Commentary Magazine

The Timerman Case

One morning in April 1977, twenty armed men in civilian clothes, claiming to be under orders from the Tenth Infantry Brigade of the Argentine army, invaded the Buenos Aires apartment of a well-known newspaper publisher and editor named Jacobo Timerman. Captured and blindfolded, Timerman was pushed onto the rear floor of an automobile, and led off to what subsequently became six months of solitary confinement, interrupted only by occasional trips to the toilet, meals, and sessions with an electrical torture-shock device. In September, he was brought before a War Council, that is, a military court, still uninformed of the charges against him. After a fourteen-hour session in which Timerman was pointedly questioned about every aspect of his life, work, political activities, and Jewish identity, the council ruled that there was no reason to hold him under arrest. This decision was reached late in the month, and communicated to the prisoner in his cell in mid-October.

However, instead of releasing him, the Argentine military government transferred him to house arrest for two additional years. In September 1979, the Argentine Supreme Court convened to consider Timerman’s case, and for the second time found no grounds for his continued detainment. The high command of the army met and voted nonetheless that Timerman should remain imprisoned, preferably in a military garrison, and added gratuitously that the entire Supreme Court should resign for having arrived at their finding. Only when Argentine President General Jorge Videla threatened to resign himself was Timerman released, but, apparently as part of a compromise worked out with his fellow generals, the President ordered the publisher stripped of his property and his Argentine citizenship, and permanently expelled from his country. Today he lives in Tel Aviv, although he is a frequent visitor to the United States, where he has become—if one can countenance such macabre usage—a “human-rights celebrity.” One of his most recent appearances in that capacity was as a silent witness-for-the-prosecution in the Senate confirmation hearings of Ernest W. Lefever, President Reagan’s then-nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

Timerman’s accession to international prominence is not surprising, for his case was the subject of worldwide concern and protest, involving at various times representatives in Argentina of the United States, Israel, and the Vatican, as well as various Jewish and non-Jewish humanitarian organizations. Indeed, few political prisoners in Argentina (or elsewhere) have been so fortunate in the range and importance of the friends who have rushed to their defense, and few of those friends, sad to say, have been as successful elsewhere. Now, however, Timerman is free to speak on his own, and he has done so in a book recently published under the title Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.1

The appearance of Timerman’s book and a renewed controversy in the Senate and the public prints over U.S. human-rights policy may be nothing more than a coincidence, but the earliest reviews have not let the opportunity pass without comment. John Leonard in the New York Times (May 7, 1981) led off with the really breathtaking assertion that Timerman’s testament establishes that “Argentina is no more civilized than the Soviet Union, Iran, or Uganda,” and that what the publisher confronted there in 1977 was nothing less than “Nazism.”

Leonard’s colleague Anthony Lewis has been no less hyperbolic. In a front-page article in the Times Sunday Book Review (May 10, 1981), Lewis discusses the Timerman book under 50-point letters spelling out “the final solution in Argentina.” In the body of the article, however, some agendas slightly different from those of Timerman himself are brought forward for our consideration:

The methods of modern tyranny [Lewis writes] repeat themselves. With this reality compare the political-science abstraction that has served since last January 20 as a premise of United States human-rights policy: the theory that right-wing governments are merely “authoritarian” and do less damage to human rights than “totalitarian” regimes.

The principal author of that theory is Jeane Kirkpatrick, United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Elaborating on it in 1979 in the magazine COMMENTARY, she wrote that, unlike Communists, “traditional autocrats” observe “traditional taboos.” For example, they respect “habitual patterns of family and personal relations.”

I thought about Ambassador Kirkpatrick when I read Timerman’s description of the Miralles family: father, two sons, and a daughter-in-law. Timerman heard they were tortured, and they were not the only ones.

What Timerman is describing, Lewis concludes, is “our century’s special contribution to civilization: state terrorism.” And for those slow to perceive what water is being drawn to whose mill, the Kirkus Service review of the Timerman book puts it baldly: “In heated, sometimes striving prose . . . is inscribed a Jeremiah-an lament, furious and sad . . . and especially timely now that the U.S. is again cozying up to Argentina” (emphasis added).

Q.E.D. The Timerman case “establishes” (a) that there are no differences between right-wing authoritarian states and Communist regimes; (b) that the Reagan administration is therefore hypocritical and two-faced in its moral standards; and (c) that the horrors in Timerman’s book represent a fair sample of everyday life in “autocratic” regimes which Washington is now said to prefer in many Third World countries, regimes which—to judge, anyway, from the headlines of the Lewis article—are morally (and presumably even statistically?) comparable to Nazi Germany; and (d) in Argentina it has been the state which has constituted the real terrorist threat.

