“The Timerman Case&rdquo
To the Editor:
Mark Falcoff [“The Timerman Case,” July] is to be commended for tackling the Timerman controversy from a Latin American angle and giving the reader a unique insight into the ideological jungle that prevails in Argentina as well as for pointing out the oversimplification inherent in labeling as “Nazi” the goings-on in that crisis-ridden nation.
Mr. Falcoff quotes a few paragraphs on the link between Jacobo Timerman and David Graiver from my article, “Don’t Rescue Latin American Jews!” (Midstream, December 1980). Since these passages seem to have become of critical importance in the ongoing controversy and since any reference to this link has been considered by the Timerman camp to be hostile, defamatory, and even part of an “orchestrated campaign of character assassination,” I would like to point out how innocent my original mention of the Graiver connection was. . . .
I wrote my article after a visit to Argentina in the summer of 1979 when Timerman was still under house arrest. . . . At the time I wrote, there was no conservative or neoconservative anti-Timerman “conspiracy”. . . (as if one article by Irving Kristol and a few columns by William F. Buckley, Jr., can amount to a conspiracy). Reagan was not yet President and the distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes was not yet part of American foreign policy. I did not belong to any ideological cabal. I simply reported what everybody in Buenos Aires knew—namely, that Timerman was arrested because of his business association with David Graiver, who was dead and suspected of having been the investment broker of the ransom-exacting Montoneros terrorists. In other words, Timerman was arrested for a misfortune on the entrepreneurial level. It did not occur to me’ that I was revealing a secret, or that Timerman would try to keep it a secret. . . .
My article scarcely caused a ripple when it appeared. Only in combination with Timerman’s book did it create a stir. Irving Kristol, writing in the Wall Street Journal, pointed to the discrepancy between what I had said in my article and Timerman’s surprising omission of any mention of Graiver in his book. A member of the editorial staff of the same paper asked Timerman point-blank about Graiver, whereupon Timerman answered painfully: “The questions you are asking me, these are the questions they were asking me when I was tortured.”
Which was a surprising confession. As Mr. Falcoff points out in his article in discussing this matter, in the book Timerman describes his torture sessions at great length but nowhere does he mention any questions about Graiver.
It is irrelevant whether David Graiver was a crook or another Captain Dreyfus (as Timerman, who himself likes to be compared to Dreyfus, now claims). It is irrelevant whether Graiver was indeed the investment broker of the Montoneros. It is irrelevant whether the authorities managed to prove the connection between Graiver who is dead and the Montoneros who are also dead or in exile or in hiding. It is irrelevant whether Timerman knew or did not know about the Graiver-Montoneros connection, if such indeed existed.
What matters is that Graiver was Timerman’s associate on La Opinión and that Timerman’s ordeal was caused by his link with Graiver who was, rightly or wrongly, suspected of the Montoneros connection. What also matters is that all along this fact was common knowledge in Argentina and that Timer-man deliberately wanted to withhold this knowledge from the readers of his book.
Why? Because mentioning Graiver, etc. would have spoiled the carefully nurtured pretense that Timerman was jailed for investigating the disappearence of Argentinians believed to be victims of government-inspired violence. It would reduce Timerman from a junta-challenging hero to a bank swindler’s fall-guy. It would give support to the opinion prevalent among Buenos Aires’s Jews that Timerman was arrested neither because he was a Jew nor because he was a newspaperman.
(Yet once he descended into Argentina’s Hades, his Jewishness served as a goad to his torturers. As President Videla, who all along was against his detention, said with remarkable candor in a private audience: “Timerman was not arrested as a Jew. But being Jewish did not exactly help.”)
Thus the Timerman controversy is the consequence of a self-inflicted wound and not of any orchestrated cabal. Because—and this has not yet been fully grasped—the doctoring of the Graiver factor undermines Timerman’s credibility. He who can omit facts may be tempted also to add facts. . . .
The question may be asked: so what? So Timerman is not a knight in shining armor! Perhaps he has dramatized a bit. Does this change the basic thrust of his message?
I’m afraid it does. Anti-Semitism is an Argentinian fact of life and should be exposed by all means. But dramatization means distortion, enough distortion perhaps to explain why Argentina’s Jews are not in the least worried about an impending Holocaust. . . .
