Timerman and His Enemies

Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number

by Jacobo Timerman, translated by Toby Talbot
Knopf, 164 pp., $10.95

No one had to impose my enemies on me. I selected them myself. I didn’t avoid them: I pointed them out, marked them, attacked them.” Jacobo Timerman is, by all accounts, a brave, irascible, and combative man. It is nevertheless not entirely true that he selected his enemies himself. As he learned in the prisons of Argentina, Jews don’t yet have that historic privilege. His eloquent book reminds us again of how awful it is to be “chosen”—by left-wing terrorists and right-wing policemen, by revolutionaries and generals. But it is true that Timerman embraced the battles that were imposed upon him, promptly and passionately, and then sought out others. He is a man whom we are likely to know best, whose political and moral stature we will most accurately estimate, if we consider the list of his enemies.

The Terrorists. In his essay “The Return of Eva Perón,” V.S. Naipaul quotes an Argentine trade unionist on torture. “Depende de quien sea torturado. It depends on who is tortured. An evildoer, that’s all right. But a man who’s trying to save his country—that’s something else. Torture isn’t only the electric prod, you know. Poverty is torture, frustration is torture.”1 That kind of talk is common enough—not only on what passes for the left—doublethink a dozen years before its time (Naipaul was writing in 1972). Terror is defended in the same way: “Violence, in the hands of the people, isn’t violence,” said Juan Perón. “It is justice.” Timerman is a man of the left who has steadily resisted this corruption of language and morality. He saw the terrorism of left-wing Peronistas and Trotskyites as embodying one kind of fascist ideology and the terrorism of paramilitary and parapolice groups as embodying another. And he said so again and again in his newspaper La Opinión, describing the murders and kidnapings, naming names.

The two fascisms”—I can’t think of a better description of the struggle for power in much of the third world. Two imitative ideologies, “devoid of German precision,’ but spiced with Latin American eroticism,” two expressions of contempt for democracy, two excuses for a politics of terror. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Irving Kristol has described Timerman as a spokesman for those who attack only the authoritarians of the right, not the totalitarians of the left.2 That’s not a line that can make much sense of the two fascisms, and it is surely to Timerman’s credit that he refused to draw it. One day, in the same mail, he received death threats from a rightist paramilitary group and a Trotskyite “army”—and published them both the next morning, wondering which organization would wind up with his corpse. “After all, it was a question of only one corpse….” The rightists were, of course, more likely to come to power and then to establish an alliance with the United States and the “free world.” No doubt, he should have offered his corpse to them.

Timerman is a leftist of a special sort, a left Zionist. He grew up in a Jewish community heavily secularist and socialist—Mapai and Mapam, parties named for their Israeli counterparts, won 53 percent of the votes in the Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina elections as late as 19693—and he has remained faithful to the politics of his parents and his childhood comrades. His enemies, then, were waiting for him almost before he knew who he was. And he responded by attacking the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism of the left as well as of the right, criticizing the PLO, publishing extensive reports on Russian dissidents, and so on.

Many Argentine Jews, university students especially, have taken a different path, seduced by the “cosmopolitanism” of the left and then trapped by a politics that requires the repeated repudiation of their own history and the traditions of their community. Timerman is the product of those traditions, their embodiment and defender, and one would have thought that Jews the world over would recognize in him the sort of champion that the Argentine community needed (and still needs), capable of rallying its young intellectuals. But Timerman is a difficult man. If he condemns the PLO, he is also critical of right-wing governments wherever they appear, even in Israel. He draws his own line. The Argentine generals did not understand him either.

The Generals. In 1975 and 1976, Timerman called for and then supported a military takeover in Argentina. The country was then ruled by the incompetent Isabel Perón and her Rasputin, López Rega, and beset by the two fascisms. Timerman argued that only the army could carry out the necessary repression, and he persuaded himself, at least, that it was prepared to do this within the limits of the law. He was something of a macher in those days, a maker and doer, proud of his contacts with powerful and influential men. As Machiavelli boasted of his conversations with Cesare Borgia, so Timerman with his generals. It was a miscalculation.

In fact, the army was already heavily infiltrated by and entangled with the right-wing paramilitary groups. The officers had a world view, and it wasn’t legalist. They were committed to repressing only the fascists of the left, and they didn’t call them that, since “fascist” was a name that many of them admired. And they had a tough-minded view of what repression required—a view nicely summarized and rather surprisingly endorsed by Professor Mark Falcoff in a recent issue of Commentary:4

After the coup…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.