But if Timerman’s book is to serve as a propaganda windfall for the foreign-policy establishment of the American Left, the leaders of that movement had best hope that most people confine their knowledge of the case to what reviewers say about it. It would not do to have too many people actually read Timerman’s account. For within the confines of this slim volume (only 164 pages), there is a good deal more than a record of the author’s travails at the hands of various police sadists, torturers, and military megalomaniacs. In fact, roughly half the text covers other matters. These include Timerman’s autobiography, a discussion of Argentine politics between 1966 and 1973 (the date of Perón’s return), and, most important of all, some remarkably revealing glimpses of military politics in the period between the overthrow of Perón’s successor-spouse (1976) and Timerman’s release three years later.

One might assume, charitably, that the reason most reviewers have chosen not to dwell upon (or in some cases, even mention) this half of Prisoner is that they themselves do not quite understand some of these complexities, and that, in any event, they are not relevant to the issue of human rights. But let us not be ingenuous: there are some embarrassing pieces of information in this book, from which Lewis and Company would be best advised to protect their special constituencies. Even a careful reader with no particular knowledge of the Argentine setting is bound to be puzzled and perhaps even troubled by certain apparent paradoxes and incongruities in the narrative.2

The truth is that Timerman drops some rather tantalizing leads in his autobiographical pages, but probably not one American in several million is in a position to pick these up and make complete sense out of them. For to assemble these fragments coherently, one must know something about a host of recondite topics—Peronism and anti-Peronism, anti-Semitism in Argentina, the role of that country’s armed forces, the nature of politics in the second Perón period, and not least, the ways open to a penniless immigrant boy from Russia to rise to wealth and influence in a remote yet sophisticated South American society.



The central drama around which Timerman’s story actually revolves is the return in 1973 of former President Juan Perón after nearly two decades in exile. In a metaphorical sense, this was not an event which occurred all at once, but from the late 1960’s on it could be predicted—barring the demise of its protagonist—with increasing asssurance. For during the fifteen or so years following Perón’s overthrow in 1955, the Argentine economy continued to register, and with accumulating force, the decline which had begun during the late years of his presidency, and increasing numbers of citizens were coming to “remember” his regime (1946-55) in terms of the prosperity which had, however, actually been an accidental byproduct of a postwar boom in agricultural commodity prices. At the same time, Perón’s populist approach to income redistribution (from which he had been withdrawing in the final two years of this period) had bequeathed to Argentina a trade-union movement firmly loyal to the deposed leader, an organized working class which at its lowest point represented about one-third of the electorate.

During these years all manner of experiments were launched to ease Argentine politics into a post-Peronist era: a civilian, democratic government determined to wean Perón’s followers from his person (Frondizi, 1958-62); a civilian government elected under a complicated system which effectively disenfranchised Peronist voters (Illia, 1963-66); and a succession of military presidencies aimed at promoting economic development as a substitute for politics itself (Generals Onganía, Levingston, Lanusse, 1966-73). Alas, neither by persuasion nor by force could the ghost be exorcised.

What was perhaps equally to the point, at the very same time an entire generation was coming to maturity which knew of Perón only what could be evoked from childhood memories (and sometimes, not even those) or conveyed by parental recall. In the picture of the vanished regime which came to dominate the imagination of these young people, the most appealing feature was probably its vaunted “anti-imperialism” and “independent” (i.e., anti-American) foreign policy. The fact that Perón’s challenge to the United States was more bluster than reality was somehow overlooked, and of course the unflagging devotion of the working class enveloped the exiled leader in a retrospective glamor which quelled any lingering doubts. Thus by 1970, Perón found himself being courted by groups which had stood apart from his first regime and even actively opposed it—leftist students and Marxist intellectuals. Unlike the Argentine Left of the 1940’s and 1950’s, however, this successor generation had added to its Marxist breviaries the writings of Ché Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Muammar Qaddafi, and other heterodox sources, whose only common feature was a predilection for violence and direct action.

The role which this new Peronist “Left” played was utterly crucial to the decision of the Argentine armed forces to relinquish power to an elected government. For from 1970 on, paramilitary formations nominally loyal to Perón, such as the Montoneros or the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), began to assassinate prominent military personalities, including one former president. They also began to accumulate, through a chain of kidnappings and bank robberies, a treasury which rivaled the assets of any multinational corporation. Already blamed by the public for their inability to turn the economy around, the generals now found themselves humiliated by their apparent impotence in the face of a challenge from rank amateurs, who in the bargain were blighting the fruits of power. What, after all, was the point in holding a provincial governorship if one did not physically survive one’s term?

One mark of the isolation in which the military found itself by the early 1970’s was the degree to which the civilian opposition in Argentina responded to the escalating violence of urban guerrillas by proffering somewhat limp “sociological” explanations. On this subject, Timerman is especially scathing:

Juan Domingo Perón used to say that “Violence from above engenders violence from below”—a statement that could be found in any Harvard, MIT, or Hudson Institute study on the aggressive feelings of populations with meager resources. A liberal statement, a sociological equation, which in an organized country might lead merely to a polemic on the ways in which such aggressiveness can be eliminated through housing, education, or public-health programs.