Benno Weiser Varon
To the Editor:
. . . The article on Jacobo Timer-man is an extremely interesting and quite thorough exposition of a complicated case. But it would have been all the more convincing and a great deal less unfair had the author resisted the urge to slam COMMENTARY’s usual whipping boys on the “American Left.” He seems much more interested in attacking Anthony Lewis and other opponents of the Lefever-Kirkpatrick mentality than in merely setting the record straight. He seems to take more satisfaction in exposing Timerman’s connections with Graiver and Videla than in exploring the extent of Timerman’s suffering while in captivity or the depravity of his captors. . . .
Jordan C. Band
To the Editor:
I think Mark Falcoff’s argument is tendentious, especially in the crude analogy he makes between anti-Semitism in Argentina today and anti-Semitism in America in the 1920’s. Argentine anti-Semitism is sui generis, neither an imitation of Nazi Germany nor of America. It is simply there, having grown out of Argentina’s social and political culture, and it is exemplified in Timerman’s experience.
The present effort to make not fine but broad and basic distinctions between authoritarian and totalitarian states creates the belief that authoritarian states are only repressive on an ad hoc basis and that except for an occasional uprising, authoritarian regimes will in time moderate into more democratic states. It is more likely that what we are witnessing is the same species in different stages of development. . . .
To argue that authoritarian states are fixed entities without the possibility of becoming totalitarian is to coin capricious definitions of political societies. Totalitarianism comes in all colors: Soviet red, Nazi brown, Amin’s black.
I suspect that the current talmudic pedantry about authoritarianism and totalitarianism can only discredit legitimate civil, democratic movements from public expression. When authoritarian repressions are directed against moderates, the lists of terrorists grow.
Sherman Oaks, California
To the Editor:
In commenting on “The Timer-man Case,” I wish to address myself solely to the comparison of Argentina to Nazi Germany, made by Timerman and questioned by Mark Falcoff. In my opinion, there is a great deal of similarity to the early period of the Hitler regime during which I was a resident of Germany. In Germany, latent anti-Semitism dating back a long time provided a fertile ground for making the Jew the scapegoat; this eventually led to the Final Solution. Though we hope that Argentina will not descend into that hell, the preconditions are present and it would require only some further economic, political, or military upset to trigger the genocide of the Argentine Jews.
Mr. Falcoff’s argument that “in Argentine society as a whole the regime confined its interests to peace and public order” also describes perfectly the first stage of the Nazi regime, the period before 1938. The old-time nationalists who despised the crude Nazis were won over when they came to see that the strong-arm methods of the Nazis ended the fratricidal strife which had torn Germany apart in the dying years of the Weimar Republic. Though Hitler disliked the Junkers and their army, he knew how to gain their support by encouraging the feeling of revenge against the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. And the business community and industry were wooed with the prospect of large profits to be made from rearming and the prohibition of strikes.
In Argentina, the latent dispute with Chile could serve the regime to gain the united support of the various factions of the military; it would help overcome the scruples of those whom Washington still likes to classify as “moderates” in converting Argentina into a totalitarian state with its native form of a Holocaust of the Jews and Gentile dissenters.
During the first five years of the Nazi regime, in spite of what Hitler had written in Mein Kampf, the general belief in Germany as well as abroad was that having finally gained control of the government, the Nazis would become “reasonable.” No one could possibly conceive of the Final Solution. The Jews drifted into second-class citizenship in slow stages—in repetition of what had happened so often during their history. But the concept of a Holocaust would have been denied by 99 percent of the German population, non-Jews as well as Jews. All that started to change in 1938.
Mr. Falcoff’s quotation from Robert Cox, editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires Herald, that “If labels must be applied, Argentina could best be described as feudalistic and anarchic. . . .” could equally have described life in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1938. Conditions varied from region to region. In their effort to gain maximum support for their program from as many groups as possible, especially from the influential and wealthy German nationalists, the Nazis pursued a policy which could be called laissez-faire/laissez-aller toward business and industry. The regime did not interfere as long as business went along with the overall goal of rebuilding Germany’s military might for later use by the Nazis. . . .
