Judaica Foundation” as an assessor and project manager. So, becoming a minister is not an upgrade in my life. Actually, if I lose my spiritual roots, I lose it all.
‘I never quit being a rabbi and I never will’
Despite your demanding job do you still study Torah and keep Shabbat?
It’s still pretty novel for a rabbi to work as a government minister. All my colleagues know that from Friday afternoon until Saturday night I’m usually at the synagogue. In other words, if there is an emergency on Shabbat they know they can’t count on me since my cellphone is off.
The political party I work with had to get used to my customs, though I don’t consider this a special privilege. They accept me as I am and that’s how it’s supposed to be. They know I won’t give up my Jewish practice at all. The bicentennial of Argentina’s independence, on July 9 of last year, happened to be on Shabbat and I didn’t attend any of the national events. Shabbat is Shabbat.
With regards to discrimination and anti-Semitism, do you feel that all your colleagues respect you as a Jew? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate their respect for your beliefs?
A 10. I must recognize that people have a lot of respect. I really believe the president Mauricio Macri can take credit for that, because it takes a lot of courage to choose a rabbi to head the parliamentary list in Buenos Aires and, years later, as a Minister of Environment.
What qualities do you think caused the president to choose you?
He valued me as a person, not as a rabbi. He didn’t designate a rabbi — instead, he chose me, who happens to be a rabbi. That’s exactly what I wanted. If he had chosen me just because of being a rabbi, he definitely wouldn’t have called on me to lead the Ministry of Environment. Maybe he would have considered me for another position.
Why do you think you were called on to head the Ministry of Environment in specific?
Macri is a good team manager. He knows exactly the qualities of the “players” he chooses. He was one of the few who knew about my scientific and pharmaceutical studies. He realized that the leader of this ministry should have the technical ability to understand all about sustainability, but also, there is an ethical facet to most of the problems posed. In other words, these challenges must be solved on a technical basis, but ethically.
‘These challenges must be solved on a technical basis, but ethically’
As a member of parliament under the previous government, were you ever the subject of any anti-Semitism?
I don’t think so. When I was a congressman during Cristina Kirchner’s presidency, I used to work in the Arlene Fern Jewish School. The government ended up withdrawing subsidies and sending special labor inspectors to the school, but I believe this was more because of my opposing political position than because I’m Jewish. I also recall lighting Hanukkah candles in Congress — my colleagues looked at me strangely but nobody objected.
Nowadays do you find any discrimination from non-Jewish Argentinean society?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. We can’t say Argentina is an anti-Semitic country, but it has a lot of anti-Semitic citizens. A few days ago some cities were affected by forest fires, which are a terrible problem. There was a lot of anger, and a lot of people attacked me verbally, and, as I expected, made use of my identity and my Judaism to insult me. But I was aware of the risk of this when I started working in politics.
On the other hand, focus group studies show that most Argentinians don’t really know what a rabbi is. There is a lot of stereotyping — mostly by anti-Semitic people — but for a large portion of Argentinians the fact that I’m a rabbi doesn’t really matter. What usually calls their attention is my kippah. For example, when I walk through the outskirts of the city some people associate my little hat with Islamic or indigenous people. Very few realize what the kippah means. But, all in all, I think that most people really just see my empathy towards them.
After the forest fires in Bariloche, you mentioned prayer in an interview and received a lot of public criticism for it. Why is faith seen as a negative trait in politics?
Politics basically means loving thy neighbor, and the Torah dictates the main guidelines for that. For example, the commandment to tithe relates to economic policy and the tax system. The reaction to what I said about Bariloche had nothing to do with disapproval of my faith — I think it was more about getting in the way of my career and convictions.
‘When the pope says “pray for me” nobody complains’
When the pope says “pray for me” nobody complains. Besides, my words were taken out of context — first I explained what needed to be done on the ground and then I mentioned prayer. I stand behind what I said about faith, even though government analysts recommend I avoid talking that way.
So are you told to avoid that sort of spiritual language in your political speech?
Yes, in this case they asked me why I said what I did. I believe that in a way they’re right, because a politician is vulnerable to getting his words twisted. It probably isn’t wise to openly speak about faith in a situation like this when people could jump to the wrong conclusions. They might think, “The rabbi doesn’t know anything about the environment and just suggests we pray while the fires rage — which is why this isn’t the right position for him, he should go back to the synagogue.”
