Special Report Latin American Rabbi Urges Israel to Mute Intervention over Kidnapped Jews in Argenti

A leading Latin American rabbi has called on Premier Menachem Begin to mute Israel’s interventions on behalf of Jews kidnapped and presumed dead in Argentina.

Rabbi Henry Sobel, of the Liberal Congregacao Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, Brazil, urged Begin on Friday that Israeli and world Jewish protests should be directed at the overall human rights issue raised by the “desaparecidos” (disappeared) and not specifically to the Jewish dimension of the issue.

In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rabbi Sobel said he had frankly warned the Premier that by singling out the Jewish dimension, Israel and U.S. Jewish organizations “could be creating a Jewish problem rather than solving one.”

Rabbi Sobel said he spoke for the vast majority of Argentine and South American Jews when he said that the Jewish “desaparecidos” were not “a Jewish problem” inasmuch as their abduction and presumed murder were not perpetrated against them as Jews.

Well-placed Israeli sources have confirmed that Sobel’s view does indeed reflect the predominant perception of South American Jewry, especially the leaderships of the communities.

These sources said the Jews views had been influential in shaping Israel’s actions on the “desaparecidos” issue.

The sources insisted that Israel’s arms sales relationship with Argentina was not a restricting factor in the government’s policy regarding the “desaparecidos.”

ISRAEL ACTED VIGOROUSLY

“If they (the Jews) had wanted us to shout, we would have shouted,” the sources said. But the Latin American communities did not want Israel’s protests to be too vehement. Nevertheless, the sources continued, Israel’s Foreign Ministry acted vigorously on behalf of some 340 disappeared Argentine Jews whose familes had contacted the Israel government.

Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, on a visit to Buenos Aires last December, submitted a list of those names to the authorities and demanded information on their fates. He also made representations about 10 recent political arrestees. Eight of the 10 were released soon after, and the Argentine government provided some information on 33 other “desaparecidos.”

Shamir informed the Argentine Ambassador here that this was insufficient. Following Argentina’s official announcement on April 28 that all “desaparecidos” were to be regarded as no longer alive, Shamir summoned the Ambassador to formally reject that announcement and to reiterate Israel’s request for information on the missing Jews. Altogether, some 1,500 Jews are estimated to be among the total of 15,000 “desaparecidos” in Argentina.

For Rabbi Sobel, this intervention by Israel was, in his view, quite as far as Israel ought to go in focussing specific attention and action on the Jews among the missing men and women. Further high-profile intercession could compromise the Jews of Argentina, he warns, and prejudice their already difficult and delicate position.

Sobel issued his warning just days after Knesset members of all shades of the political spectrum admonished Shamir for not doing enough on behalf of the Jewish “desaparecidos.” Geula Cohen of Tehiya and Yair Tzaban of Mapam joined with Dror Zeigerman of the Likud-Liberals in calling for an all-party Knesset condemnation of the Buenos Aires government and a demand for an international inquiry. They criticized Shamir for being over-cautious and urged more forthright Israeli protests. Shamir succeeded in deflecting their motion, but it will be discussed by a select Knesset committee. Sobel felt the proposed Knesset condemnation would have done a great deal of harm to South American Jewry and his view was readily endorsed by Israeli government sources familiar with the situation in Argentina.

SOBEL’S VIEW CONTESTED

Sobel said Begin had listened intently to his presentation Friday and promised to take up the matter directly with Shamir. But the Sao Paulo rabbi’s views, though upheld by government experts here, were hotly contested by Luis Haimovitz, head of a committee of Israeli relatives of Jewish “desaparecidos.”

Haimovitz, speaking to newsmen, referred to past tragic episodes of misguided silence in Jewish history, and urged forthright intervention and condemnation by Israel. Himself the father of a disappeared daughter, he maintained that many of the 1,500 abducted Jews were kidnapped only because they were Jews. In one instance, he noted, the abductors daubed swastikas on the house from which two Jewish brothers were forcibly taken. He insisted, furthermore, that many of the young Jews taken were not active in leftwing radical movements opposed to the military junta in Buenos Aires.

Haimovitz said the regime was thoroughly anti-Semitic. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were printed and disseminated by the army, he claimed, while the army was effectively barred to would-be Jewish officers. Anti-Semitic literature was freely sold at street kiosks.

Sobel who was educated in the U.S. did not deny that “anti-Semitism in Argentina is very real and that Jews are often singled out for special torture by the military government.” “But,” he continued,” to suggest that the reign of terror in Argentina is primarily and essentially anti-Semitic can only compromise the already precarious position of Argentine Jewry …. It is essential to study the issue in the greater context of the violation of human rights. To restrict our concern to one particular group, even if it is our own, would be parochial, unwise and counterproductive,” he said.

Sobel had a similar message in an address to the plenary of the World Union for Progressive Judaism which met here last week. He noted that despite their difficulties, Brazilian and Argentine Jewry were basically contented. If they were not, they were at liberty to leave, taking their possessions and their money with them, he said.

In bald terms, he observed “Latin American Jews have found an adequate modus vivendi. They have learned to co-exist with dictatorships, even those with anti-Semitic overtones … They don’t want to be rescued.”

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