A Disappearing Act

An interim report of the inter-ministerial committee on the disappearance of Jews during the rule of the Argentinian junta has disappointing conclusions. It seems that the committee took care not to offend the present government of Argentina.

Aryeh Dayan
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Aryeh Dayan

For the past several days, Dr. Marcos Weinstein has been investing considerable effort in trying to locate, from his home in Buenos Aires, the names of the members of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee and their e-mail addresses. Weinstein is an Argentinean doctor. His son Mauricio was a high school student of 17 when he was abducted and murdered by soldiers of the military dictatorship that ruled in Argentina from 1967 to 1983; his name is among the thousands of names on the list of people who disappeared and whose bodies have never been found.

About four years ago, Dr. Weinstein and a few dozen other people founded the Asociasion de Familiares de Desaparecidos Judios, an organization of the families of Jewish persons who disappeared and have not been traced. The main aim of the organization is to enlist Israel in the international struggle that was going on at the time in Europe for the extradition of Argentinean military personnel who participated in the oppression and murders, and to bring them to trial.

Weinstein looked for the addresses of the Knesset members in order to bring to their attention the harsh criticism he and his organization have of the conclusions of the inter-ministerial committee on the matter of the Jews who disappeared in Argentina. About two years ago the Immigration and Absorption Committee ordered its establishment, primarily in response to the appeal by Weinstein and his colleagues. Weinstein, who is apparently not aware that the Knesset members' attention is now devoted to other realms, will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of interest his appeal to them will elicit.

This is not the first time that he has been disappointed by the Israeli establishment's attitude towards his cause. Weinstein, who during the 1960s lived with his family in Israel and whose son Mauricio also held Israeli citizenship at the time he was arrested and murdered, says that Israel's indifference to the matter began back during the days of the dictatorship, and has continued to this day.

"The entire Israeli leadership, during all periods, apart from a few exceptions like Menachem Begin," in Weinstein's opinion, was partner, to this indifference and alienation.

Heading the inter-ministerial committee are the deputy director-general for Latin American affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Pinhas Avivi, and the director of the international department at the Justice ministry, attorney Irit Kahan. The committee was established in July, 2000, about a quarter of a century after the relatives of those who disappeared had complained, both in Argentina and in Israel, that Israeli institutions were ignoring the fate of their loved ones.

At the end of the 1990s, a number of European countries (Spain, Italy, Germany and others) began to act at the legal level, to bring to trial officers who tortured and murdered Argentineans who also held the citizenship of their countries. Weinstein and his colleagues were convinced that Israel should act in a similar way.

Between the bereaved families' expectations and the intentions of those who established the committee in Israel, a huge gap was immediately evident. The families expected that the committee would examine Israel's policy and the behavior of its representatives in Argentina during the years of the dictatorship, and they hoped that it would recommend to Israel's legal authorities to join the ligatory trend that was developing in Europe.

The written mandate of the committee, however, did not mention these issues at all, but spoke about gathering information that could help in the finding of the corpses and in finding the 21 babies who were born in prisons to Jewish mothers and given for adoption immediately after the mothers were killed.

After they met in Jerusalem with experts who heard the testimonies of several dozen Israelis whose relatives had disappeared in Argentina, the members of the committee traveled to Buenos Aires. They heard more testimonies, met with official elements in the Argentine government and also visited the offices of organizations that engage in locating and identifying the bodies of those who were murdered. A while ago, they published an interim report about their work, and in a few months they are slated to publish the final report.

"If the committee's final report is like this interim report," said Weinstein this week in a telephone conversation from Buenos Aires, "I will not be able to avoid coming to the harsh conclusion that the state of Israel simply wants the Jewish parents who lost their children here during the days of the dictatorship to stop pestering it."

Weinstein's anger is aroused by the fact that the interim report, which does not relate at all to Israel's role during the period of the dictatorship, also unequivocally rejects the demand that it take legal action against the officers who tortured and killed Jews.

The impression that emerges from the report is that the committee has been careful not to recommend any step that would be contrary to the position of the government of Argentina, which is vehemently opposed to the possibility of its military personnel being tried outside its borders and argues that they must be tried, if at all, only in its own courts. It is also difficult to shake off the impression that this Argentine position is convenient for Israel, as it is congruent with Israel's own stance regarding the possibility that Israel Defense Forces officers be tried either in European countries or at the International War Crimes Court in the Hague for their actions in the territories. The committee report indeed explicitly declares Israel's support for the legal position taken by the government of Argentina.

"The State of Israel," says the main recommendation of the interim report, "will officially call upon Argentina to see that justice is done, to discover the truth about the fate of the missing persons and to bring those responsible for it to trial in its territory."