In Argentina, however, Peronist youth understood at once what Perón was saying: he approved of violence and terrorism, and would lend his support to any murder, kidnapping, or assault that fit into his goals for the reconquest of power. . . .

Anyone opposed to the tactical methods established by Perón would be executed by the boys, pushed from below by the violence from above.

The “violence from above” disguised as the “violence from below,” however, did its work, and by 1973 the resistance of the generals was broken. Perón was allowed to return for a week’s visit, although not to run for the presidency, In March, a stand-in for Perón, Héctor Cámpora, was elected, and in May, the Peronists formally returned to power. After a scant three months, during which he revealed himself to be the captive of the Peronist Left, Cámpora was ordered by Perón to resign and convoke new elections in which the great man could run on his own. Perón returned to Argentina in June, and in September was reelected with a thumping 62 percent of the vote. A month later, nearly eighty years old, he walked back into the Government House he had abandoned in disgrace nearly twenty years before.



In spite of the overwhelming endorsement he had received from the electorate, Perón could not inaugurate an era of peace and concord; too many different expectations had been raised by his return. The Left, of course, expected him to reveal himself as a Marxist, and in truth, Perón had done an excellent job of stringing these people along (and using them) during his late years of exile. But—quite apart from Perón’s record, his personality, and his most intimate views—this was hardly a likely eventuality. For the largest element supporting his return was a “traditional” following which was populist rather than Marxist. That is, it favored a style of government which combined personalism, state capitalism, gangsterism, and bread-and-butter unionism with a rather haphazard showering of social-welfare benefits on the “loyal,” rather than a systematic restructuring of Argentine society along more egalitarian lines. The ranks of traditional Peronism included everything from right-wing Catholics to trade-union militants, from industrialists to provincial intellectuals; this, after all, was precisely the constituency which Perón had represented during his first period of power. All the talk about “national liberation” and “Third World” solidarity was a later addition, and represented (as Perón well knew) far fewer votes.

As long as he was but a distant hope, Perón could inspire the loyalty of both wings. Once in power, he was forced to choose, and choose he did: first, by selecting as his Vice President his wife, Maria Estela (“Isabel”), generally identified with the traditionalist wing; and then, several months after his inauguration, by officially inviting the Left to subsume itself into his movement of class collaboration and national reconstruction (as he called it), or depart.

Even before this confrontation, however, elements of the Peronist Left, unable to slacken a disposition to combat which had been wound to feverish intensity, were at war with the regime they had helped to install. Their peremptory dismissal by Perón at a public ceremony only provided a new reason to persist in their acts of violence. And then, after Perón’s death in July 1974, the guerrillas launched an all-out offensive, assuming that they would be the inevitable beneficiaries of the fall of his incompetent spouse.

This was not, however, the case. For the guerrillas were quickly joined by a bewildering variety of contending forces in what became a sort of civil war in miniature. These included, in Timerman’s description,

rural and urban Trotskyite guerrillas; right-wing Peronist death squads; armed terrorist groups of the large labor unions, used for handling union matters; paramilitary army groups, dedicated to avenging the murder of their men; para-police groups of both the Left and the Right vying for supremacy within the organization of federal and provincial police forces; and terrorist groups of Catholic rightists organized by cabals who opposed Pope John XXIII’s proposals to reconcile the liberal leftist Catholic priests seeking to apply—generally, with anarchistic zeal—the ideological thesis of rapprochement between the Church and the poor.

To which he adds that

these, of course, were only the principal groups of organized or systematized violence. Hundreds of other organizations involved in the eroticism of violence existed, small units that found ideological justification for armed struggle in a poem by Neruda or an essay by Marcuse. Lefebre might be as useful as Heidegger; a few lines by Mao Zedong might trigger off the assassination of a businessman in a Buenos Aires suburb; and a hazy interpretation of Mircea Eliade might be perfect for kidnapping an industrialist to obtain a ransom that would make possible a further perusal of Indian philosophy and mysticism to corroborate the importance of national liberation.

The far Left and the far Right came to employ similar tactics, indeed, at times, the very same tactics. The Montoneros, Timerman reports, succeeded in “forcing five hundred large business firms to pay a monthly protection sum against kidnapping or assault of their executives.” The Triple A—a right-wing terrorist organization—obtained a copy of this list and forced “these five hundred large firms to subscribe to its financial support. The companies thus [paid] both organizations.” Timerman does not say so, but extrapolating from events of this sort elsewhere in Latin America, it is not implausible that the Triple A obtained the Montoneros’ list because some members of one group were also members of the other.

It was to put an end to this situation that the Argentine military, under Army Commander General Jorge Rafael Videla, overthrew the government of Isabel Perón on March 24, 1976. The record shows that this act was endorsed by the broadest spectrum of political forces in Argentina, including one of the most influential and prestigious newspapers in the country, La Opinión, edited by one Jacobo Timerman.



