Under Pinochet’s Nose: The Israeli Diplomats Who Rescued Left-wing Dissidents From Chile

The remarkable story, told for the first time, of how Israeli ambassador Moshé Tov helped save some 300 enemies of the Augusto Pinochet regime in 1973, following the military coup against President Salvador Allende, smuggling them to the airport in the trunks of embassy cars and even sheltering them in the embassy itself

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Under Pinochet’s nose: The Israeli diplomats who helped hundreds of dissidents flee Chile
This story reveals a remarkable Israeli rescue operation of hundreds of left-wing dissidents from the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.Credit: Reuters/AP/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile/Use under Section 27A of the Copyright Law. Artwork by Anastasia Shub

For nearly half a century, this Israeli rescue mission was kept largely under wraps.

In late 1973, an estimated 300 dissidents with ties to the political left were taken under the wings of Israeli diplomats based in Chile and thereby saved from the hands of the military junta that had just seized power.

Deemed enemies of the dictatorship led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, they were picked up from secret hideouts, smuggled in the trunks of Israeli Embassy cars to the airport, where they were put on planes and flown to safety.

Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet saluting his supporters on his 74th birthday in 1989.Credit: AP

The Israeli Embassy provided them with airline tickets, passports and other necessary travel documents, often under false names. At least 30 of these dissidents found shelter in the offices of the embassy itself, where desks and typewriters were moved aside to make room for cots and cribs. In several cases, they were put up in the private residence of the Israeli ambassador himself.

Were it not for the intervention of Israeli diplomats, these enemies of the regime would most certainly have been doomed to life in prison or worse.

Most of them, but not all, were Jewish. “We provided refuge to those who asked for it – Jews and non-Jews alike,” recalls Ruth Tov, the 90-year-old widow of Israel’s then-ambassador to Chile, Moshé Tov, during an interview at her home outside Tel Aviv. “There was no discrimination.”

Moshé Tov, wife Ruth and their three children during his time as Israeli ambassador to Chile.Credit: Reproduction by Moti Milrod

Her husband would personally escort dissidents to the airport, she recounts, to make sure they were not intercepted and executed on the way.

On the eve of the September 1973 military coup, an estimated 30,000 Jews lived in Chile. Their number today is down to some 18,000, many having left for Israel, Argentina and the United States.

The rescue operation lasted for several months following the military coup of September 11, 1973, when the socialist government headed by Salvador Allende was overthrown.

It was spearheaded by Tov, who had assumed his post at the embassy in Santiago two years earlier, and Benjamin Oron, the first secretary at the embassy. The two Israeli diplomats carried out the operation with the full cooperation and blessing of Abba Eban, who served as foreign minister at the time of the coup, and Yigal Allon, who would replace him a few months later.

Some of the refugees, though not the majority, would end up in Israel. Most of them relocated to neighboring Argentina and further north to the United States.

Chile is home to the third largest Jewish community in South America, after Argentina and Brazil.

When it became known that Israeli diplomats were harboring political dissidents, the military junta tried to stop them. A few days after the coup, secret police were dispatched to the embassy and demanded to be shown inside so they could search the premises.

Tov refused, blocking the entrance of the embassy with his own body. “This is an extraterritorial space,” he told the heavily armed men, as his widow recalls. “You cannot enter.”

Ruth Tov. “We provided refuge to those who asked for it – Jews and non-Jews alike,” recalls the 90-year-old widow of Moshé Tov.Credit: Moti Milrod

Rectifying the situation

It would take many years before Tov, who died in 1989, would be recognized for his bravery. In 2016, his family received a certificate from the Chilean Foreign Ministry expressing gratitude for his acts of heroism during this dark chapter in the country’s history.

The official number of victims of human rights abuses under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, is 40,018. That number includes 3,065 Chileans who were killed or forcibly disappeared, as well as tens of thousands who were tortured or imprisoned for political reasons.