Professor Falcoff is obviously tempted to mince words: notice the odd juxtaposition of “necessarily the case” and the two “oftens.” But in the end he comes through bravely, with a faint hint that we might have won in Vietnam too if only we had had the will. He gives us a good example of what Auden must have meant by “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” (We can imagine for ourselves the boring meetings where the generals discuss the Zionist conspiracy.)

What Falcoff describes is the policy of every terrorist government, beginning (in the modern period) with the Committee of Public Safety and the 1793 Law of Suspects. The abolition of innocence is the prerequisite of a successful Terror, and it is always accompanied by the ideological multiplication, not so much of suspicious persons as of whole categories of suspects—in Argentina, liberal journalists, psychoanalysts, Jewish students, and so on. So the “chaotic, anarchistic, irrational” violence of the two fascisms was succeeded by “intrinsic, systematized, rationally planned terrorism.” But the system was a complicated one. The government that presided over it kept its official distance and closed its official eyes. Its leaders were “moderates,” its agents “extremists.” A nice division of labor: “Each officer of a military region,” writes Timerman, “had his own prisoners, prisons, and form of justice, and even the central power was unable to request the freedom of an individual when importuned by international pressure.”

Then the disappearances began. Men and women were “arrested” in the middle of the night, blindfolded, thrown into the back seat of one of the “killer cars,” Ford Falcons, made in Argentina, “a sturdy small car,” writes Naipaul, “there are thousands on the road. But the killer Falcons are easily recognizable. They have no number plates.” 5 And the killers who ride in them don’t wear badges or carry warrants or bother with bookings and charges. Their captives simply vanish. Months later, perhaps, their bodies are found, dumped on a garbage heap, washed ashore on a Uruguayan beach. Some 15,000 are still unheard from, missing, probably dead. Timerman began to publish the names of the missing and to demand an accounting from the government. He was never sure that this did any good. A few captives were released; others, it seems certain, were hastily shot. He printed the desperate appeals of parents, relatives, and friends. The alternative, he thought, was to close down the paper and run away. The generals told him to stop. He did not stop. And in April, 1977, the killer cars came for him.

Timerman was convinced that he was arrested because of the policies of his paper: “…in view of the sort of journalism I practiced, the possibility of my arrest and assassination fit into the rules of the game.” But his captors—“You’re a prisoner of the First Army Corps in action”—had what is called today an agenda of their own. They decided that they held in their hands the Argentine representative of the international Jewish conspiracy. And they drew him into a nightmare world of insane and (so we might be tempted to think) idiotic hatred.

It is easy to laugh at the Argentine generals and to portray them as pro-foundly silly men. For they believe, and some of them at least really believe, that there is a Jewish plot to seize Patagonia (with leftist guerrillas and Israeli paratroopers) and create a second Jewish state, that Menachem Begin has met with and given lessons to the Montonero terrorists, that the Jews control the Kremlin, and so on. But this is one of those cases that disproves Marx’s adage about the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The anti-Semitism of the generals is ugly and vicious, and it is dangerous too, for however imitative it is, it can itself be imitated.

Timerman describes the shock, the surprise, the sadness of ancient knowledge renewed. “In the clandestine prisons, and then in the official prisons of Argentina, they pounded it into my skin, my head, my bones: We Jews still occupy the same place in history. We have that place reserved.” How is it possible? Only a little more than three decades after the defeat of the Nazis, a middle-aged journalist is strapped to a table and jolted with electric shocks, while uniformed men, under a picture of Hitler, scream at him, “Jew, Jew, Jew!” Weren’t we done with all that? The very memory had begun to seem like self-pity. Timerman asks, “Was [the fact of my Jewishness] really important? Most of those killed were not Jews, and if we continue to feel sorry for ourselves as Jews, we will end up being hated by the non-Jewish victims…. But in the solitude of prison, it is so sad to be beaten for being Jewish. There is such despair when they torture you for being Jewish.”

So it is important. That Jews are treated with especial cruelty in Argentina’s prisons is not only Timerman’s claim but the testimony of Jewish and non-Jewish victims alike. The moral relation to the non-Jew is straightforward, adversarial, deadly. But there is something different, something twisted, in the relation to the Jew. “Amid moments of hatred, when the enemy must be hated in order for him to be broken, hatred of the Jew was visceral, explosive, a supernatural bolt, a gut excitement, the sense of one’s entire being abandoned to hatred.”

Perhaps some last restraint is broken through here; perhaps anti-Semitism gives to the torturer a sense of complete freedom, utter release, no inhibition. There are so many reasons, after all, for hating the Jews, old and new reasons, religious and secular ones. The bizarre ideology of the generals is only frosting to this cake.