About this remarkable newspaper Timerman has very little to say, and what he tells us is not always true. He remarks that it was often likened to Le Monde, but “in relation to the ideological position of the French daily, one could say that La Opinión was a typically liberal newspaper.” While the veracity of this statement depends entirely upon how one defines “liberal,” the comparison with Le Monde seems more exact, since La Opinión was a newspaper of very high editorial quality which frequently made up what it did not know. Further, like its French counterpart, it combined a vague sort of international and cultural leftism with an elegant anti-Americanism—a Gaullism, as it were, packaged for Argentine consumption. All of which amounts to saying something which Timerman flatly denies—that La Opinión was (or at any rate, soon became after its founding in 1971) a Peronist newspaper.3 In any case, it could hardly have been anything else. To start a newspaper is no idle enterprise, particularly in a country like Argentina for an immigrant with no family ties to the leading banking families. Quite apart from credit, it requires advertising, and on this score Timerman is utterly candid: La Opinión could not have survived without large blocks of space taken by public-sector enterprises, which in Argentina represent a very significant portion of the industrial plant, and whose publicity budgets equip any government with a marvelous tool for influencing the tone of the press.4

But Timerman’s Peronism was not wholly mercenary: he was convinced, as were so many Argentine professionals, businessmen, and intellectuals who read his paper, that only Perón could reconcile the pressing agendas of nationalism, redistribution, economic growth, civilian government, and social peace. Nor was his shift to favoring a military coup in 1976 necessarily inspired by dishonorable motives; his paper simply reflected the general flow of Argentine opinion, which after Perón’s death, the revealed incompetence of his successor, and the unremitting threnody of terrorist violence, came to despair of a civilian political solution.

Thus the picture of a Jewish liberal democrat editing something like the old New York Post in Buenos Aires is very, very wide of the mark; that sort of liberalism holds no appeal for Argentines, and Timerman would have been a far less clever man had he propagated it. If Timerman’s liberal admirers in the United States were able to read the back numbers of his newspaper, rather than to accept at face value what he himself says about it, they might be no less determined to protest his arrest and treatment in captivity, but somewhat more skeptical of his claims to represent their values.



The question inevitably arises: if Timerman was so successful in negotiating—and indeed, turning to his own benefit—the shifting currents of Argentine politics, why, then, was he arrested at all? Here, too, Prisoner tells us what at best is only part of the truth.

After the coup which deposed Isabel Perón the military initiated a sweep of known or suspected elements of the violent Left. As is necessarily the case in any 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, between sympathizer and activist, 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.

This is precisely what the Montoneros and the ERP never expected, forgetting (if they ever knew) that army officers are not vacillating liberals, and that with every kidnapping, murder, and bombing, the guerrillas themselves were untying the last cords of professional military restraint.5 In his book, Timerman describes in moving terms his own gradual disillusionment with this process, which was very far from what he had in mind in supporting the coup (“to terminate the violence of both the Left and Right . . . to curb terrorism through legal channels”), a disillusionment which, he says, led him to begin systematically publishing the names of desaparecidos (literally, “persons who have disappeared”; persons abducted without due process), until his newspaper was shut down and he himself joined the ranks of Argentina’s growing army of political prisoners.

What he does not mention, however, is a little episode which occurred in early April 1977—that is to say, about the time of his arrest. A young Argentine Jewish banker with connections in Belgian and American financial circles, by the name of David Graiver—who happened to be Timer-man’s principal partner in the ownership of La Opinión—was forced to declare the bankruptcy of his New York operations, which centered around the American Bank and Trust Company. Graiver himself is alleged to have died shortly thereafter in a mysterious plane crash in Mexico. The rest of the story, reported at the time by leading journals in the United States, has been told by a former Israeli diplomat with broad experience in South America:

Graiver’s wife . . . returned from Mexico to Buenos Aires in order to liquidate her husband’s Argentinian holdings. One day, she received an unannounced visit from Colonel Camps, chief of police of the Province of [Buenos Aires]. The Colonel and those who accompanied him did not wear their uniforms, but Mrs. Graiver recognized their military gait and made a fateful mistake. “But we have to let you know,” she said, “that you have nothing to worry about! Your money is safe!” She believed she was speaking to a delegation of the Montoneros, the country’s strongest and wealthiest guerrilla movement. Colonel Camps perked up his ears: what money was Mrs. Graiver speaking about? . . .

[The Montoneros, it appeared, had] picked Graiver as their secret investment broker. Why Graiver? They had been “in business” with him—they had kidnapped his son and had received his ransom.

