The Real Story behind the Spy who Infiltrated Argentina’s Jewish Community
Amazon Prime’s Yosi, the Regretful Spy unmasks the dangerous consequences of irrational antisemitism, and the non-Jewish spy who came to regret his role in the terrorist attacks on Jews.
Based on a true story, Amazon Prime’s hit series Yosi, the Regretful Spy focuses on “Yosi”, aka Jose Perez, who was a secret agent sent by the Argentinian government to infiltrate the Argentinian Jewish community. The show has been greenlighted for a second season.
For twenty years, Perez lived as a Jew, hiding his true origins and seemingly falling in love with Jewish culture and life. As Yosi, he married (and later divorced) a Jewish woman and eventually converted to Judaism. “He was really a very good candidate to be a Jew,” Rabbi Mauricio Balter, the rabbi who believed he was converting Yosi in 1988, recently told The Jerusalem Post. “Now I understand that he was a good actor also.”
Yosi believed that reconnaissance he provided to Argentinian intelligence officials contributed to the worst terrorist attacks in Argentinian history: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and the the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. Both attacks killed and maimed hundreds of people.
Jewish Community in Argentina
Jews have lived in Argentina for centuries. Historians have traced conversos, or secret Jews, who settled in the Spanish colony following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Life was difficult for Argentina’s secret Jews. The Inquisition only came to an official end in 1810 when Argentina gained independence from Spain.
Jews began to move to the new country, seeking religious freedom. In the late 1800s, the trickle of Jews moving to Argentina became, in the words of historian Ricardo Feierstein, a “downpour”. Millions of immigrants, including tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews, settled in Argentina. The capital city Buenos Aires became a melting pot. Jewish neighborhoods were filled with synagogues, Jewish schools, and Yiddish theaters.
Agricultural Cooperative “Barón Hirsch” of Rivera, Province of Buenos Aires.
By 1914, Buenos Aires ranked as the second largest city on the eastern seaboard of the Americas, after New York. About 150,000 Jews lived in Argentina at the time.
Among the thousands of Jews moving to Argentina were 824 Russian Jews who sailed to Argentina in 1889 on the ship S. S. Weser, and settled in northeastern Argentina, determined to become farmers. With the help of Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, they established the Jewish Colonization Association, bought over 600,000 hectares of land, and established the town of Moisevills. At its peak, over 2,000 Jews lived in Moisevills, working as ranchers and farmers. The town still exists today, though its population has dropped precipitously and few Jews remain.
This experiment in Jewish self-governance was to have tragic consequences for Argentinian Jews, as the series Yosi, the Regretful Spy makes clear.
With the growing Jewish community came increasing antisemitism. During the “Tragic Week” (Semana Tragica) of strikes and communal violence that rocked Buenos Aires in January, 1919, many far-right political groups and sympathizers took their anger out on Jews, openly calling for pogroms against Argentina’s Jewish community. Hundreds of Jews homes were attacked and looted, and Jews were pulled out of their homes and viciously beaten in the streets.
Gustavo Bassani as Yosi in Amazon Prime’s Yosi, the Regretful Spy, walks in the rubble after the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association attack.
Nazi sympathizers had long been prominent in Argentina. In 1946 the country elected Juan Peron as President. He was openly sympathetic to the Nazis who were fleeing justice in Europe, and opened Argentina to many former Nazi war criminals. At the same time Peron curtailed Jewish immigration to his country.
During the period of military rule in Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, many of the pro-democracy activists who were kidnapped and tortured by the military junta were Jews. It’s estimated that anywhere between 1,000 and 9,000 Argentinian Jews were murdered during this time.
One of Argentina’s persistent anti-Jewish myths is the so-called “Andinia Plan”. Long a staple of far-right and neo-Nazi groups in Argentina, this false theory harks back to the days when Jewish ranchers organized to buy farmland in Argentina in the 1800s. The “Andinia Plan” is a hoax: supposedly a top-secret plan hatched by Argentinian Jews to seize the country’s Patagonia region and establish a Jewish state or colony there. This dangerous slur against Argentina’s Jews has helped foment antisemitism across Argentina and the wider Spanish-speaking world for generations.
Sending Yosi to Investigate Anti-Jewish Conspiracy Theories
In 1985, Jose Perez, a non-Jew, was assigned to infiltrate Argentina’s Jewish community. His first assignment was to substantiate the “Andinia Plan”. Adopting the Hebrew name Yosi, Perez got to know local Jews, eventually embracing a Jewish life he created as a cover. As he familiarized himself with Argentinian Jewish life, he soon realized the absurdity of the Andinia conspiracy theory.
