Opinion

We Brought a Man Suspected of Crimes Against Humanity to Israel

Teodoro Anibal Gauto is wanted for crimes against humanity, including abduction, torture and murder, during Argentina’s military dictatorship

Teodoro Anibal Gauto giving an interview to Israel's Channel 2 in 2016
Mako

On July 10 the state is scheduled to tell the High Court of Justice whether it intends to begin the process of revoking the citizenship of Teodoro Anibal Gauto, in light of the indisputable fact that he entered Israel under false pretenses — failing to disclose that he was under prosecution for committing fraud against a major bank in Argentina.

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Much has been said and written about the fact that Gauto is also wanted for crimes against humanity, including abduction, torture and murder, carried out in the La Cacha detention camp during Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. And much has been said about the junta’s terrible crimes, particularly against Jewish detainees. The suspicions regarding Gauto must be resolved in the Argentine judiciary, which Gauto has evaded for years by exploiting Israeli bureaucracy.

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An additional aspect of Gauto’s story, that has not yet been addressed, is his exploitation of the goodwill of Jewish Agency employees — who did their best to help the Argentine Jewish community in a time of great crisis — to immigrate to Israel and obtain Israeli citizenship under false pretenses.

From 1999 to 2003 I was the head Jewish Agency immigration emissary in Argentina. In December 2001 the government froze all bank accounts, permitting only small cash withdrawals. It also devalued the peso, which had until then been linked to the dollar. Many people were hurt by the economic crisis, including Jews. The ranks of the lower middle-class swelled and then collapsed, and poverty increased significantly in the Jewish community.

Starting in late 2001, the Jewish Agency fielded growing numbers of requests from prospective immigrants to Israel. Long lines formed outside the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, known as AMIA. The pressure on staff resources led us to expand to around 53 employees, from just 13, and we provided accelerated staff training in an effort to meet demand. We encountered a Jewish population that until then had been unknown to most of the staff: the new poor – entire families living in city squares or under bridges, some of which got by selling scrap paper and cardboard salvaged from trash cans.

To ease the economic distress, a special program for needy families was established in Beit Tzavta. We partnered with the American Joint Distribution Committee to aid families that came to us, and sought out needy families. A professional training course and a Hebrew-language ulpan were offered to help prepare new immigrants for successful absorption in Israel, and families received a daily hot meal. In some cases we even found accommodations for families that had lost their homes.

The entire office pitched in to fight the new, and sudden, poverty. Between 2001 and 2003, some 10,000 Argentines immigrated to Israel, tenfold the number in preceding years. The large number of applicants, many of them suffering economic hardship, posed a true dilemma: Should we expedite the aliyah process, enabling speedy access to shelter, food and health care in Israel for the immigrants, or focus on preparing candidates thoroughly for the challenges they would face in their new country while still in Argentina?

It is my understanding that Gauto entered Israel by taking advantage of the difficult situation of Argentina’s Jewish community. That is, he exploited the kindness of the Jewish Agency team, which was involved mainly in providing immediate solutions to our clients’ economic problems. We were shocked by the dire poverty they faced.

I find Gauto’s behavior highly objectionable. He managed to deceive Jewish Agency staff and the teams from Israeli organizations that came to prepare potential immigrants and sought only to help Argentina’s Jews. He lied, causing me and my staff to act on the basis of false information. The Jewish Agency believed the documents shown to it were genuine. We complied strictly with Argentine and Israeli law, and to that end we asked candidates for specific documents aimed at guaranteeing that the met the criteria for aliyah. We did not verify documents and declarations with the legal authorities or the Argentine Jewish community. It never occurred to us that someone would forge documents or deceive us with false statements. I believe that had we begun to examine every document and declaration, we wouldn’t have been able to bring so many people in genuine economic distress to Israel within a reasonable time frame.

The decision to continue to shelter Guato damages Israel’s reputation for integrity in connection to its immigration policy. This, because it enables a criminal suspect, who is not himself Jewish, to receive asylum under the aegis of an amendment to the Law of Return and by dint of his wife’s Judaism, although it is clear that he lied in his declarations.

As an Israeli citizen, as someone who is connected to the Jewish community in Argentina, as someone who is familiar with the situation in that country and as someone who worked to bring new immigrants from Argentina, I can only hope that Israel will decide to help to prosecute Guato to the fullest extent of the law, and won’t allow him to remain on its territory.

Adriana Katz served as a Jewish Agency emissary in Argentina from 1999 to 2003.