[With this apparent discovery], all members of the Graiver family, including his parents, were arrested. And so was, on April 15, 1977, a business partner of David Graiver—Jacobo Timerman. Guilt by association? To the military mind it did not seem far-fetched that Timerman should have known of the Graiver-Montoneros connection.6

Understandably, Timerman has no desire to raise this matter; in fact, he prefers not to discuss it at all. But he has provided some rather convincing indirect evidence that it is far from irrelevant. During his recent trip to the United States, when pressed to explain his connections with Graiver by a generally sympathetic interviewer for the Wall Street Journal, the best Timerman could manage was the statement: “The questions you are asking me . . . these are the questions they were asking me when I was tortured.” Just so.7

The Graiver piece of the puzzle fits admirably well with the next, which Timerman does provide—namely, an account of the extraordinary conflict and confusion which his case provoked within the highest ranks of the Argentine army. On one level, it was by no means clear that Timerman was guilty of subversive activities, a caveat which carried considerable weight with President Videla. On another, Timerman had excellent connections with the highest ranks of the military—so much so, in fact, that had his enemies within the high command not prevailed, the defense counsel at his “trial” would have been none other than Lieutenant General Alejandro Lanusse, a member of one of the nation’s most socially distinguished families, and President of Argentina from 1971 to 1973! On yet another, Timerman admits that in his own mind he was never sure President Videla even knew about plans to arrest him until it was too late.

Why, then, did not the President merely recognize that an error had been made and rectify it by signing a release order, or, at the very least assure Timerman of the benefits of due process? The answer to that question is extraordinarily interesting, and Timerman does not hesitate to give it. After the fall of Isabel Perón, each intelligence branch of the armed forces undertook its own counter-guerrilla operation. Various military leaders became, in Timerman’s telling, virtual warlords in zones under their control, “whereupon the chaotic, anarchistic terrorism of the Left and of the fascist death squads gave way to intrinsic, systematized, rationally planned terrorism.” But this was not a development that occurred without difficulty, for over the question of how to carry out counter-guerrilla operations the Argentine military leadership split into two factions—“moderates” and “extremists.”

The “moderates”—the term, please note, is Timerman’s, not Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s or my own—“strove to accomplish peaceful acts. . . . They were, are, and will always be opposed to all excesses.” The problem was that “the moderates of the military revolution had . . . been unable to gain control over repression or over, in many instances, the official operation of parallel justice.” Timerman believes that he was kidnapped by the “extremist” sector of the army, but that, far from approving the act, President Videla and (now President, then Army Commander) General Roberto Viola “tried to convert my disappearance into an arrest in order to save my life.”

One can, of course, deplore the inability of Generals Videla and Viola to master the situation effectively, and even comprehend the obloquy to which both men have been subjected in the Western liberal press; after all, with whom else could one inquire after the fate of Timerman save the duly constituted and diplomatically recognized authorities? And yet. . . . Although as his book winds to its close Timerman uses ever more frequently the term “Nazi” to describe the present Argentine state, his description of its inner workings evokes not the memoirs of Albert Speer but a ramshackle Balkan kingdom designed by Borges or Kafka. Here Timerman was, a political prisoner in a country whose president and army commander were fairly good personal friends of his, two generals whose own position in the tangled web of military politics required them to pretend to be less concerned over Timerman’s fate than they really were; both men had to defend before world opinion and multilateral diplomatic inquiry an abduction of which they did not approve; and finally, they had to utilize the lever of international pressure so as to appear “forced” to do what they undoubtedly wished to do anyway, but not in so humiliating a fashion as to lose all credibility before their fellow officers.

While Timerman remained under house arrest, a complicated series of negotiations was carried out in barracks and service clubs, in suburban villas and in the windowless buildings that housed the various intelligence services. In the end General Videla just barely survived the process; forty-eight hours after Timerman’s release, the government had to quell a military uprising in the city of Córdoba, led by “extremists” bitterly disappointed at the result.



In all of these events, to expect no appearance whatever of the “Jewish question” would simply be too much to hope for. But if Timerman offers some chilling insights into the nature of Argentine anti-Semitism, he does not resolve very clearly whether his Jewish identity was a particularly wounding misfortune, or the secret amulet which saved his life. Or rather, he holds out both possibilities, which, for all their untidiness side by side, probably comes closest to the truth. But let us take this matter by parts.

It is certainly true that anti-Semitism exists in Argentina, although precisely how serious a problem it is cannot be fixed with certainty. Even Argentina’s Jews themselves, who should be the leading experts on the subject, have never been able to agree; outsiders therefore can only offer impressions. In certain ways it might be said that the contemporary position of Jews in that country resembles that of the community in the United States during the 1920’s. Comparisons of this sort are of course inevitably imperfect: for example, Argentine universities are free of restrictive admissions practices; even the most luxurious hotels and resorts do not generally refuse admission to Jews; and Jews may live in any neighborhood in which they can afford to rent or buy. Withal, there is still considerable social and business discrimination which nonetheless has not prevented some outstanding individuals (Timer-man among them) from making their way to the top. Perhaps the United States in 1929 or 1935, but not Germany—in 1934 or any time thereafter.

