More than three decades after overseeing the conversion to Judaism of a charming young Argentine man with a Jewish wife, Rabbi Mauricio Balter learned that his former student was not what he had seemed to be.
The student, Balter learned, was also a spy.
José Pérez, who changed his first name to Yosi, a Hebrew name, when he converted in 1988 after a year of study with Balter, was sent undercover by the government to confirm an antisemitic conspiracy theory about Argentine Jews. He would eventually come to believe that his reconnaissance helped facilitate the bombings that killed more than 100 Jews in Buenos Aires in the 1990s.
Now a book on the story, “Yosi, the Regretful Spy,” has been turned into an Amazon TV series of the same name — and it’s a source of shock for his former rabbi.
“He was really a very good candidate to be a Jew,” Balter said. “He was open with me. Now I understand that he was a good actor also.”
The first season of “Yosi, the Regretful Spy” premiered in April and explores deep-seated antisemitism in the Argentine military and police establishment, leading up to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. A second season that is under production now will extend the timeline to 1994, when the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center claimed the lives of more than 80 Jews.
The show takes place in the democratic era following Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, during which political dissidents and innocents, including a disproportionate number of Jewish victims, were tortured or disappeared by the government. It also includes scenes from later years, after Yosi grows disillusioned with his intelligence work and is on the run from the government.
It’s easy to see why Yosi’s story makes for compelling TV: The facts are straight out of Hollywood thrillers.
Initially hired to investigate the “Andinia Plan,” an antisemitic conspiracy theory that claimed Jews and Zionists were plotting to colonize the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile as a “Jewish state in the Southern Hemisphere,” Yosi soon finds himself befriending members of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires and becoming a confidant of a prominent Israeli-Argentine businessman and arms dealer.
The show depicts Yosi climbing the social ranks of Buenos Aires’ Jewish community, going into business with some members and falling in love with another. It also shows him reporting back to intelligence and police brass, who constantly spout antisemitic vitriol, in a juxtaposition that is meant to demonstrate both the absurdity and the persistence of the Andinia Plan.
At one point, he shows one of his handlers, Claudia (Natalia Oreiro), a video of members of a fictitious left-wing Jewish political activist group laughing about the idea of a plot to take over Patagonia.
“It’s an antisemitic myth,” Víctor Kesselman (Matías Mayer), the group’s leader, explains to Yosi in the video. “It’s been going on for decades. It’s old.”
“We have Once and Villa Crespo,” another group member says in the video, referring to two heavily Jewish neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. “Why the f— would we want Patagonia? Andinia plan? Oh, please.”
Claudia cautions José/Yosi not to be taken in by the Jews. “Don’t be fooled, José,” she tells him. “They tell the myth to protect themselves, to make it look absurd. But the plan is real. It exists and it’s complex.”
That was a persistent belief within the Argentine government for many years. Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman said he was questioned about the Andinia Plan when he was arrested in 1977 without formal charges and held for 22 months. Yosi’s espionage lasted for nearly 15 years, until he began to feel compunction about his involvement in the mission and began distancing himself from his handlers.
In 2000, Pérez told journalists Miriam Lewin and Horacio Lutzky, the authors of “Yosi, the Regretful Spy,” that he was certain the information he had gathered, including building plans and blueprints, had been used in the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and the AMIA building, still the deadliest terror attack on Argentinian soil. Perez is among many who believe that the absence of federal police from both locations during the attacks on them indicates that the government knew the attacks were in the works.
Over the years, efforts to hold Argentine and Iranian conspirators accountable have fallen short, including when Jewish Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his home just 12 hours before he was scheduled to formally accuse President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman of being involved in covering up Iran’s role in the bombings. In 2020, Carlos Telledin, the man who sold the car that was used in the bombing of the AMIA, was acquitted at trial.
The show contains many details that are true to history. Antisemitism was rife among members of the Argentine government, even after the military dictatorship period ended in the 1980s, but it was also common in the general public. In one episode, a Jewish cemetery is vandalized, and one headstone reads, in Spanish, “Hitler was right.”
Israel activism, both progressive and conservative, was also an important part of many young Argentine Jews’ lives. Mapam, the left-wing predecessor of the Meretz political party in Israel, is mentioned frequently in the show as the Jewish community seeks to take on a more serious role in Israeli politics; Hebrew is frequently spoken among the Jews on the show.
