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Disappeared: A Flawed Film on Argentina’s Past Blames Wrong Party

Spring is film festival time. This year, among others making the rounds is Israeli filmmaker Nurit Kedar’s documentary “Asesino.”

The film, which was shown at the Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival and at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 7, presents itself as an angry testimonial to the injustice committed against Argentine Jews whose family members “disappeared” under the brutal military regime of the mid-1970s. Yet it is unclear what Kedar intends to achieve with “Asesino.” Her focus is unmistakably on the vanished Argentine Jews and on the comportment of the State of Israel, yet, astonishingly, she does not address the question of Argentine antisemitism.

In fact, unsuspecting viewers would be forgiven for coming away from this documentary with the conclusion that German Nazis set up a second Auschwitz in central Buenos Aires 30 years ago.

In a sequence about halfway through this hour-long film, Adolf Hitler’s voice is heard exhorting unseen masses as the camera pans over what appear to be holding cells in an Argentine torture center. In the next scene, an unidentified woman, a blonde seemingly in her early 60s, is shown on screen. “Auschwitz was terrible,” she says. “They’d take you to showers and not tell you what it was. People didn’t have hair. At one point I turned to a woman next to me and said, ‘The only thing I want is to find my mother,’ and that woman was my mother. I didn’t even recognize her.”

The next shot is of vicious soldiers in elaborate uniforms goose-stepping past Argentine generals.

Shortly after the sequence outlined above, an unidentified, Israeli-accented male voice says, “This was not long after the Holocaust. Where were our antennas?”

Kedar, who won the award for outstanding Israeli filmmaker at the 2002 Jerusalem Film Festival, has ostensibly set out to tackle an important topic, the disappearance of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Argentine citizens under the brutal military regime that ruled the nation from 1976 to 1983. Between 10% and 15% of the desaparecidos, as the disappeared are known in Spanish, were Jews. Research has shown that they were not sought out specifically because of their Jewishness (the Argentine military had the Stalinesque ambition to rid the nation of leftists, intellectuals and thinkers — in short, anyone who could be defined as “subversive”) but were treated significantly worse than non-Jews when in detention.

It appears that Kedar’s central contention is that the State of Israel backed Argentine neo-Nazis who systematically murdered Jews. In this way she imbues this crime with a layer of irony and depravity lacking even in the original sin of Europe’s Holocaust.

The film repeatedly presents testimony uttered by unidentified and often unseen individuals. Some of the most shocking accusations are made by invisible specters, including the claim that Jewish youngsters in Argentina were killed by Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns and that former prime minister — and Holocaust survivor — Menachem Begin was aware of this fact. The nameless, faceless voices of Kedar’s film offer numerous accusations against the State of Israel and against specific functionaries — former ambassador Dov Schmorak, former prime ministers Begin and Yitzhak Shamir and even Ariel Sharon — with no rebuttals or contextualization.

The inventory of “Voices” and their names that scrolls up at the end of this film is meager compensation for the annoyance of viewing a documentary in which anonymous voices, on occasion making egregious mistakes, prevail. In one tangential but characteristic moment, Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, who perennially heads lists of great writers denied the Nobel, is referred to as “the Nobel Prize winner.”

Bilateral relations between Israel and Argentina during the 1970s comprised a complex web. Israel did in fact sell arms to the Argentine generals; for years, Shamir addressed this subject by explaining that Argentina, like apartheid-era South Africa, was a “devil” with which Israel found itself obliged to deal in arms in order to guarantee the survival of its indispensable military industry.

But while no Israeli citizens were killed during the military regime, Israel developed a policy of handing out false passports to individuals — Jewish or not — who managed to flee detention centers or who felt their lives in danger. Israel’s embassies in Buenos Aires and in Santiago, Chile, functioned as de facto nerve centers for those needing to escape, and in this way hundreds of lives were saved. No other country comported itself in a comparable manner.

A Swedish teenager, Dagmar Hagelin, was “disappeared” in Argentina, and Sweden did nothing. Four French nuns vanished without a trace, and France was silent. Kedar does not mention them; indeed, she seems oblivious of huge swaths of history.

The most galling deficiency in this film is the absence of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who goes unmentioned in “Asesino.” Meyer, the American-born spiritual leader of Buenos Aires’s Congregation Bet El, was Argentina’s Raoul Wallenberg. Tall and charismatic (perfect, in fact, for a filmic account,) Meyer rescued hundreds of lives and the dignity of Argentina by speaking out, by absconding with threatened youngsters and, yes, by handing out those life-saving Israeli passports. His absence from this film is incomprehensible.

Although no Israeli citizens were lost during Argentina’s darkest years, among the disappeared was Mauricio Fabian Weinstein, an 18-year-old native Argentine who carried an Israeli document by virtue of having briefly immigrated to Israel as a child.

His parents, Marcos and Clara, who moved the family back to Argentina before the 1976 coup, serve as the central characters of this flimsy effort, and are the only witnesses named. The Weinsteins’ story would be typical of that era if not for the young man’s dual citizenship and one other, horrifying detail: Faced with an armed mob at home, Marcos was forced to direct the military kidnappers to the clinic in which his son, a left-wing activist, was hiding. Opening the door to let the murderers in, he saw his son for the last time. “I had begged him,” Marcos says of his son, “to leave the country, not to make me choose.”

“My wife and daughter were at home with guns to their heads,” he says.

Over the years the Weinsteins have often blamed Israel for not acting to save their son’s life, in some cases going so far as to blame the Jewish state and not Argentina for their tragedy. In “Asesino” Marcos recounts with acid satisfaction an episode in which he accused an Israeli official of complicity in his son’s death; perhaps Mauricio was killed by being thrown from an Israeli-made Arava jet. “Nice, eh?” the heartbroken man asks Kedar’s camera, overcome by cynicism.

In these moments the film “Asesino” feels not like a failed effort but like an extended case of abuse, both for the viewer and, even less fortunately, for the figures portrayed within.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem and a frequent contributor to the Forward. She is writing a book on the disappearance of five members of her family.

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