How five Argentinian rabbis helped Jewish soldiers during the war

By Jonathan Gilbert, May 3, 2012
One of the Argentine rabbis (second right) with Jewish soldiers

One of the Argentine rabbis (second right) with Jewish soldiers

Five rabbis travelled to Patagonia to support Jewish soldiers who suffered antisemitic attacks while fighting for Argentina during the Falklands War, it has been revealed.

Thirty years ago this week, British forces launched Operation Black Buck, in a bid to recoup the Falklands after Argentina had invaded on April 2. Around 250 Jewish Argentines were dispatched to the islands and strategic points in Patagonia, in the south of Argentina, during the war.

The Jewish community in Buenos Aires sent the rabbis to offer moral and spiritual support to troops, and, to this day, they remain the only non-Catholic chaplains ever permitted to accompany the Argentine armed forces.

The military dictatorship that led Argentina to war had been sourcing weapons from Israel and Hernán Dobry, author of The Falklands Rabbis, believes they were only allowed to travel to avoid jeopardising the relationship with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

"For the sake of five rabbis, Leopoldo Galtieri [head of the military junta] was not going to risk angering Israel," Mr Dobry said. "Chaplains from other religions were not allowed to accompany the armed forces, even though the Evangelicals, for example, desperately wanted to send a priest."

On May 12, 1982, three rabbis were dispatched to the Argentine south. Baruj Plavnick travelled to Comodoro Rivadavia, home to around 20 Jewish families, en route to Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. His colleagues Efraín Dines and Tzví Grunblatt, replaced by his brother Natán at the beginning of June, were sent to Trelew and Río Gallegos.

But Rabbi Plavnick never made it to Stanley. The Argentine air force refused to take him on the short flight to the Falklands from Comodoro, and he was told, instead, to travel with the Red Cross.

The junta, which killed around 30,000 Argentine civilians from 1976 to 1983 in the so-called Dirty War against left-wing subversion, was also committing atrocities in the Falklands, where the brutal mistreatment of ill-equipped conscripts was rife and Jewish soldiers suffered regular antisemitic attacks at the hands of the regime's officers.

Fearing the Red Cross would see the abuse and report it to the world, its plane was not given permission to take off and Rabbi Plavnick remained in mainland Argentina. "The dictatorship did not want anybody from outside to see what was going on," said Rabbi Felipe Yafe, who replaced Rabbi Plavnick in Comodoro.

Jewish soldiers enjoyed a close relationship with the rabbis, to whom they opened up about the antisemitic insults. In Comodoro, the only city to which the rabbis went that had a synagogue, albeit an abandoned one, Rabbi Plavnick and then Rabbi Yafe ran regular services.

The junta turned the story into a publicity stunt. The Clarin newspaper published two pages on their mobilisation to Patagonia. "It was a great way to gain positive press," Mr Dobry says. "It presented a brutal regime as pluralist and inclusive, when, in fact, it had tortured Jews with unique sadism."

Last updated: 2:02pm, May 3 2012