And who are these generals who sponsor and patronize (and profess in public to be offended by) the netherworld Timerman describes? They are the good authoritarians of contemporary neoconservative political thought. One might argue, I suppose, that the category doesn’t fit. Kristol writes: “Totalitarian regimes impose an ideological orthodoxy on culture, education, and all media; authoritarian regimes generally have no such orthodoxy to impose.” He is smart to hedge his bets with that “generally”—for here is Timerman’s account of the regime of the generals:

The Argentine military government officially imposed strict moral codes of censorship on films, theatrical and literary works. It modified university curriculums, eliminating majors in sociology, philosophy, and psychology. It forbade the use of Freudian techniques in psychiatric services inside state hospitals [and just to make sure, it murdered most of Argentina’s analysts]. It imposed obligatory Catholic education on pupils in the secondary schools.

But this is surely the wrong argument, too distanced, too academic. In fact, Argentina’s rulers are gangsters mouthing ideology, or they are ideological gangsters. I’m not sure which; probably the gang includes some of each. The word “totalitarian” describes the ambitions of Timerman’s torturers, but these are unrealizable ambitions in what Naipaul calls the “artificial” and “half-made” country that is Argentina. And “authoritarian,” as it is used these days in Georgetown and New York, is obscenely polite. It might be a useful word for the frightened subjects of the generals in the hearing of their masters, but not for political theorists sitting safely miles away.

The Jewish Community Leaders. The most frightened subjects of the generals are the Jews of Argentina, whose leaders have come forward, one by one, to assure us that there is no anti-Semitism or at least no Nazi-like anti-Semitism in their country. Timerman writes about them with a hot anger. Like the German Jews of the 1930s, he says, they are guilty of the crime of silence. It is a cruel comparison. But it doesn’t mean, and Timerman never says, that there is an Argentine holocaust in process or even in the making. On this point his views have been radically distorted, sometimes even by writers who claim to admire him.

The argument is simple enough: there are forms of persecution, cruelty, and terror, well short of mass murder, that require public protest. And this is especially true when there is, as there is in Argentina, an organized Jewish community with elected leaders and public spokesmen. In 1962, after a Jewish student at the University of Buenos Aires was kidnapped and mutilated, and after the police had refused even to investigate the crime, Jewish leaders called for a half-day general strike. “The response was overwhelming: almost all Jewish workers walked off their jobs at the appointed time and virtually all Jewish-owned businesses closed.” Many non-Jews joined the protest.6 In the last few years, however, there have been hundreds of similar incidents and no strikes, no resistance, only silence and denial.

The reason for the change is clear. In 1962, Argentina still had a more or less democratic government. The police were only the accomplices, not yet the actual perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts. After 1976, the suspicion, fear, and hatred of Jews became official. Hence I find Professor Falcoff’s suggestion that the position of Argentine Jews “resembles that of the [Jewish] community in the United States during the 1920s” simply incredible—all the more so since Falcoff seems to believe that the Argentines are rather better off than Americans sixty years ago: “Argentine universities are free of restrictive admissions practices; even the most luxurious hotels and resorts do not generally refuse admission to Jews,” and so on. He fixes on the important things. What does it matter if a few suspected Jewish leftists are tortured?

It is especially odd to find this in Commentary, since the American Jewish Committee shut down its Buenos Aires offices in 1977 after its local representative had received repeated death threats. I don’t think that anything quite like that happened in the United States in the 1920s. Falcoff has, no doubt, a firm grip on the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but he has lost all sense of the difference between authoritarianism and democracy. Not that most Jewish leaders would defend Falcoff’s comparison. They are more concerned to deny that Argentina today is anything like a Nazi country.

But this is to set the ante too high. There is nothing reassuring about the solemn reassurances we have been hearing from Argentina: All’s well here, we have no Nuremberg laws, no gas chambers have been built! “The point of reference for the Jewish leaders of Buenos Aires,” Timerman writes, “…is the horror of the Holocaust. A gas chamber, a concentration camp, a selection made in front of crematorium ovens, is the point of reference that must determine whether the moment for…open battle against anti-Semitism has arrived. For me, the point of reference is…the responsibility of Jews in the face of any anti-Semitic act.”

It is impossible to say, Falcoff writes, how serious a problem anti-Semitism is in Argentina. In fact, we can say a great deal. We have explicit testimony about what goes on in the generals’ dungeons; we have long lists of street incidents, synagogue bombings, and cemetery desecrations; we have records of anti-Semitic programs on state-owned television. What is hard, really hard, is to know what to do. Timerman describes “a silent, frightened Jewry…that has once again found it necessary to make a pragmatic compromise with reality….” And the communal leaders who worry that his outspokenness will only make things worse confirm his argument.