This still leaves plenty to discuss and deplore, but again, one must define clearly the boundaries of the subject. The political culture of the extreme Right in Argentina has always included anti-Semitism, but in spite of that country’s many military governments since 1930, these people have had surprisingly little influence on the welfare (or lack of it) of the Jewish community. Instead, they have languished in a curious cul-de-sac of “historical institutes,” little magazines, musty parish houses, and, in recent times, in right-wing “action” groups and among certain formations of the police. For these people, miraculously preserved in the spiritual atmosphere of the year 1937, Communism, Zionism, labor unions, free love, and Hollywood films are all of a piece, and nothing which has happened in the last two decades, not even the international campaign against Israel orchestrated by the Communist bloc, has attracted their notice. These are the people into whose hands Timerman had the misfortune to fall during his first six months of confinement, and it was their residual influence at the higher ranks of the military which imparted the specifically anti-Semitic overtones to his trial (though not, it must be emphasized, to the actual outcome of that event).

But if the far Right in Argentina has failed to discern the difference between Communism and Zionism, the extreme Left has not, and this notwithstanding the fact that quite a few extreme Left groups have harbored Jewish members. Among the Montoneros, the ERP, and their analogues, as Timerman acutely observes, “hatred of the Jew adds a spicy and delicious ingredient into the struggle for World Revolution.” To which he adds, with extraordinary insight, that

the Jew can satisfy [the] quota of irrational hatred required by every human being but which systematized ideology such as the extreme Left is unable to acknowledge in its relationship with society. Therefore, why not leave the window open, at least a crack, to allow that hatred to filter in? And against whom else if not the Jew?

This is more than a literary point, since Timer-man reveals that, prior to his abduction, he had received death threats from both groups—on one occasion, in the same day’s mail—and that he remains convinced to this day that if the Left had managed to seize power in Argentina, “I would have been placed against the wall and shot, following a summary trial. The charge: counterrevolutionary Zionism.”

Does the fact that he fell into the hands of the extreme Right rather than the extreme Left make any difference? It would seem so. In Timerman’s telling, there are no palms of mercy to be distributed among his captors, since he believes they spared his life only because they had decided he could be more useful alive, “confessing” leftist Zionist connections with left-wing Argentine terrorism. Then, at last, these people would be granted the pogrom that so many previous military regimes had denied them.

Perhaps this is indeed an accurate reconstruction of the mind-set of his tormentors. But note: no such connection was established. The military court was compelled to dismiss the charges against Timerman, and meanwhile an international campaign enlisting the support of such august personages as the President of the United States and the Pope put sufficient pressure on the Argentine government to effect Timerman’s eventual release. It is not a frivolous exercise to speculate upon what constellation of forces, domestic and foreign, would have been capable of restraining the hands of the ERP had they been successful in their plans to abduct him.



Meanwhile, what was happening beyond the prison gates? This question is utterly crucial, for upon it hinges the precise political nature of the military regime. At times Timerman resorts to metaphors used to describe typically totalitarian societies—people paralyzed by fear, afraid to acknowledge even their best friends should the latter fall afoul of the Machine. But at other times, and rather more often, it seems to me, he suggests that whatever his own difficulties (and those of his fellow prisoners) life in the world outside simply went on much as it always had—and with few exceptions, the business community, the press, the political parties, and other civic forces willingly accepted the stewardship of the military, excesses and all, as a costly but necessary sacrifice.

This version is of course less flattering to his countrymen than the first, but it is also pregnant with an embarrassing possibility—that in spite of the wave of right-wing terror centered in certain places of detention, in Argentine society as a whole the regime confined its interests to peace and public order (as it chose to define them, of course) rather than extending them to a reshaping of institutions along totalitarian lines. This still did not make that country an object worthy of admiration by liberal democrats in 1977, but for most Argentines, including, it must be said, one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, it was not an intolerable place to live.

This last piece of information is very inconvenient, for how can what Timerman repeatedly refers to as a resurrection of the “Nazi state” permit Jews not only to exist within its borders, but even to prosper? To resolve this contradiction, he introduces a bizarre concept which might be described as Holocaust-by-Installments, a notion which also allows him to ventilate all of his resentments against the organized Jewish community in Argentina. Here are some samples of his reasoning:

The point of reference for the Jewish leaders of Buenos Aires, as for Jewish leaders in many parts of the world, is the horror of the Holocaust. . . .

For me, the point of reference is equally the responsibility of Jews in the face of any anti-Semitic act. The point of reference is Jewish action; the Jewish silence of the Hitler years towards Hitler’s acts.

I was never able to understand how the horrors of the Holocaust could diminish the significance of the violation of Jewish girls in clandestine Argentine prisons. . . .

To my mind, always the incorporation of the Holocaust into my life meant never to allow the Argentine police to feel that they were authorized to humiliate Jewish prisoners. I never imagined that there would be Jewish leaders who would utilize the horrors of the Holocaust to maintain that the most advantageous response to certain anti-Semitic aggressions of a much less brutal nature was silence [emphasis added].

From this tendentious point—of which more below—Timerman jumps to a comparison between the Jews of Argentina and the German Jewish community in 1938. Needless to say, the former do not come out very well, their leaders likened to the Judenräte of Nazi-occupied Europe, that tragic mechanism by which the Germans during World War II utilized existing Jewish bodies to organize the transshipment of their co-religionists to “the East,” never to return.