It would take another few years, however, before wider audiences would be made aware of his exploits. A visit by Israel’s current ambassador to Chile, Marina Rosenberg, to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago – an institution that commemorates the victims of human rights violations during the Pinochet regime – would be the trigger.

“It was in 2019, just after I had taken up my post, that I was accompanied on my visit by the director of the museum,” she recounts in a phone conversation. “He showed me a large map hanging from one of the walls indicating every country that had helped Chileans who were persecuted by Pinochet.”

It did not include Israel.

A boy pushing a bicycle across a deserted street as an army tank moves toward the presidential palace during the coup against President Salvador Allende's government by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.Credit: AP

“When I mentioned this to the director, he said he had not been aware of Israel’s involvement,” says Rosenberg. “I decided it was time to rectify the situation.”

The Israeli Embassy proceeded to dig up as much information as it could about the activities of Tov and his accomplices following the coup. They handed it over to Raúl Gamboni Silva, a prominent journalist and filmmaker, who was commissioned to undertake his own research and turn it all into a documentary.

This 15-minute film, “Ambassador Moshé Tov: We Can and We Must” – the title inspired by the words he used to explain why he had decided to protect those persecuted by the regime – premiered last month at a special event organized by the embassy, in partnership with several Jewish organizations. The screening took place in the auditorium of the museum.

“Having the movie shown at the museum was especially meaningful for me,” says Rosenberg. “The next step is getting Israel added to the map on the wall there.”

Chilean Army troops firing on the presidential palace during the September 11, 1973, coup in Santiago.Credit: AFP

‘Key architect’

Born in Argentina in 1910, Tov was a prominent Israeli diplomat who served as ambassador to Guatemala before assuming his post in Santiago. Before Israel’s establishment in 1948, he served as an envoy for the Jewish Agency in Latin America, where he focused on mustering support for the UN partition plan that would ultimately create the Jewish state. The fact that 13 countries in the region raised their hands in favor of the plan, during the UN vote that took place in November 1947, has been widely chalked up to his successful lobbying efforts. Indeed, Eban went so far as to describe Tov – who has four streets named after him in Israel – as one of the “key architects of Israeli independence.”

In a column published in Haaretz in 1959, Tov recalled being asked by a senior U.S. State Department official how he managed to persuade all these countries to support Israel in the critical vote. “My secret weapon is that I speak to each country in its own language,” he responded, noting that “Latin America is comprised of many unique countries and is not one uniform bloc.”

According to Gerardo Gorodischer, the president of the Chilean-Jewish community, among those killed were 21 Jews. Another estimated 400 to 500 were persecuted by the regime, including many of those rescued by Israeli Embassy officials in the early months of the coup.

Israeli ambassador Moshé Tov, center. "We can and we must" were the words he used to explain why he had decided to protect those persecuted by the regime.Credit: Reproduction by Moti Milrod

For his American interlocutor, serving at the time as undersecretary of state for Latin America, this would prove valuable advice. “Indeed, this is our mistake – that we speak to the world in one language,” he told Tov.

The Israeli ambassador also credited his diplomatic achievements to the advocacy work of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. “It is the Zionism that exists in the Diaspora that has allowed us such success,” he wrote in that 1959 article. “Fortunately for us, there is no ‘Arabism’ movement abroad that can compete with us for sympathy and support.”

Tov rarely spoke about his life-saving efforts in Chile, says Ariela Tov-Kiewe, 62, the eldest of his three children. “He was so very modest,” she notes. “He never sought recognition for what he did.” What she remembers of that period is being stuck at home for days on end because of the military-enforced curfews and seeing very little of her father.

“That really stressed me out,” she recalls.

“It did indeed,” adds her mother. “She would cry a lot.”

