The international human rights community lost a hero in Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, who died, in New Jersey, on Saturday, January 12.
During the last Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983), Morton faced down resistance from numerous establishment corners to bring aid and succor to the families of gentile as well as Jewish desaparecidos. As Director of the Latin American Affairs Department at B’nai Brith ADL, he started getting visits and communications from Argentines whose loved ones had disappeared. By the end of 1976 (nine months after the “Dirty War” coup), he had amassed a list of over 600 desaparecidos. But neither the DAIA (the official Argentine Jewish umbrella organization) nor the upper echelons of B’Nai Brith supported this effort. On the contrary: the DAIA ignored it, and ADL tried to quash it on the grounds that the rabbi was “endangering the community.” But Morton kept going (over the express opposition of his immediate ADL superior), and soon had over 1,500 documented desaparecidos. He published a series of booklets and pamphlets with photos and brief bios for detainees and desaparecidos, which he sent to governments, embassies, human rights groups, and journalists. Morton raised all the monies for the project himself, and eventually had over 25,000 booklets in circulation. You can read more about him in Chapter Three of A Lexicon of Terror.
Rabbi Morton Rosenthal exemplified the need for tikkun olam—to heal and repair the world. Yet he was one of the least self-righteous men I have ever met. He was lucid, energetic, and resourceful. He simply went about doing what he believed was right. His demeanor was gentle and warm. At the time of his death, he was still working to right past wrongs in Argentina. That the families Morton helped remained close to him is a testament to the quality of his care and solidarity. I will be forever grateful to Morton’s generosity. His testimony, archives, interviews and writings have facilitated and will continue to enrich judicial, cultural, and scholarly work in and about Argentina.