But I’d like to make it clear that I don’t regret what I said. I absolutely believe the proverb that “Man proposes, but God disposes.” We’ve got to do our best to help ourselves, but it’s really important to ask God for protection. How could somebody be so arrogant and irreverent to think that money and technology are the only means to manage these unforeseen catastrophes?
Man can’t solve everything on his own. There are lots of things that mankind just can’t handle. As humans we’re vulnerable, and in spite of the efforts that we can and must make, we’re ultimately at the mercy of God’s will. So prayer brings humility, discipline and reverence.
Regarding prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s death and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA-DAIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, do you have any access to new evidence as a lawmaker or as a Minister?
No, there’s a government policy to keep judicial matters independent of executive and legislative powers.
So you weren’t able to use your influence to expedite either or both of those causes?
There is a clear compromise we have as public servants. “Influence” means to provide the court with every necessary tool to perform a quick and efficient investigation, which hasn’t been done until now. Under the previous administration, judges and prosecutors were pressured and extorted. Now it’s a different situation. The court has what it needs, so we just have to wait and see how things develop.
I said that Nisman was killed from day one. A suicide is totally improbable. The executive branch can’t interfere with the judicial process, but fortunately now they’ve reopened the investigation. We just wish that we hadn’t wasted these last years in which no progress was made.
Argentina abstained from voting on the October 13, 2016, UNESCO “Occupied Palestine Resolution.” How did you react to this decision?
The resolution is abominable. I totally disagree with Argentina’s decision to abstain, as it should have supported Israel. It is a matter of common sense.
It’s completely irrational to deny the connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem, but we should take into account the context. It’s important to remember that going back, Argentina had a strong relationship with Iran and Venezuela — not to mention the involvement in Nisman’s killing. So, I believe the abstention is a first step towards positive political change, though of course it’s not enough.
On top of that, we should restore some value and integrity to UNESCO, which has become a pro-Palestinian lobby managed by interests that have nothing to do with serving the people.
Have you ever talked with the president about this?
Yes I have, and also told Chancellor Susana Malcorra I wasn’t comfortable with the Argentinean’s decision on the “Occupied Palestine Resolution.” I did the same when Malcorra said our country should continue developing trade relations with Iran, alleging that we had a strategic interest in spite of Iranian culpability in the Jewish center and Israeli Embassy bombings. Again, I told her I didn’t agree at all.
What was her answer?
She is a professional. She said that justice must prevail — which means putting the Iranian criminals on trial — but she also said that trade and good relations with Iran shouldn’t come to an end. In my opinion, Argentina can’t maintain relations with a state that backs terrorism, even if that were good economic or diplomatic strategy. Regarding UNESCO, she says that there’s a lot of pressure on us. I can understand her position, but I don’t accept it.
Do you think Argentina is willing to improve its relations with Israel?
Throughout Argentina’s history as a democracy there has never existed any government more open to a rapprochement with Israel than the current one. I’ve participated in several projects, I attended the International Conference of Mayors in Israel with Mauricio Macri and I can tell he was really enthusiastic about Israel’s technological innovation and start-up projects. This government could start down a path to a thriving relationship with Israel based on medicine, biotechnology, agro-industry and new technologies.
It’s not what I’d call a “pro-Israel government,” but I think it is a rational administration. Any rational and modern government can visualize Israel as an inspiration and a strategic partner. In the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Israeli technologies are really useful to the renewable energy and sustainability projects.
Do you think you’ll ever run for president?
No. I never even thought of becoming a congressional deputy, much less a minister. I’m in this position because the president asked me to lead the ministry. I never asked for it. I supported Mauricio Macri because I realized this political party was the last chance to avoid demagogy and end up being like Venezuela [which is currently experiencing rising violent political unrest and an economic meltdown].
‘We shouldn’t just tell young people to work hard for a better future; we should say, you have a better future and I’m doing my best for you to enjoy it’
What kind of message would you give to future generations?
We shouldn’t just tell young people to work hard for a better future; we should say, “You have a better future and I’m doing my best for you to enjoy it.” I know I won’t be perfect but at least I’ll have peace of mind knowing that when my children replace me they will have the tools to do so. I don’t want them to ask, “Why didn’t you take the opportunity to participate and fix the country while it was still a democracy?” And I don’t want to answer that I merely complained and protested from the comfort of my couch.
I think that we, as Jews, have an ultimate mission, which is the redemption, the messiah. In addition to this, we are co-creators with God. We are — or we should be — willing to make this world a better place. I truly believe we shouldn’t ask God where He is. Instead, we need to hear Him asking if we are doing what we’re supposed to with all that He gave us.