But is this in fact what has been going on in Argentina during the last five or six years? It is true that, as Timerman says, “the Argentine military, as in Germany, has seized banks, business firms, jewelry, properties, and furnishings belonging to persecuted Jews.” He does not mention, however, that the same regime has conficated the assets of “persecuted Gentiles.” For the truth is that the criterion of “persecution” has not been ethnic identity but subversion, real or imagined. This makes life no more pleasant for the “persecuted” (many of whom were actually guilty, however wrongly treated they have been from a judicial point of view), but it introduces a massive distinction which Timerman has no right to blur.

Nor is it a fact that the Argentine military is systematically—or unsystematically, for that matter—eradicating the Jewish population of that country. It should be unnecessary to have to say this, but none of the mechanisms associated with the Holocaust, including forced identification, racial “passports,” restrictions on professional and economic life, exclusion from educational institutions, much less forced labor camps or extermination centers—is in operation or formation. The Jewish Agency and a large Israeli diplomatic mission pursue their activities unobstructed, indeed indirectly assisted by the host government. Nor are Jews who wish to emigrate to Israel, the United States, or elsewhere prohibited from departing with all of their property intact and their liquid assets freely convertible into any currency.

This still leaves much to be desired in the lives of those who remain (as the leaders whom Timer-man attacks for their “silence” have been the first to admit), and it may well be that those who have fallen afoul of the forces of order have consistently suffered, as Timerman claims, with redoubled intensity because of the fact that they are Jewish. Police brutality toward prisoners, whether inspired by racial hatred or ideological differences, is always worth protesting, but it serves no useful purpose to distort the true dimensions of the problem: it cheapens the lives of those exterminated in Central and Eastern Europe, while doing less than nothing to alleviate the suffering of those political prisoners in Argentina who happen to be Jewish.

This still leaves the pièce de résistance: the statement attributed by Timerman to Dr. Nehemias Reznitsky, president of the political umbrella organization of the Argentine Jewish community, that not all anti-Semitic acts ought to be protested, “for that would create a confrontation with highly powerful sectors of the army. There was a better tactic: to protest some and maintain silence over others, in an attempt to negotiate and survive.” On this point, Dr. Reznitsky will have to have his own day in court. But perhaps an outsider may be permitted this one observation: some of the Jews arrested in the anti-guerrilla campaign did in fact have connections with the violent Left. Others were legitimate objects of suspicion. Still others were innocent. Can the leaders of the Jewish community be faulted for respecting these differences and proceeding on each case according to its separate merits? In a society with a functioning judicial system and civilian control of the police, the process would require fewer compromises and less tortured maneuvering. But the breakdown of civilian government in Argentina was not the fault of either the generals or the Jews; and if some of the latter suffered at the hands of some of the former, the ultimate responsibility lies not with the leadership of the Jewish community, but with those anxious, neurotic young men and women who—in Timerman’s words—converted “terrorism and violence” into “the sole creative potential, the sole imaginative, emotional, erotic expression of a nation.”



Let us try to do the sums of this remarkably complex problem. Jacobo Timerman was not kidnapped because he was a Jew, or probably even because he was protesting the conduct of Argentina’s security forces, but because his business partner was discovered to have intimate connections with one of the most important left-wing guerrilla organizations in the country. Although innocent, Timerman was treated with unspeakable cruelty for about six months, undergoing a process which was all the harsher because of the outspoken anti-Semitism of his captors. He was not, however, a great defender of liberal democratic values (who in Argentina in those days was?) and he was not brought to trial for that reason. Rather, Timerman was an exceptionally able political speculator who had played his game with remarkable agility until an accidental revelation pushed him off his balance and sent him into the maelstrom of terror and counter-terror which followed the death of Perón. His experiences in Argentine prisons reveal the mistreatment of Jewish prisoners because they are Jewish, but his book does not establish—not by ten country miles—that people are arrested because they are Jewish. No “final solution” is under way in Argentina.

Now it would be unconscionable for this reason to minimize in any way the personal suffering which Timerman underwent. To any prisoner a place of detention is a totalitarian society by definition, and Timerman’s more than most: in one of the very few moments of black humor in an otherwise uniformly depressing book, he describes the “national security school” in which inmates, guards, and orderlies all sat side-by-side, diligently pursuing the three R’s of “anti-Communism.” If for Timerman the difference between an authoritarian and totalitarian government was not immediately apparent, he can certainly be forgiven. Still and all, there was no show trial at which he confessed a guilt which was not his, and in the end he was in fact released.