There were also no “boat people” in these first five years. Jews could and did emigrate freely, many with all their belongings. But due to the extreme shortage of hard currency—which the government hoarded for purchase of raw materials for its war industry—it was difficult if not impossible to transfer funds. However, in the early years of the Nazi regime many wealthy members of the Jewish community were assisted by Gentile business friends in saving at least part of their assets; these non-Jews probably wished to “reinsure” their own future abroad.
In 1936, I was summoned by the military to be mustered into the German armed forces along with all other young Germans and I spent a full day in the local armory undergoing a thorough physical examination by several medical specialists, as everybody else did on that day. In a German version of Catch-22, at the end of the mustering process I received a standard military passport from the German Wehrmacht, dated April 21, 1936, which I still have in my possession, giving all my personal data including religion: mosaisch (meaning Jewish), but then in the predictable classification: unacceptable. In 1935, I had also received a five-year German passport for foreign travel, without the stamp “Jew” which was added only in later years. I am giving these details just to show that at the beginning of the Hitler regime a certain bureaucratic anarchy prevailed. The turning point, as I recall, came with the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938, after the regime had been stabilized. . . .
I have criticized German Jewish leadership for not recognizing the seriousness of this slide until it was too late, although there were mitigating circumstances. Germany’s Jews were mostly in the middle- to upper-economic bracket; they had taken root in Germany over many, many years. They had fought alongside their non-Jewish fellow citizens in German wars and won distinctions on the battlefield. They had contributed to Germany’s economy, science, and arts and thus helped make Germany a respected nation throughout the world. They felt they had the right to live in Germany and consider themselves Germans in every respect. . . .
Most of this resembles the status of the Jews in Argentina at the present time. Unfortunately, the German Jewish leadership told us to stand on our rights as German citizens, to believe in the ultimate justice of our cause. They should have advised us to forget all these high principles and to leave Germany while we still could; then 90 percent of the German Jews would have been saved. Were I living in Argentina at this time I would not take the chance that “No Final Solution is under way in Argentina,” as Mr. Falcoff so confidently assures us; I would leave without delay. There may not be a Final Solution in Argentina of the type we witnessed in Nazi Germany; it may take on an Argentine form equally impossible to imagine in advance.
Argentine sympathy with German and Italian fascism before, during, and after World War II is a historical fact we must not forget. If Timerman’s book has done nothing else but give an eleventh-hour warning, it will have done more for Argentine Jewry than was ever done for the Jews in Germany in the first five years under Hitler. I hope the Jews in Argentina will not listen to Mr. Falcoff’s description of the Argentine regime as only having “confined its interests to peace and public order”; the time may be approaching in the not too distant future when it, too, will be “extending them to a reshaping of institutions along totalitarian lines” as we experienced in Germany.
Walter A. Sheldon
New York City
To the Editor:
I was interested to learn in Mark Falcoff’s article that “. . . a blanket repression is often the only means which offers any hope of success . . . but in the end the job can be done, if the will is there to do it.”
I assume that “success” means that left-wing terrorists have been wiped out by thugs of the Right and Argentina lives happily ever after.
In the process, however, what of those innocent suspects (to whom he refers) numbering in the thousands in Argentina who never emerge? Are we to forget them, or should we work in every way we know how for their release, just as we would for the release of prisoners of conscience everywhere?
For some time now I have been concerned with the case of Mario Zaraceansky, an attorney and former faculty member of the University of Cordoba and an administrator of its School of Social Services. He has been held since 1977 in preventive detention. He is not a terrorist, has made substantial contributions to his society, and has been adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
Rather than acquiesce in necessary repression, as Mr. Falcoff does, or talk of quiet diplomacy, as our President does, I would be happy if your readers would write to the President of Argentina, Roberto Eduardo Viola, calling for the right of option, that is, the right to emigrate, to be granted to Mr. Zaraceansky. . . .
Leonard A. Gordon
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Comments by a number of people in San Francisco with ties in Argentina prompted me to seek out Jacobo Timerman at the 1980 Hadassah convention in Los Angeles. The people I had spoken to insisted that Timerman’s plight in prison was not a Jewish cause, since he had few ties to the Argentine Jewish community. Questioned about this, Timerman poured his heart out to me. He insisted that he had always been a Zionist and that his newspaper always took a Zionist stand. He admitted that his Judaism had lapsed when his father died when he was young, but that it reawakened when he was imprisoned, especially with the concern a number of Argentine rabbis had for him. Judaism, he told me, had become his solace in his years of confinement. . . .