Moshé Tov's widow, Ruth, with their three children in Tel Aviv last month.Credit: Moti Milrod

Dalia Tov-Miedzigorski, the ambassador’s younger daughter, recalls that many strangers suddenly started showing up in their home. Neither she nor her siblings knew that these surprise houseguests were actually dissidents being hunted down by the regime. “We were told they were our distant uncles and aunts,” she says.

Not all the Jews of Chile opposed Pinochet. Jose Berdichevsky Scher, a Jewish general who participated in the coup, would eventually be appointed ambassador to Israel. Several other Jews held senior diplomatic positions under the right-wing dictatorship.

Moshé Tov and his family would leave Santiago and return to Israel in 1975. Many years later, it would emerge that Israel had become a major arms supplier to Chile. A desire to maintain good relations with the dictatorship might explain why the former ambassador’s dissident activities were hushed up for many years.

Among those rescued by Tov and his staff were Haim Hayet, the representative of the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement in Chile, his wife and three sons. In the weeks following the coup, Hayet’s home in Santiago was searched twice, sparking serious concerns at the Israeli Embassy.

“It was no secret what Hashomer Hatzair was all about and that the movement had supported Allende in the previous election, so I knew why I was being targeted,” says the 82-year-old in a phone conversation.

Soldiers and firefighters carrying the body of President Salvador Allende out of the destroyed La Moneda presidential palace after Pinochet's coup in 1973.Credit: AP

Before relocating to Chile with his family, Hayet had lived on Kibbutz Ga’aton in northern Israel. “Many of the members at the time were Holocaust survivors from Hungary,” he recounts. “After the coup, they started calling me and begging me to leave. They told me, ‘We’ve seen this before. Chile is heading toward fascism. You need to get out.’ I had figured that as foreigners we wouldn’t be touched, so I was less concerned than them.”

Tov sent a diplomatic car to pick up Hayet and his family, and escorted them to the airport so they could board a flight to Argentina. No sooner had they left than the secret police showed up at his doorstep with an arrest warrant, Hayet would later learn.

A week later, the Hayets boarded a flight back to Israel. However, because of an engine malfunction, they were was forced to land in Chile, and the Hashomer Hatzair envoy experienced another close call: He was ordered off the plane and to leave his family behind.

“I didn’t know what to do but realized I had no choice,” he recounts. “So, with tears in our eyes, we bade one another farewell.”

Down on the tarmac, Hayet understood he was being followed yet again, but this time not by Pinochet’s people.

“The Israeli Embassy knew we were on the flight and had sent over a guard to make sure we were okay,” he says.

In an ironic twist of fate, Hayet’s son Eldad, a career diplomat, would return to Chile many years later to serve as Israel’s ambassador in Santiago.

Risky venture

Rivka Bortnick, a local embassy employee at the time, was a young mother in 1973. In Silva’s film, she recalls the special assignment she received from the ambassador. “He told me: ‘You’ll be in charge of getting diapers and milk for the babies. You know how to do that.’”

After the coup, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Chile. This would pave the way for Israel to become a major supplier of weapons to the dictatorship. According to a CIA Intelligence report, military ties between the two countries grew rapidly in the mid-1970s, with Israel selling Chile air-to-air missiles, patrol boats, tanks, aircraft and advanced electronics equipment.

With all the embassy offices occupied by dissidents, Bortnick recounts how she had no choice but to turn the bathroom into a work space. “We put a wooden board over the sink, and that’s where I’d fill out forms,” she says.

The embassy was inundated with calls from people begging for rides to safety in diplomatic vehicles. “They’d give you an address and you’d have to go there, but you never really knew whether this was someone who really needed help or whether it was a trap,” Bortnick tells the filmmakers. “It was a risk we had to take.”

Asked in the film to explain the ambassador’s actions, Valeria Navarro Rosenblatt, a historian of Chilean Jewry, says she believes he was inspired by his Jewish values.

“It is almost certain,” she says, “that he was guided by that well-known edict that ‘he who saves one life, it is as if he had saved the entire world.’”

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