There are wounds that do not heal. Forty years after the coup that ushered in a brutal, seven-year military dictatorship in Argentina, 12 Israelis who immigrated from that country are demanding that Jerusalem release documents on its ties with the junta.
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Most members of the group lived in Argentina when the junta was in power, from March 1976 to December 1983, and some of them lost family members in the “Dirty War.” But according to one member of the group, Jessica Nevo, 54, “It was only when we came here, to Israel, that we began to read in the foreign press what was happening there, in Argentina. We didn’t know there were torture camps below the military bases. I learned about the defense ties with Israel only recently.”
Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer who campaigns for transparency about the country’s defense exports, has filed a Freedom of Information Law request with Israel’s defense and foreign ministries on behalf of the group. It demands the full disclosure of ties with the junta: arms sales, military installations built and operated by the state or Israeli companies and correspondence about Jewish political activists who were persecuted, detained or who disappeared during the junta era.
Even now, many of the Jews who lived through the period ask whether Israel did enough to rescue young Jews who were identified with leftist movements in Argentina and persecuted by the regime.
“The aim is for us who live here — Israeli citizens who have chosen to be here and whose family members were murdered there — to feel that if we didn’t do all we could have done at the time, at least we will atone for what happened and we will do everything to bring the truth to light,” says journalist Shlomo Slutzky, 59, who immigrated to Israel from Argentina a few weeks after the coup and is one of the group’s leaders.
Nevo, a Bar-Ilan sociologist and feminist peace activist, immigrated from Buenos Aires in 1978, at age 16. She says her family was harmed by the regime both directly and indirectly: One member of the group is Francisco Tolchinsky, a relative who came to Israel with his siblings after their parents were murdered by the junta. In the FOI request, he noted that while he has little hope of learning more about his parents, he hopes the information can contribute to a fuller understanding of that dark time.
“I believe [our request] has moral significance. It could be old-fashioned but I think there’s a place for such things, so we can tell our children and grandchildren that we did something,” says Slutzky, one of whose relatives is among the “disappeared.”
“We want to know what happened to [him] — was Israel informed of his disappearance, was Israel asked to intervene in his behalf? Did they do anything? Maybe Israel did more than it’s ready to say, but this too must beknown,” Slutzky says.
Nevo believes the truth will come out, even if their petition is denied. She says their FOI request sets a precedent, after which “it will be impossible to continue to use the ‘security’ mantra to hide the Israeli connection” to the junta, adding, “security is also knowing what happened there.”
An estimated 30,000 people disappeared in the Dirty War, among them 2,000 Jews. The junta operated over 300 illegal detention sites. Torture was routine, including beatings, electric shocks and sexual assault.
News of Israel’s ties to the junta is increasingly coming to light. In 2012 Argentina’s largest newspaper, Clarin, reported on retired Argentine pilots and military figures who testified that in 1982 they secretly flew to Israel, where they met with representatives from the military and defense manufacturers and returned with their plane loaded with light arms, mortars, air-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons.
According to Hernan Dobry’s book “Operation Israel: The Rearming of Argentina During the Dictatorship 1976-1983,” the weapons were meant for use in Argentina’s war against Britain (Falklands/Malvinas), and then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin was motivated primarily by anti-British sentiment. Israel also reportedly sent gas masks, land mines, radar equipment and tens of thousands of heavy coats for the war effort.
Testifying before Congress in 1981, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense said that in the three years since the U.S. arms embargo on Argentina, Buenos Aires had bought some $2 billion in arms from Israel and European states. Other estimates put Israel’s total defense exports to the junta at about $700 million.
Mack, the lawyer who filed the request, says this one is different from his FOI requests over Israeli defense exports to states such as Burundi, Rwanda and South Sudan: This time the applicants are Israelis with relatives who murdered or disappeared, who don’t know whether Israel tried to save them or to help the junta.
“Most of their parents’ generation is old or dead, and they have many questions. Now is the time to reveal the truth, so people can get some answers” before they die, Mack says, adding that it’s also important for Israel to take responsibility and learn from its mistakes.
Also signatory to the request are Wanda Clara and Marcus Weinstein, of Buenos Aires. They want to know more about what happened to their son Mauricio, an Israeli citizen who was abducted in the Dirty War. In an email Marcus Weinstein, a physician, described street patrols and nighttime arrests and abductions of civilians. After being tortured, many were shot and killed or thrown out of helicopters into the sea.
Mauricio Weinstein was 18, a senior in high school. On the evening of April 18, 1978 he was at his father’s office, near his school, where he planned to sleep because he needed to go in early the next day.
The soldiers came to the home as the rest of the family sat down to eat with guests. “They stood us up against the dining-room wall and took me in a car, with a pistol to my head, to my office. I was forced to open the door. My son was abducted, I saw them put him in a car,” Marcus Weinstein wrote, adding that a few of his son’s classmates were also abducted that night.
“Several months later, I heard he was in the El Vesubio camp, which the prisoners called ‘hell.’ In July, apparently, he was ‘transferred,’ that is, killed.”
The Weinsteins contacted the authorities and also appealed to the local Jewish community and to Israel. Marcus Weinstein says he felt the Israeli diplomatic representatives cared little interest about the disappeared Jews, including his son and a second Israeli citizen. Today he wonders whether it’s possible to understand 38 years “of suffering and memory, without truth or justice.”
Last week, Israel’s Meretz party and the World Union of Meretz held a memorial in Tel Aviv to mark the 40th anniversary of the coup in Argentina. It was called “Nunca Mas” (never again, in Spanish).
The demand for disclosure is not without its critics in Israel’s Argentine community. Some fear it will hurt Israel’s international reputation, while others say there’s no point dwelling in the past. Better, they say, to remember the dead and the disappeared while focusing on safeguarding democracy and human rights in Israel and in Argentina.
But others say those with personal experience have a duty to gather information. “I, who grew up as a teenager in Argentina, my memory is that it is forbidden to talk, to voice what you believe,” says Nevo. “This is something that you learn right away: Don’t say anything, don’t ask anything. The experience of growing up in a dictatorship has enabled me to recognize the concealed militarism here. I want answers. I want to know what’s in those documents. I want Israel to give an accounting.”
In a response, the Defense Ministry confirmed it had received the FOI request and will attend to it in the usual manner.