Espionage tangos with terror in Amazon series about Argentina’s unresolved bombings

BERLIN — Jewish-Argentinian director Daniel Burman’s new Amazon Prime Video series “Yosi, the Regretful Spy” begins with a huge pile of debris, policemen carrying bodies and bleeding survivors crying for help. They are images that Burman remembers well from the terrorist attack on the 1992 Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

“I knew people who were working there. Luckily, they survived,” Burman tells The Times of Israel in an interview in Berlin, where the first three episodes of his eight-part series recently screened in their world premiere at the Berlinale. The Spanish-language series was released worldwide with English subtitles on April 29.

On March 17, 1992, Burman was walking towards his parents’ house in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Once, the city’s Jewish quarter.

“Suddenly I heard the howling of sirens. My parents were traveling, so their apartment was empty. When I arrived there, I turned on the TV and was totally shocked by what I saw,” he says.

On that afternoon, a pickup truck loaded with explosives drove into the Israeli Embassy and detonated. Twenty-nine people were killed in the suicide attack and the embassy building was destroyed.

Less than two years later, on July 18, 1994, a car exploded in front of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish center in Buenos Aires, killing 85. It remains Argentina’s deadliest terrorist attack to date. That time Daniel Burman was even closer to the bombing.

Gustavo Bassani as Yosi in the new Amazon Prime Video series, ‘Yosi, the Regretful Spy,’ walks in the rubble after the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association attack. (Courtesy Daniel Burman/ Amazon)

“I live only five blocks away from the AMIA,” he says. “I was arriving from Uruguay that day and was driving home in a taxi only 20 minutes after the attack. Suddenly, the streets were so full that I got out of the car and walked home. I saw people walking in chaos and all the lights were out in the area.”

Both attacks have been linked to Iran and the Hezbollah terror group it funds, but the perpetrators were never brought to justice. Some Buenos Aires officials have been accused of covering up Iranian involvement in the attacks.

The 48-year old Burman was raised in Buenos Aires’s Jewish community, which has been the focus of some of his latest films, and the attacks made a deep impression on him.

Burman’s film “The Tenth Man,” which premiered in Berlin in 2016, takes place in Once. In one scene, the main character, who is Jewish, walks past a memorial for the 85 victims in front of the new AMIA building.

Daniel Burman (second from right) with ‘The 10th Man’ cast members Usher, Julieta Zylberberg and Alan Sabbagh (courtesy)

“During the last 10 years people twice proposed that I make a series about the AMIA attacks,” says Burman. “I declined because I didn’t feel I was ready.”

Inspiration came to him in a bookstore one day in 2017.

“I came across the book ‘Yosi, the Regretful Spy,’ which had come out that very day,” he says. “I read the cover and was amazed to find that it’s the true story of a spy who infiltrated the Jewish community. I called the authors and told them I need their story because it was waiting for me. Once I started to film, I realized that this was the project of my life.”

Gustavo Bassani as Yosi in the new Amazon Prime Video series, ‘Yosi, the Regretful Spy.’ (Courtesy Daniel Burman/ Amazon)

The real-life “Yosi” was recruited as an intelligence officer by Argentinean federal law enforcement to spy on the Jewish community. For some 20 years, he maintained his cover identity. Known only by his alias, he pretended to be Jewish and was an active community member. The information he delivered, unbeknownst to him at the time, most likely helped pave the way for both terrorist attacks.

Speaking with The Times of Israel from Buenos Aires via email, the book’s co-authors, Argentinean journalists Miriam Lewin and Horacio Lutzky, say they got to know the spy well over the course of their research.

“During his mission, Yosi provided details of movements, identities, lists of names, schedules, meetings and sketches of the interior of community buildings to the federal police through his boss, his handler, Laura,” says Lewin.

Argentinian journalist and co-author of the book ‘Yosi, the Regretful Spy,’ Miriam Lewin. (Courtesy)

Yosi wasn’t conscious of how that material was being utilized at the time, Lewin says, but he began to suspect something was amiss after the embassy and AMIA bombings due to the attitudes of his superiors, who seemed more concerned with what the Jewish community suspected about the case than with making any arrests.

Lutzky first met Yosi in 2000. “He told me, ‘I am not who you think I am. I’m not Jewish, I’m a spy, a special agent infiltrated into the community,’” Lutzky says. “As proof, he gave me a copy of an intelligence report, but I was so scared I flushed it down the toilet.”

“Yosi knew me because his ex-wife was my assistant at Nueva Sion [New Zion], a progressive Jewish newspaper where I had been the director,” he says. “I just knew him as the [romantic] partner of my assistant Eli. She was the bridge between the two of us.”