Where does this leave the rest of us? Foreign-policy decisions are always exercises in choice, for Americans usually between unpalatable alternatives. It was precisely to assist in those difficult choices that Jeane Kirkpatrick tried to formulate in these pages (she did not and could not have “invented”) the distinction between two completely different kinds of dictatorship.8 The key to that difference was not how regimes treated their political prisoners, but where the boundaries of the jail were located. In societies like Cuba or the German Democratic Republic, the prison walls are virtually coterminous with the nation’s geographical limits, and when a door is suddenly pushed ajar (as it was at the Peruvian embassy in Havana last year) countless thousands react precisely the way that convicts could be expected to respond in a similar situation—they stampede unceremoniously to freedom.



Countries like Argentina are different, and the difference begins with the fact that they have no “boat people.” Whatever horrors occur in the places of confinement (and the proper response to these is neither complacency nor rationalization), in the very texture of life, wide areas of personal, spiritual, and political and economic freedom are allowed to persist and expand. It is unfortunate, to say the very least, to have to measure the “improvement” of human rights in that society (or any like it) by cataloguing the annually decreasing number of violations, but that diminishing statistic is still a sign of progress—and of hope. One longs for such auspicious auguries from societies which the liberal press thinks more worthy of our conciliatory efforts.

There will always be a difference of opinion over the most effective method of protesting cases such as Timerman’s, but simply to label an authoritarian military regime as virtually indistinguishable from something it is not—namely, a totalitarian state along Nazi or Soviet lines—is to write off several thousand political prisoners, harden the determination of their captors to resist outside pressures on their behalf, and consign the resolution of matters to an eventuality which is not about to occur—a foreign invasion of Argentina to depose the existing authorities and open the jails.9

In an emotional outburst published in the Times (May 17, 1981) several days after his review of Timerman’s book, Anthony Lewis returned to the subject by insisting that our relations with Argentina turned about the question of “our own soul.” Are things at such a point, he asked, “that we Americans must enlist torturers and murderers as allies, and proclaim their values, their God, as ours?. . . What kind of country are we?” We are this kind of country: one that must balance our highest ideals against the world we find outside our borders, a world in which most other nations, including the sanctimonious Swedes and the hypocritical French, ask no questions as long as they can make a sale; a country which is locked in a struggle of incalculable consequence with a major world power that is also, as Anthony Lewis well knows, courting the same men he refers to as “torturers and murderers.”

If the sole purpose of foreign policy were to make us feel good about ourselves, we could gladly concede the Soviets their Argentine prize; in practice, however, even Jimmy Carter concluded that this was a luxury we could not afford. If our Argentine options are both nearly (but not precisely) equally repugnant, the blame should be placed squarely upon the shoulders of those to whom it belongs—not our elected officials, but those Argentines (“alienated youth,” “Third World” priests, leftist gangsters, and irresponsible politicians) who narrowed the range of possibilities by destroying their country’s only civilian, democratic option (with all its warts) in nearly a generation, bringing to the surface a subcutaneous culture of police brutality and anti-Semitism which could well have remained where it was for an indefinite period.

That is the real significance of the Timerman case, and one can only hope that some day the point will be grasped as firmly in the editorial offices of Washington and New York as it already is in Buenos Aires.


1 Knopf, 164 pp., $10.95.

2 This was the case of Eliot Fremont-Smith, who reviewed the book for the Village Voice (“Killing Jews,” May 13-19, 1981). To his credit, Fremont-Smith brought his doubts to the surface, noting the particular paradox of the “Nazi state” being provisioned by Israel arms.

3 One serious difference between Le Monde and La Opinión was that the latter never carried on a flirtation with the Palestinians. But—quite apart from Timerman's own heritage and commitments—this was not a particularly heterodox position for a newspaper in the Peronist mainstream. Perón himself had always been moderately friendly to Israel, and in fact during his presidency, 1973—74, Argentine delegations generally refused to subscribe to “anti-Zionist” resolutions retailed at the United Nations and at conferences of the “nonaligned.”

4 It has been reported that Timerman's “excellent connections” in the government and the labor unions made it possible for him to compel the German-language daily Argentinisches Tageblatt to print La Opinión for four years below cost, a figure estimated in 1975 to represent $40,000 a month. See Benno Weiser Varon, “Don't Rescue Latin American Jews,” Midstream, December 1980.

5 Perhaps indeed there were some Left guerrillas who imagined that by provoking wholesale repression, the Argentine population would be properly “radicalized” and eventually respond to a call for a general uprising. If so, they were profoundly mistaken.

6 Varon, op. cit.

7 Seth Lipsky, “A Conversation with Publisher Jacobo Timerman,” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 1981.

8 “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” November 1979.

9 In an op-ed page article endorsing Timerman's portrait of Argentina's rulers and calling the regime there “a new kind of totalitarianism,” Robert Cox, editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires Herald, actually goes on to describe something very nearly the opposite of totalitarian rule: “If labels must be applied, Argentina could best be described as feudalistic and anarchic. . . . The tragedy stems from the fact that central authority, and the responsibility that goes with it, has never been established by the moderates in the military. . .” (New York Times, June 9, 1981). Here then is yet another, if perhaps inadvertent, confirmation of the usefulness of the distinction.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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