Yet it may be that in their mutual accusations, Timerman and the Jewish leaders are both of them half-right. Perhaps here too a division of labor is necessary: intellectuals have to holler while officials search as best they can for accommodation. It is a humiliating business, but the pattern is not unknown in Jewish history, and it can be, it might be in this case, a pattern for survival. But Timerman is wholly right to say that we ought long ago to have seen the end of that sort of thing. If it is still necessary in Argentina, then certain conclusions follow about Argentina. And if these conclusions must be muffled inside the country, for the sake of the security and well-being of some 350,000 people, then they should surely be shouted on the outside.

American Neoconservatives. And yet the greatest muffling, the loudest chorus of denial, has not been Argentinian but American. Timerman’s book has been greeted with a campaign of discredit, rather like (though far less successful than) the Communist Party campaign against George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia—led this time by conservative intellectuals (many of whom are Jews). And supported, it seems, by the United States government: though it may be the case that this is the work of an extremist faction inside the government that doesn’t have the full support of moderates in Washington. These are the arguments against Timerman: that he exaggerates Argentine anti-Semitism, that he misdescribes the regime of the generals, that his ordeal was only an unfortunate incident in a bloody civil war, and, finally and most importantly, that he was himself a legitimate suspect (and the “distinction between terrorist and suspect”—let us not mince words—must often be surrendered if the struggle against terrorism is to be won).

A legitimate suspect: and then Benno Varon in Midstream,7 Kristol in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Falcoff in Commentary, tell us about the Graiver affair. Their source for this story can only be the Argentine government: Varon cites La Nueva Provincia, “the right-wing organ of Argentina’s army”; Falcoff, a true scholar, cites Varon. David Graiver was an Argentine Jewish financier who, in the early 1970s, when he was a junior cabinet minister, helped to set up La Opinión, acquiring a 45 percent interest in the paper. This was never a dominant interest, since Timerman himself owned or controlled the remaining 55 percent. Later on, Graiver was involved in several large-scale bank failures; he was apparently a swindler; in 1977, he died, or is said to have died, in a plane crash in Mexico. The generals allege that he also had ties with the terrorists, investing millions of dollars on behalf of the Montoneros. (All the terrorist groups, left and right, were wealthy, since they all collected ransom money or extortion payments from the same Argentine businessmen.)

Timerman would have been well-advised to anticipate that questions about Graiver would be raised when his book was published and to have said something about him. But these are allegations for which no proof or serious evidence has ever been offered by the Argentine government or by Timerman’s other accusers. (The government, to be sure, has never paid much attention to demands for evidence.) And even if the allegations were true, they provide neither an excuse for Timerman’s “arrest” and torture, nor an explanation for the leading interest of his captors, whose interrogations regularly began with the question, “Are you a Jew?”

Whatever Graiver’s politics, Timerman’s were well-known. He was a consistent enemy of both the Montoneros and the right-wing terrorists, a publisher who had “personally signed articles…accusing terrorist leaders, by name, of specific crimes.” At his interrogation by Special War Council No. 2, the president of the Council argued: “Some people say you did this to conceal your true activities.” Timerman replied: “That’s a childish statement, Mr. President.” American neoconservatives are not children, so they stop short of repeating the president’s argument. They merely insinuate that something like it might be true…or that the generals might have had good reason to think it true….

All this is beneath contempt.8 What purpose can it possibly serve? Some of the American Jewish leaders who have joined the anti-Timerman campaign must be hoping to curry favor with their own government, our government, the new Reagan administration. Their public statements suggest that even where there are no royal courts, there are still court Jews. But most of the neoconservatives are acting out a certain sort of cold-war politics. They are at war with communism, sometimes with the left generally, and the discrediting of Timerman, some of them must feel, is an unfortunate requirement of this war. It is required not so much because Timerman is a man of the left as because the generals are enemies of the left, therefore allies in the war. And allies must be defended. That is the lesson we are supposed to have learned from Iran and Nicaragua. On this point, Timerman himself, an advocate, as I have said, of the 1976 military takeover, is nothing if not a realist. Kristol manages to suggest that he wants us to write off Argentina, “excommunicate it, so to speak, from the community of nations.” I have searched in vain for anything in Timerman’s book that could warrant such a suggestion. What Timerman says is that public pressure on the “moderates” might force them to live up to their name—and that nothing else will do so.