Lutzky says that he’d seen Yosi a few times around the newspaper offices, but never spoke with him. Yosi founded and led a Zionist youth group, and later joined the Argentine Zionist Organization (OSA) affiliated with the now-defunct Israeli political party Mapam, where he participated in rallies and meetings.

Lewin says she met Yosi in Buenos Aires in 2002, and that he was the one who introduced her to Lutzky.

Argentinian journalist and co-author of the book ‘Yosi, the Regretful Spy,’ Horacio Lutzky. (Courtesy)

“I was a well-known television investigative reporter, and as such, I received a lot of rubbish in the mail,” she says. “Some weirdos used to send me messages saying they had information that could solve the most infamous crimes in Argentinean history. In this case, Yosi sent me an email saying he had information that could solve the AMIA bombings. I did not believe it, of course, but he was so persistent that I finally agreed to meet him.”

At the time, antisemitism was prevalent in some sectors of the Argentinean military and federal police. Yosi was told he was recruited in order to prevent the so-called Andinia Plan — an antisemitic conspiracy theory that claimed Jews were trying to establish an independent state in Patagonia, an area comprised of parts of Argentina and Chile, say Lewin and Lutzky.

“The [conspiracy about the] Andinia plan is based on the [antisemitic text] ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ It was put together by fascist law professors and propagated by antisemites within the army and the federal police where Yosi was employed,” they say.

During Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, the army tortured Jewish prisoners in an attempt to extract information about the Andinia plan, says Lutzky. He adds that when Yosi realized the plan was a hoax and the Jewish community was at risk, he compromised himself in an effort to protect Jewish organizations, schools and clubs.

“Even now, when former Israeli soldiers travel to Patagonia as backpackers, some people here think they have come to organize the outrageous Andinia Plan,” Lutzky says.

In the series, Burman goes back in time to 1985 when Yosi was training as a policeman. “It’s very important for me that our story started during democracy,” says Burman.

In one scene, Yosi’s colleagues at the police academy see then-president Raul Alfonsin on TV and complain about how he nominated several Jewish ministers. In 1983, Alfonsin became the first democratically-elected Argentinean president after more than seven years of military dictatorship.

What motivated Yosi to disclose his secret after all these years? Lewin and Lutzky are convinced that he felt the need for repentance and to see justice done.

“Too much blood was shed in these bombings and he couldn’t sleep at night when he thought he might have been inadvertently responsible,” say the authors. “Yet his strong love of Eli, a young Hebrew teacher, was obviously the primary reason for his commitment and desire to convert. He wanted to become Jewish, go with her Israel and raise a family.”

The man who could help Yosi fulfill his dreams was federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the chief investigator of the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Nisman accused Iran in 2006 of directing the attack, and the Hezbollah terrorist organization of carrying it out.

Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

“Nisman never met Yosi,” say the authors. “He was not present in his office when Yosi went there to tell the truth. Nisman never paid attention to what Yosi had to say, except for sending him away under the national witness protection program.”

This decision likely saved Yosi’s life. A few months later, on January 18, 2015, Nisman was found dead at his home in Buenos Aires just one day before he was scheduled to report on his findings on a joint Argentinean-Iranian investigation of the AMIA attack. Nisman’s report is thought to have contained incriminating evidence against former Argentinian president Cristina Kirchner.

Women hold placards that read ‘Justice’ and ‘I Am Nisman’ during a rally in front of the headquarters of the AMIA memorial in Buenos Aires on January 21, 2015, to protest against the death of Argentine public prosecutor Alberto Nisman. (photo credit: AFP/Alejandro PAGNI)

Lewin and Lutzky published their book “Yosi, the Repentant Spy”  in 2017. The co-authors wanted to expose the lack of justice in Argentina and the protection of the perpetrators due to what they termed “geopolitical or economic interests.”

“The book aroused a lot of interest in the public, but it did not generate a serious investigation about what Yosi had to say, about the local connection, the complicity or participation of the federal police in the bombing,” the authors say.

Lewin and Lutzky hope the truth about the involvement of Argentinean officials in the cover-up will come out eventually.

“Yosi could be the key,” they say. “But there has to be political commitment, which we have not seen.”

Burman shares these views. “It’s time to talk about this,” he says. “The worst problem in Argentina is impunity from punishment. Many powerful forces who cooperated for over 20 years are responsible for this. My protagonist Yosi is the best instrument for [putting an end to] this lack of justice.”

His fear, he says, is that the program won’t trigger a response.

Burman’s series contains elements of fiction and the director never had any contact with the real spy. According to Lewin, the real Yosi is now a “pariah” who splits his time between an undisclosed foreign country and a remote location in Argentina under the watchful eye of the witness protection program.

“We do not know his whereabouts, just that he is safe. But his life is destroyed,” Lewin says. “He feels lonely and disappointed — and he still wants to help bring justice for the families of the dead.”

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