The other recommendations touch upon "giving aid, insofar as possible and at its request," to the organization of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, which engages in locating the babies who were born a quarter of a century ago in the prisons, upon "developing educational programs for government employees and students in the schools," upon the setting up of "a virtual memorial site on the Internet that will include the committee's report and other memorial materials" and upon "giving sponsorship" to an existing memorial site that was established by relatives of the murdered people in the Ben Shemen Forest.

"This is a lukewarm and disappointing document," says Dr. Weinstein. "It includes hardly anything of what we had hoped it would include, and what it does include is completely wishy-washy."

Dr. Mauricio Brodsky, who lost his son Fernando and works together with Weinstein in the organization that urged the establishment of the committee, phrases his criticism of the report more moderately. "The committee has done important work and its members displayed diligence and goodwill," he says, "but they have written a report that from which many things are missing and in which there are some problematic things."

The main thing that is missing, in his opinion, is "self-criticism of the way Israel and its embassy functioned during the period of the dictatorship."

"We and other Jewish families knocked again and again on the door of the embassy, and we were always sent away," he relates. "I thought that from the report, we would be able to understand why this happened. Was this a policy that was dictated from Israel, was it a policy that was decided upon at the embassy and was it connected to other aspects of the relations between the two countries? I did not find even a single word about this in the report."

"This entire issue will be discussed in a special chapter of the committee's final report," responds committee chairman Avivi. "Even though the issue was not included in the original mandate of the committee, we decided to relate to it in the final report because we realized that this was an issue that bothers the families."

This chapter in the final report will be written by Dr. Ephraim Zadoff, a historian who specializes on the history of the Jews of Argentina and has observer status on the committee. Zadoff was given access to the Foreign Ministry files, which were confidential until then, and the chapter he writes will appear in the report under his signature, not under the signature of the committee. If it were published under the signature of the committee it would give rise to a difficult problem of conflict of interests: Avivi served as first secretary at the embassy in Buenos Aires at the end of the 1970s.

Brodsky also finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that the interim report does not recommend any legal action whatsoever against those who were involved in torturing and kidnapping Jews. "I accept and respect the argument that Israeli law does not allow requests for extraditing the criminals," he says. "I can't accept the fact that Israel is not prepared to take any alternative step in the international arena. It could apply to the international court in the Hague, it could bring the matter up at various international institutions, it could send materials to the Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon, it could make its voice heard in the media. It could do 1,001 things, but it is not prepared to do anything."

"From the first moment of our stay in Argentina," responds attorney Kahan, "we made it unequivocally clear to them that we would not work towards extraditing generals to Israel. We explained to them that we do not have an extradition treaty with Argentina and that Israeli law does not allow us to try them here. Their disappointment in this matter is really incomprehensible to me, because they were supposed to have known from the outset what could be expected and what it was impossible to expect from the committee. Our legal position is absolutely clear: Everyone has to be tried in the place where he committed the crime."

Avivi promises, however, that Israel will transfer the information it has to the Spanish magistrate Garzon, who is working towards the extradition of Argentinean generals to Spain. According to him, the committee is also examining the possibility of declaring some of those generals "persona non grata" in Israel, which would obligate the Interior Ministry to prevent their entry into the country should they by any chance land at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The Interior Ministry has not yet given its consent to this.

"The committee has done its work according to its mandate," adds Kahan, "and its mandate spoke mainly about help in finding the bodies." The number of Jewish people who have disappeared and whose bodies have not been identified is estimated at a few more than 1,000. Thus far, members of the committee have managed to identify the location of one of them - that of Hugo Goldsman, whose brother Haim lives at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh. Goldsman's body is buried in a mass grave in one of the cemeteries in the environs of Buenos Aires.

The information about this, it turns out, has been in the data base of the Argentinean organization that acts towards finding the bodies of the people who disappeared for years. The members of the Israeli committee visited the offices of that organization and found this information with no difficulty. Goldsman's family did know about this, because it never contacted that organization.

The main help given by Israel in identifying additional bodies has to do with DNA tests, which make it possible to determine whether there is a genetic connection between those who lost their loved ones and the hundreds of mostly unidentified bodies that are buried in mass graves in cemeteries throughout Argentina. Weinstein and Brodsky feel that Israel is also not fulfilling its role in this area: The Institute for Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir, which, according to what is stated in the report, has been asked to help in the conducting of these tests, refused the request "for budgetary reasons."

"The paragraph about this in the report implies a shocking lack of sensitivity towards us," says Brodsky. "It is not enough that there is no self-criticism and there is no willingness to undertake legal activity, there is also no money." Avivi says in response that the committee will continue to seek alternative sources for funding the tests. He has already applied to the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, but has not yet received replies.

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