The one thing that stands out in my mind was Timerman’s conviction about what he believed the Argentine Jewish community faced, regardless of what had happened to him.
Whether Timerman’s plight is a human-rights or a Jewish issue, I had to admire his frankness and concern for his fellow Jews in Argentina, whatever they thought of him. Maybe his imprisonment had allowed him to see the “handwriting on the wall.”
Peggy A. Isaak
San Francisco Jewish Bulletin
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
. . . The real significance of the Timerman case is to focus attention on a government which is guilty of perpetrating inhuman treatment on numbers of its innocent citizens, and not that in the world of practical politics we should remain dispassionate and act only in the context of our overall foreign-affairs strategies.
The story of Jacobo Timerman’s brave exposure and subsequent suffering at the hands of an ignorant and cruel regime is conceded by Mark Falcoff; then why go to such lengths to discredit Timerman by introducing irrelevant, peripheral details? It is cynical to call Timer-man “not a great defender of liberal democratic values” in order to offset the widespread support and interest which his book has aroused. To water down threats to human freedom is to endanger our belief in fundamental universal justice. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
If there is no better place to conceal a well-grounded charge than among a host of ludicrous accusations, the Argentine government should be delighted by the liberals’ response to Jacobo Timerman’s book. The most recent illustration of this is provided by Michael Walzer’s article on Timerman in the New York Review of Books where, among other displays of well-meaning fantasy, he reports that most Argentine psychoanalysts have been murdered by the government. It appears that liberal commentators have approached Timerman’s book in the spirit in which the Pope would approach the Bible, as if it were improper to check up on the alleged facts. One must therefore be grateful to Mark Falcoff for his effort to compare claims with facts. As a daily reader of Timer-man’s newspaper, I can vouch for the accuracy of what Mr. Falcoff has to say about it, and also of most of what he has to say concerning Timerman. In addition to this, Mr. Falcoff must be praised for his accurate, indeed understated, description of the nightmare which developed in Argentina as a result of years of left-wing terrorism, first promoted and then tolerated by the Peronist governments and by progressive middle-class intellectuals.
Regrettably, Mr. Falcoff’s analysis goes beyond the anecdotes of the Timerman case to draw conclusions of a general nature about the character of the Argentine regime, and here he goes as badly astray as his liberal counterparts. His basic mistake is, in fact, the same which has inspired most liberal commentators: like them, he has assumed that the Timerman case is typical and that from an analysis of its circumstances one can draw a conclusion as to the nature of the Argentine system. Liberals, encouraged by a few unreasonable remarks of Timerman’s, have raised the issue of a forthcoming Holocaust in Argentina, a topic that can be taken seriously only by those whose knowledge of South America derives mostly from Peter Ustinov’s or Woody Allen’s movies. From this, they have concluded that the Argentine political situation deserves to be seen in the light of those which developed under Hitler and Stalin. Conservatives, on the other hand, have found flaws in Timerman’s character and gaps in his account; moreover, they have emphasized Timerman’s own account of a struggle within the government between “moderates” and “radicals”; and they have noted the relatively happy ending of it all. Assuming now that the Timerman case is typical, they conclude that the Argentine leaders should not be compared with Hitler or Stalin but, rather, with Dirty Harry (they are not totalitarian but authoritarian).
The basic charge to be examined by anyone trying to evaluate the character of the Argentine regime is not that a Holocaust is on its way, or even that many people have gone through troubles comparable to Timerman’s; the basic charge is that for years the Argentine armed forces have been kidnapping, torturing, and murdering thousands of defenseless civilians. Two questions may be raised in connection with this charge: (1) are the allegations true? and (2) are the armed forces (i.e., the government) responsible, or does the responsibility fall on the shoulders of a small lunatic fringe within them?
