Videla and the Jews of Argentina: The Closing of a Painful Circle

With the death of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who headed the military junta that took power in Argentina in 1976, comes the closure of a bloody account with the local Jewish community.

Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat
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Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat

With the death of former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who headed the military junta that took over the reins of power in Argentina in 1976, comes the closure of a bloody account with the local Jewish community, the largest and most important one in Latin America.

Jorge Knoblovitz, the secretary general of the umbrella organization for Jewish communities in Argentina, issued a statement saying that “Videla died where he was supposed to, in jail. For me personally, his death does not cause pain or relief. I only regret that he was ever born." To this day, even though 30 years have passed since democracy was restored in Argentina, local Jewish leaders are embarrassed by the role played by Jewish organizations or by their avoidance of action during the years of dictatorship.

Many Jews fell victim to the tyrannical and oppressive regime, some of them losing their lives. The military junta took whatever steps it deemed necessary to crush any sign of opposition. People were kidnapped and disappeared, political activists were brutally tortured and others were executed without trial, often in cruel fashion. In many cases they were thrown, while still alive, from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean. Children were forcibly removed from their families and given to families of officers and others close to the junta.

Human rights organizations in Argentina estimate that the number of victims who disappeared was 30,000. The number of Jews who were kidnapped, arrested or executed is estimated at 2,000. Some estimates are much higher, since many victims did not identify themselves as Jews, for good reason.

The Jewish community in Argentina in those years numbered between 230,000 and 290,000, about 1% of the total population. In a statement published in the Jewish newspaper Iton Gadol after Videla’s death, Knoblovitz said that “the behavior of Jewish community organizations then has to be seen in the context of the times. There has been much self-criticism in the past, and if more needs to be done it will be. One must not forget that this was a period of cruel terror”.

Jews under the dictatorship suffered not only when in opposition to the junta, but, ironically, also when conscripted by special decree into the army during the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982. Between 200 and 300 Jews were subjected to attacks and anti-Semitic harassment while in uniform, especially by their commanders. In an unusual and extraordinary step, the authorities consented to conscript 5 rabbis who provided religious services to Jewish soldiers, while trying to help them hold out. The conscription of the rabbis was an unprecedented move in the Argentine army, and was interpreted in the local press as the junta’s acceding to a special request by the Israeli government. Army commanders agreed since they did not want to risk stoppage of the military aid Israel was then providing to Argentina.

In contrast to the Jewish organizations, there were establishment individuals who, at great personal risk, did all they could to help their brethren, Jews and non-Jews. Prominent among them was the rabbi of the Beit El community in Buenos Aires, Marshall Meyer. Born in New York, he did not hesitate to criticize the dictatorship. He tried and often succeeded in obtaining permission to visit detainees, lifting their spirits and occasionally changing their fate. In 1983, when democracy was restored, elected President Raoul Alfonsin gave Meyer the highest citation of the land, the medal of the order of the Liberator General San Martin, for his humanitarian actions.

In an interview given to Haaretz this week, author, historian and journalist Daniel Muchnik pondered in retrospect why so many Jews, disproportionate to their numbers in the general population, found themselves in the eye of the storm of the dictatorship’s cruelty and oppression. “Ever since the Cuban revolution, and even more so after the death of Che Guevara in 1966, many young people in Argentina were drawn to political activism. In many cases they gravitated towards armed resistance in guerilla organizations such as FAR (fuerzas armadas revolucionarias), the former Communist Party, FAP (Fuerzas Armadas Peronistas, Peronistas de Izquierda), the leftist Peronists and ERP ( Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo), which held a mixture of Trostkyite and local indigenous beliefs”.

“This process, which took place all across Latin America, drew in many Jews. Some of them continued to live as Jews even when part of the underground movements, while others abandoned their religion, or replaced the old one with a political one”.

Can one speak of a typical Jewish fate which befell these young people after the army took control of the country?

Muchnik affirms this. “When the army started its oppressive drive, many young people connected to leftist movements were captured. They were arrested and tortured. All the testimonies from that period show that being Jewish meant more severe torture and suffering. Many torture victims related that the horrific torture chambers had pictures of Hitler on the walls. This repeated itself in many detention centers across the country, at the large central prison in Buenos Aires, as well as in the cities of Rosario, Córdoba, Mar del Plata, Santa Fe, Corrientes, Paraná, Tucumàn and Salta. The number of Jews who were imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship years is estimated at 2,300”.

Throughout this awful period of oppression, most Jews, even those who did not take part in the struggle, had a problem. This was the relations of Israel with the dictatorship. Muchnik continues: “Overall, the community held its silence at first. This created confusion and misunderstandings which could be interpreted by some as acquiescence or collaboration with the regime. In my book Aquel periodismo-politica, medios y periodistas, I relate the indifferent attitude taken by the umbrella organization of Jewish communities at a time when journalists and investigators were searching for ways to help the imprisoned journalist Jacobo Timerman, the father of the current Foreign Minister Hector Timerman. The senior Timerman also related being tortured while his torturers uttered anti-Semitic epithets.

“The community’s behavior bordered on apathy. The Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires at the time kept a stance of non-intervention in internal affairs, even though its members demonstrated that they could save some Jewish prisoners from death by sending them to Israel”.

Many sources in Argentina testify that Israel was supplying the regime with arms and other military supplies. I’ve read testimonies in Buenos Aires newspapers, given by retired pilots in the Argentine national airline, regarding flights from Tel Aviv carrying arms to Argentina during the Falklands/Malvinas war. What effect did this have, if any, on the community or on Jewish prisoners?

“Yes, many details have emerged regarding this issue. There was even a book published by the investigative journalist Hernan Dobry, called Operacion Israel I think that it is impossible to assess whether this had any impact on events in Argentina.

Did the events of those days leave any scars in the life of the Jewish community?

“From my perspective there were no long-term effects on the community. When democracy was restored, the Jewish community was swept, just like everyone else, into the economic woes that hit the country, with 400% inflation rates and a huge national debt. A new war of survival commenced.”

General Jorge Rafael Videl in 1977Credit: AP
Daniel Muchnik Credit: Courtesy

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