The series also takes some creative liberties, portraying Yosi as becoming involved in a complicated web of international arms dealing, which was not part of the real story. Another difference: the real José Pérez took on many more lovers than the two that are revealed in the show — even marrying a Jewish woman in secret.
When Pérez stopped cooperating fully with his superiors, he was transferred to a bureaucratic department within the police, relocated to the center of the country, and separated from his wife. For fear of assassination, Pérez preemptively recorded his testimony, and took on a new identity in witness protection.
Daniel Burman, the showrunner and co-director of “Yosi” whose previous works have also focused on Argentine Jews, told La Nación in May, “What interests me in this story is that it happens in a democracy. The intelligence services of the democracy invested their time and resources in spying on us, to see what we were doing.”
Burman said the show was necessary to show how a conspiracy theory about Jews drove policy in Argentina for many years and the fallout from the two bombings continues to resonate today.
“The Jewish community was very vulnerable, we still are. It’s very important to understand the climate of the time, the restoration of democracy in a society held back by fear, by powers that continue to operate from the shadows,” he added. “In fact, there exists a conspiracy that has not been completely disarmed, a network that is sustained through lies, corruption, and impunity.”
While Argentina’s Jewish community may be vulnerable, it is also vibrant and large, peaking in the middle of the 20th century at about a quarter of a million Jews in Buenos Aires alone, many with origins in Russia, Eastern Europe, Morocco, and the former Ottoman Empire. While not quite as large as it once was, due to emigration mostly to the United States and Israel, Argentina’s Jewish population is still the sixth-largest in the world.
Alongside the fear and trauma that characterized Jewish life for Argentine Jews in the post-dictatorship era, “Yosi” captures the social fabric of local Jewish life. We see young women performing Israeli folk dances; the Jewish choir singing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, and “Oyfn Pripetshik,” the classic Yiddish children’s song at the Israeli embassy on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day; young political activists sharing latkes as they discuss their frustrations with Israeli politics; and Shabbat dinners with the elderly, led by a local rabbi.
Balter isn’t depicted in the show’s first season, but he is mentioned by name in the book, which he only learned about this year when it became popular because of the Amazon show.
A Uruguayan who led a synagogue in Buenos Aires for 12 years until 1995, when he moved to Israel, Balter said the book is much more true to reality than what he has heard from his former community members about the show.
He hasn’t seen it yet but said he plans to, saying with a smile, “I will watch because I want to see who is the actor that played the role of Rabbi Mauricio Balter.”
Now the executive director of Masorti Olami, the worldwide name for the Conservative Movement, Balter said he was blindsided by the revelation that Yosi had converted while spying on his community. He said he has tried to think back to whether there were any red flags that could have suggested Yosi’s true motivations. But there weren’t any.
“Another question that I asked to myself is, maybe other people [have] also come with the same intentions,” he said. “I don’t know. I never will know.”
But Balter said learning about Yosi’s espionage would not cause him to grow suspicious about people who choose to become Jewish.
“If people want to join us, we must be open to receive them,” he said. “I will continue helping people convert to Judaism.”
Although it is impossible to know whether Pérez (not his real name) is living as a Jew today, the show depicts him in an early scene praying with tefillin, the black leather straps and boxes that are worn on the head and on the arm during weekday morning prayers. No one else is there, and Yosi has already started revealing his story to the journalists, suggesting that his prayer is sincere, though the shockingly violent altercation that ensues complicates that perception.
Shooting for the second season, which takes place in 1994, has already begun, and will deal with Yosi’s quest for redemption.
In episode five of the first season, there is a hint of that quest. In one particularly poignant scene, Yosi and his Jewish girlfriend’s father, the fictitious arms dealer Saúl Menajem (Alejandro Awada), are sitting in Menajem’s private plane. Yosi feels comfortable enough to ask, upfront, about the Andinia Plan.
“I thought you knew about politics,” Menajem says. “It’s antisemitic superstition. Very romantic, by the way. In vogue among the services these days.”
Yosi appears to experience a moment of confusion, and then clarity, as he accepts that he has been sent on a fool’s errand — and that he is the fool.
“But do the intelligence services eat that rotten fish?” he asks.
“Talking about Argentine intelligence is a contradiction,” Menajem says. “They manipulate their people with stories. They need believers and an enemy. We Jews are the most obvious.”