I take it that outside Argentina very few people with a minimum of information and common sense would hesitate on how to answer the first question. Some of us are unfortunate enough to have very direct evidence of the truth of those allegations; an objective record of the relevant facts can be found, for example, in the OAS report on The Human Rights Situation in Argentina. It is on the second charge that most supporters of the present regime will concentrate. Their line is, like Mr. Falcoff’s, the following: sure, awful things have happened in Argentina in the last few years; and, sure, some people in the armed forces have behaved like animals. This, however, was not the result of a concerted effort by the armed forces but the unfortunate outcome of a period of inevitable anarchy within them, where moderate and radical officers were fighting for the control of “the Process.” If the forces of evil were let loose for a while, the moderates appear to have gained control of the situation.
How plausible is this account? On the most conservative of estimates, during the first three years of the current regime about six thousand people (“countless thousands,” if we count dead Argentinians the way Mr. Falcoff counts exiled Cubans) were kidnapped and “disappeared” never to return. Adjusting for differences in population, I would invite the American reader to imagine that, after a period of social turmoil, the military were to take over the U.S. government, and that during three years some fifty people are kidnapped every single day by heavily armed people driving cars without license plates. Imagine that the police never interfere with the highly conspicuous movements of these people; that during most of these operations the kidnappers leave a wealth of fingerprints; that there are usually witnesses quite capable of contributing to the identification of the kidnappers; but that when the kidnappings are reported to the police they invariably do absolutely nothing about it. . . . Imagine, moreover, that the state-controlled media ignore these daily disappearances and that the media brand those who express concern about them as potential subversives. Now ask yourself: how inclined would you feel under those circumstances to draw a distinction between the good guys and the bad guys in power? On these basic facts Mr. Falcoff is revealingly silent. The only, shocking reflection they elicit from him is this: “As is necessarily the case in an urban setting where the forces of order must contend with the virtual invisibility of the enemy, a blanket repression is often the only means which offers any hope of success. In such situations—let us not mince words—the distinction between terrorist and suspect—indeed, between innocent and guilty, is often lost—but in the end the job can be done, if the will is there to do it.” I am sorry to say that if this means anything at all, it means that lynching is sometimes fine.
There is one final point I would like to make concerning a particularly offensive attitude of Mr. Falcoff’s. He correctly notes that the Argentinian population appears to be far less excited than American liberals about the human-rights record of the military government. Whereas complaints in Argentina about the economic record of the government are daily and increasingly vociferous, public and private complaints about the human-rights record are nearly nonexistent. This is not the contemptible attitude that the professional moralists of the Left would take it to be (they would surely do no better in similar circumstances); but neither is it, as Mr. Falcoff appears to think, a sign of local wisdom that has somehow escaped the editorialists of the New York Times.
The Argentine silence in the face of an unprecedented display of immorality by the state is, perhaps, the most degrading social fact of contemporary Argentine history. The very last thing we need is an American professor acting as a cheerleader and telling us that we are doing fine. Evidently, Mr. Falcoff does not have the slightest idea of the way social pressures, when sufficiently threatening, may force people’s perceptions into adjustment. The attitude of the Argentine population is the tragic but inevitable and, in the end, excusable behavior of persons forced to live under an appallingly immoral and degrading system; of persons who know that the price to be paid for essential dissent is literally incalculable, and who have reason to fear that the only realistic alternative to their system of government is an equally brutal version of populism. They are thereby forced to readjust their perception of things so as to make daily life bearable. It is very easy to excuse our moral blindness. It is less easy to excuse Mr. Falcoff’s.
Mark Falcoff writes:
When the editors of COMMENTARY invited me to offer some thoughts on the Timerman case, I accepted, even though I suspected that I was not likely to receive many bouquets for my efforts. In fact, just before the article appeared (though its existence had already been reported in the press), a prominent New York journalist asked me point-blank, with honest amazement, “Aren’t you afraid of the consequences?” I replied that I really wasn’t, since I could bring to bear on the matter something which almost no one else who had written on the case really possessed—a thorough knowledge of the Argentine setting. (Two notable exceptions were Benno Weiser Varon, whose letter appears above, and Robert Weisbrot, whose article in the New Republic [June 27, 1981] was far inferior to what I’m sure he was capable of writing.)