Neoconservative writers don’t claim that the generals have not committed crimes, only that they have committed crimes in a good cause, necessary crimes. “The members of the Argentine military,” writes Timerman, “claim…that the war against terrorism was imposed upon them, in which case, methods matter less than destiny.” This, I think, is Falcoff’s view, and Kristol’s too. “Ultimate responsibility” for the breakdown of civilian government, Falcoff writes, lies with the left-wing terrorists. The blame must be placed squarely on their shoulders: they brought to the surface “a subcutaneous culture of police brutality and anti-Semitism which could well have remained where it was for an indefinite period.” The fascists of the right are effectively the creation of the fascists of the left. The Argentine civil war, writes Kristol, “was started by kidnappings and assassinations on a major scale by the Montoneros….”

I don’t know which gang in fact carried out the first assassination or the first kidnapping, but it is surely false to suggest that there was only one gang. Falcoff quotes the relevant passage from Timerman, though he manages to elude its implications: “Co-existing in Argentina were: rural and urban Trotskyite guerrillas; right-wing Perónist death squads; armed terrorist groups of the large labor unions;…paramilitary army groups;…para-police groups of both the Left and the Right;…and terrorist groups of Catholic rightists….” The military government “won” the civil war by repressing one set of terrorist organizations and incorporating the other. This simplified the conflict—and only after this simplification did it fit nicely into neoconservative ideology.

But as an explanation of governmental anti-Semitism, the Kristol-Falcoff account is wholly tendentious. Argentine Jews have lived with hostile governments on and off since the military takeover of 1930. (And there was anti-Semitism before that too, on a scale unknown in the United States: in January, 1919, for example, the Semana Trágica, a week of pogroms, left hundreds of Jews dead.) The pre-Peronista military government of the early 1940s shut down all Jewish newspapers and publishing houses and banned kosher meat-processing in Buenos Aires. After the armed forces’ coup of 1966, all Jews were removed from public office “in order to cleanse the government of presumed subversive foreign elements.”9 The police raided Jewish businesses and destroyed the credit cooperatives, an important part of the financial structure of the Jewish community. And these examples all pre-date the “civil war.” Subcutaneous indeed!

Terror is very old in Argentina, and the attempt to blame all of it on the left—though I don’t doubt the ugliness of the Argentine left—is willfully misleading, the product not of historical analysis but of ideological melodrama. “With us,” wrote the great nineteenth-century historian Domingo Sarmiento, “terror is a method of government invented to crush out knowledge and force men to recognize as a thinking head, the feet which are upon their necks.”10 Writing about Buenos Aires in the 1830s, Sarmiento sounds like a contemporary: 11

It is impossible to describe the state of constant alarm with which the people lived during…this strange and systematic persecution. Frequently, without any apparent cause, people were seen running through the streets, the noise of closing doors was heard from house to house; some whisper had passed around—someone had observed a suspicious group of men, or the clatter of hoofs had been heard.

Only now the Falcon has replaced the horse. This isn’t a political culture to which the cold war gives a clue.

With the exception of the Jewish community leaders, who must live with a terrible ambiguity, all of Timerman’s enemies are great simplifiers. Whatever their ideology, they share what Timerman calls a “mentality.” “The chief obsession of the totalitarian mind lies in its need for the world to be clearcut and orderly. Any subtlety, contradiction, or complexity upsets and confuses this notion and becomes intolerable.” Timerman as a Zionist and a leftist is intolerable to the Trotskyites; as a critic of left- and right-wing terrorism, he is intolerable to the generals; as an opponent of “authoritarian” as well as “totalitarian” governments, he is intolerable to the neoconservatives. A difficult man. Moreover, his judgments are often harsh; his tone in argument, I would guess, unmodulated. But the paired commitments I have just listed seem admirable to me, and it is impossible to read this proud and piercing account of his suffering and his battles without wanting to be counted as one of Timerman’s friends.

  1. 1

    The Return of Eva Perón, With the Killings in Trinidad (Knopf, 1980), p. 112.

  2. 2

    May 29, 1981.

  3. 3

    Robert Weisbrot, The Jews of Argentina: From the Inquisition to Perón (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979), p. 93.

  4. 4

    The Timerman Case,” July, 1981.

  5. 5

    The Return of Eva Perón, p. 157.

  6. 6

    Weisbrot, p. 253.

  7. 7

    Don’t Rescue Latin American Jews!”, December, 1980.

  8. 8

    I am sure that there are neoconservative intellectuals who inwardly dissent from the attacks upon Timerman. Why don’t they speak out?

  9. 9

    Weisbrot, p. 259.

  10. 10

    Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants (1868) (Haffner Press, Collier Macmillan, 1974), p.199.

  11. 11

    Ibid., p. 227.