In the TV series, Yosi shows his intelligence officer superiors a video he took of local Jewish community leaders laughing about the Andinia hoax. One Jewish character chuckles, “It’s an antisemitic myth. It’s been going on for decades. It’s old.”
When Yosi shows this video to his superiors, they insist on clinging to the discredited conspiracy theory. “Don’t be fooled, Jose,” they tell him. “They tell the myth to protect themselves, to make it look absurd. But the plan is real. It exists and it’s complex…” Countering prejudice with reason can be futile.
Terror Attacks on Jewish Targets
On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck loaded with explosives to the door of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and detonated the truck. The embassy’s building was completely destroyed. Twenty-nine people were killed and 242 were injured.
A man walks over the rubble after a bomb exploded at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 18, 1994.
Two years later, on July 18, 1994, another explosive-laden truck was driven to a Jewish target, this time to the Associacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), a popular Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. The driver detonated his truck, killing 87 people and wounding over 300. A recent Israeli government report found that the bombing was the work of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist organization. The perpetrators, the report concludes, are living in freedom in Lebanon today.
While Argentinian government forces weren’t behind the attacks, there have been persistent suspicions that Argentina’s leaders helped obscure Iran’s involvement in the attacks. In 2005, Argentina’s Public Prosecutor Alberto Nisman - who’d been the main investigator in the AMIA attack - announced that he intended to bring criminal charges against then-President Cristina Kirchner and former Foreign Minister Hector Timerman for covering up evidence in the AMIA bombing and for secretly dealing with Iran in violation of international sanctions.
Just hours before he was due to appear in Argentina’s congress to explain the charges, Nisman was murdered in his home.
The aftermath of the bombing at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 18, 1994. (AFP)
By this time, after posing as a Jew for years, Jose Perez was thoroughly disillusioned with the antisemitism he observed inside the Argentinian intelligence establishment. When the bombings occurred, and it seemed that Argentinian officials were helping to cover up Iran’s involvement in the attacks, he felt profound regret. He eventually left the intelligence service and offered all he knew to Alberto Nisman’s office. Fearing for his life, Perez entered a witness protection program and left Argentina.
In 2000, he reached out to two Jewish Argentinean journalists, Miriam Lewin and Horacio Lutzky, and told them he wanted to tell them his story. He was convinced that Argentinian officials were helping to cover up the bombing ot the Israeli embassy and the AMIA. “I am not who you think I am,” he told Horacio Lutzky, whom he’d seen around Argentina’s Jewish areas. “I’m not Jewish. I’m a spy, a special agent infiltrated into the community.”
“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,” explains Miriam Lewin. He was dismayed to see that in the aftermath of the AMIA bombing, the federal police didn’t prioritize finding the culprits and continued to demand that he spy on the Jewish community instead of looking for clues to the bomber’s identity.
Making Yosi, the Regretful Spy
Daniel Burman, the Jewish Argentinian director who created Yosi, the Regretful Spy, experienced both the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks first hand. On March 17, 1992, he was walking to his parents’ house in Buenos Aires. “Suddenly I heard the howling of sirens,” he recalled. When the AMIA building was bombed two years later, he was even closer.
“I live only five blocks away from the AMIA,” Burman told The Times of Israel. I saw people walking in chaos and all the lights were out in the area.”
He long thought about making a film or a television series about these attacks, but never felt that the time was right. Then, in 2017, he entered a bookstore and realized he had the perfect vehicle to tell the story of the bombings. Miriam Lewin’s and Horacio Lutzky’s new book about Perez had just come out. Iosi. El espia arrepentido (Yosi, the Regretful Spy) told Perez’s story, from his recruitment to spy on the Jewish community, to his decision to go to the federal prosecutor’s office and enter the witness protection program. It was a heartbreaking read.
“I called the authors and told them I need their story because it was waiting for me,” Daniel Burman explained. “Once I started to film, I realized that this was the project of my life.”
Today, Perez divides his time between an undisclosed location in Argentina and a foreign country. “We do not know his whereabouts, just that he is safe,” explains Miriam Lewin, who interviewed him extensively for her book. “But his life is destroyed. He feels lonely and disappointed - and he still wants to help bring justice for the families of the dead.”