The big surprise, however, was the number of people from certifiedly liberal quarters, both here and in Argentina, who came forward to congratulate me. Surely these people, I thought, have no reason to offer aid and comfort to the Argentine anti-Semites and torturers, or even (with all its myriad deficiencies) the present Argentine government. Rather, they felt (and many expressed this point of view to me) that the rhetorical overkill (and convenient omissions) of Timerman and his epigones in the United States were actually doing far more harm than good to the cause both of human rights and the dignity and security of the Jewish community in Argentina. If an example is required, one might refer to the recent book by Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret. Therein is demonstrated how British atrocity propaganda in World War I, vastly overblown and in many cases downright false, actually delayed acceptance of the awful truth about what was happening in the extermination camps of Eastern Europe some twenty-five years later, when the first stories began to leak out of Nazi-occupied territory.
Now, let me reply to my critics individually.
I don’t know why my article would have been, as Jordan C. Band says, “more convincing and a great deal less unfair” if I had not addressed myself to the specific exaggerations and falsifications of the American Left (no quotation marks required) . Convincing to whom? Unfair to whom? After all, I was not questioning (or minimizing) Timerman’s account of his sufferings—which I freely reported and commented upon—but rather addressing myself to the larger issues involved. This is precisely what Anthony Lewis, Tom Wicker, and others were doing from their own particular perspective.
I completely agree with Charles Ansell that Argentina’s anti-Semitism (as I suppose that of any nation) is sui generis. Nonetheless, even matters sui generis cry out for explanation, and one gropes for analogies. My reference to the U.S. of the 1920’s was admittedly a crude attempt at sociological description, but I hastened to say so in my article (“Comparisons of this sort are invariably imperfect”) . The reference was further qualified by the phrase “in certain ways”—and I went on to explain what these were and were not. One of the things they certainly weren’t was the Germany of the Nuremberg laws, which is the position of Timerman and some others.
If Mr. Ansell thinks my discussion of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism constitutes “talmudic pedantry,” he needn’t take my word for it. He can consult the Greeks, the Spaniards, or the Portuguese, who have actually experienced the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. He might also inquire of the Cubans, the Czechs, the Ukrainians, the Chinese, and, among an unfortunately lengthening list, the Soviet Jews.
Of all the letters critical of my article Walter A. Sheldon’s is certainly the most thoughtful and relevant, since he speaks from certain knowledge of the German experience. However, I think he misses a couple of points about Argentina. First of all, when I said that the military there were pursuing “in Argentine society as a whole . . . peace and public order,” I added, with a bitter parenthesis which he abstains from quoting, “as defined by them, of course.” My purpose was to emphasize that—while I thoroughly disagreed with Timerman’s characterization both of the regime there and of the very texture of life in the society—I did not think the government very respectful of what the words “peace and public order” mean in democratic countries. Nonetheless, even arrests and detention without trial, press censorship, confiscation of property, and so forth, particularly in the context of internal war, need to be separated conceptually from what the Nazis meant by Gleichschaltung.
Unlike the Nazis, the Argentine military have no real “ideology” or “doctrine” except a crude anti-Communism; there is no state “party,” there is not even a Führer! The educational system continues to be as disorganized and irrelevant as ever; young Argentines are not being incorporated into government-organized or sponsored paramilitary formations dedicated to anti-Semitism (or even anti-Communism). The possibility of a war with Chile, which I take it Mr. Sheldon sees as a possible pretext for a move to a fully totalitarian state, is laughable to most Argentines (though not, I trust, to Chileans, and perhaps not to Americans either).
One point Mr. Sheldon makes about the response of the German Jewish community to the advent of Nazism does, however, inadvertently shed some additional light on matters Argentine. He describes German Jews as basically insouciant about growing Nazi restrictions because most were “in the middle- to upper-economic bracket; they had taken root in Germany over many, many years. . . . They felt they had the right to live in Germany and consider themselves German in every respect.” Whatever explanatory power this description may contain about events in Germany, I’m afraid it is helpful with respect to Argentina only by way of contrast.
The Argentine Jewish community is actually weaker and less well-rooted in that country (and therefore at least as potentially vulnerable) as the German Jews. Further, unlike the latter, they can have no doubts—from the incontrovertible evidence of the Holocaust—precisely to what bestial extremes anti-Semitism can go. There is nothing to prevent them from leaving, with all of their goods intact. Yet most choose to remain. In the context of the post-Holocaust period, I do not think that this decision can be dismissed quite so cavalierly; it is a silent witness, which along with some particularly emphatic public statements by leaders of the organized Jewish community in Argentina, deserves to be taken seriously.
This does not mean that they might not enjoy a better life elsewhere. Many Argentines, by no means all of them Jews, have opted for emigration over the past twenty years, whether to live in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, or Israel. As long as the nation’s economy continues to deteriorate, and its quest for political community is thwarted by extremist ideologies, this is a trend which is bound to continue. As a particularly literate, energetic, and ambitious component of a most able and attractive people, Argentine Jews are bound to be disproportionately represented in this out-migration. Perhaps it is proper and just that this should be so. But those who remain ought to be free of the stigmas which Timerman and others choose to attach to them.
I should add that the experience of Nazism in Germany, so illuminatingly and precisely described in Mr. Sheldon’s letter, raises some serious problems of definition. Granted that the Nazi regime was slow to consolidate itself and fully reveal its totalitarian features. Granted that there were still interstices through which Jews could survive—far later, in fact, than the date 1938 which Mr. Sheldon gives. Granted also that in spite of the regime’s oft-articulated goal of a Germany “free of Jews” (Judenfrei), combined with the characteristic thoroughness and efficiency of that people, there were still loopholes, exceptions, anomalies, and individual kindnesses such as Mr. Sheldon himself recounts. Still, within a mere five years of Hitler’s assumption of the chancellorship, the Nuremberg laws had reclassified Germans along “racial” lines and, we can now see, the vast noose which was slowly to close upon the Jewish community was already in place. Most of the characteristic components of Nazism were present in Germany even before March 1933, but remain absent to this day in Argentina.
I would not want to make too much of the fact that the present regime in Argentina has been in power precisely the same number of years that Hitler held office in Germany at the time of the Nuremberg laws. After all, things get done more slowly south of the equator. Nonetheless, the movement these past two or three years in Argentina has been away from martial law, disappearances, and other forms of repression. This is not merely my observation on the basis of a visit in March 1980, but the view promulgated by the human-rights office of the Carter administration in its annual reviews on Argentina.
The German experience does raise some serious problems of another order. Since one particular form of anti-Semitism which began, so to speak, conventionally enough ended in the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to say with complete assurance that the same thing cannot happen again somewhere else. It is necessary at all times to exercise stern vigilance and close and careful observation. It is also necessary to sort out the various manifestations of anti-Semitism worldwide, for if one particular instance led to the Holocaust, by the same token, not every manifestation everywhere is bound by some twisted law of history to have precisely the same consequences. As the spiritual leader of the Sephardic community in Argentina remarked on a recent visit to this country, it should not be necessary to assume that we are on the threshold of another Holocaust to be effectively concerned with anti-Semitism in Argentina (or, I might add, anywhere else).
Leonard A. Gordon seems to have read my article very carelessly, if at all, since he simply ignores all of the distinctions I tried so carefully to draw. Chief among these was that by its very nature counter-guerrilla warfare is an exceedingly nasty business in which many innocent people are caught in the maw along with the guilty. We ought, however, to consider the antecedent conditions which bring about such parlous states, rather than to act—as many Amnesty International members seem wont to do—as if the world were created yesterday. Prior to the military coup in Argentina in 1976, a political assassination in that country was occurring every four hours. No political system, no matter how perfect, could endure such an assault on its credibility. Does this mean that once the threat is exorcised, Argentina lives “happily ever after”? No, it does not. But if we wish to avoid such matters in the future, we should recognize their causes early on.
As to the case of Mario Zaraceansky, since he is apparently a political prisoner, it is not surprising that the Argentine government refuses him permission to leave the country. He is not, however, being refused an exit visa because he is a Jew, which is the point to which I referred in my article.
Since I have never had the privilege of meeting and talking with Peggy A. Isaak, I really cannot enter into competition with Jacobo Timerman for her attention and credibility. However, she might ask herself why it is that the most important organized expressions of the Jewish community both here and in Argentina would have an interest in denying Timerman’s version of events, if in fact it were true.
Joe Rapoport overlooks the fact that Timerman did not just chronicle his sufferings as a political prisoner. Had he done nothing more than that, there would have been no reason for my article. Rather, Timerman provoked (and, on a visit to this country at the time of the publication of his book, participated in) an ongoing discussion about “practical politics” and “foreign-affairs strategies.” If Timer-man has the right to raise these broader issues—and I certainly think he does—others have the right to join in the discussion without being shouted down.
I think, also, that Mr. Rapoport misses the point about my questioning Timerman’s commitment to liberal democratic values. Obviously, regardless of his views (or perhaps, his lack of them), nothing justifies the inhumane treatment of his person. Rather, I wished to emphasize something every Argentine knows—that Timerman was deeply implicated in the course of events in his country, and shares the blame for its slide into a military dictatorship. Indeed, in his book he says as much, which in someone else might encourage a certain reticence and humility, rather than some of the poses which he has lately struck.
Alberto Coffa is far more thoroughly grounded in Argentina reality than most of my critics, but he vastly distorts both what I said and what I implied. I was not “revealingly silent” (or silent in any other fashion) about disappearances. I am not absolutely certain that the so-called “moderates” in the Argentine military have the upper hand, and therefore did not say so. Nor did I uncritically endorse (much less “cheer”) the conduct of Argentine security forces. My purpose was to explain how things happened, since (as Mr. Coffa properly notes) one certainly could draw no accurate picture from what we were being told by commentators in the New York press or even—except through a glass, darkly—from what Timerman had written.
The matter about the Argentine population and its attitude toward the present military government is one which admits of legitimate controversy. But I do not think Mr. Coffa provides a convincing alternative to my own description. The truth is that for more than fifty years Argentines have disagreed, often violently, over the merits of successive regimes, whether military or civilian, and I have no doubt that these controversies continue. Some people are obviously afraid—and have reason to be. These include families of persons who have disappeared, and, inevitably, those whose political views and past (or present) activities place them under the purview of various “anti-subversive” agencies of the military. However, I note a certain confusion in Mr. Coffa’s letter. At times he wishes to extend this blanket of fear over the entire population (to excuse it, as it were, for its lack of active opposition to the government). At other times, he lapses into a fatalism common to Argentine intellectuals, suggesting that for some mysterious reason his fellow citizens are invariably destined to live under some form of brutal repression, if not the present “national security state,” then a “populist” dispensation. (If this were so, then fascism would become, as Molotov once called it, merely “a matter of taste.”) I should emphasize that in describing the Argentine people’s response to the military regime, it was not my intention to score moral points against it. Nor do I think, whatever the majority of Argentines may feel, that this either justifies or ameliorates abuses of judicial procedure and human rights.
Mr. Coffa’s discussion of disappearances in Argentina is most compelling, and, I am sure, quite accurate as far as it goes. But this is not the whole story. At the time of Perón’s return in 1973 the military there was thoroughly discredited politically, and anxious to return to the barracks. Its “rehabilitation” came about slowly, as public order deteriorated, particularly after Perón’s death in 1974. However, even then the hands of the generals were stayed for nearly two more years—a reluctance inspired not by modesty, we may be sure, but by a desire to gather an overwhelming consensus in favor of their return to power. We cannot doubt that this would never have developed were it not for the subsequently overwhelming wave of terrorist violence.
Now, there ought to be a neat middle ground between counter-guerrilla operations and judicial irregularity. In the real world of politics, however, there often is not, particularly in countries like Argentina, where constitutional traditions are so fragile. Once a break is made with civilian government and the rule of law, there is no controlling device for moderating the conduct of the armed forces. And, as in any civil war, old scores are settled under some rather blurred rubrics—“anti-subversion,” “anti-Communism,” or whatever. The lesson which Argentina teaches is this: that while any civilian government is better than none at all, most people prefer security before all other values. It is the job of responsible citizens to prevent matters from ever reaching the point where people must choose from so limited a range of alternatives. To point this out is not to display “moral blindness” but to exercise political realism of the most elementary type. If Mr. Coffa cannot see this, then the problem, I’m afraid, is not mine but his own.
I would like to thank Benno Varon for his letter, and for his conscientious reporting on the case, which went unnoticed for so long. And finally, I should like to take this opportunity to thank publicly those many persons—from Argentina as well as the United States—who wrote or phoned me personally to express their appreciation for my article.