Elder of Zion

Malcolm Deas

  • Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number by Jacobo Timerman, translated by Toby Talbot
    Weidenfeld, 164 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 297 77995 8

Jacobo Timerman was formerly a Buenos Aires newspaper proprietor and editor. He was arrested in April 1977, tortured and held for two years in unofficial and official jails, and finally under house arrest. With the publication of his book Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number, the caso Timerman has become a cause célèbre in the United States as well as in Argentina.

Jacobo Timerman was born in Bar in the Ukraine in 1923, and was brought to Argentina by his parents in 1928. From those humble Jewish immigrant origins he made a successful career for himself in Buenos Aires as a journalist and later as a proprietor of periodicals. In 1971 he founded a newspaper, La Opinion.

Timerman was no stranger to the coulisses of Argentine politics, and can fairly be called a participant as well as a commentator. Robert Cox of the Buenos Aires Herald, who writes with the authority of a fellow editor whose support for Timerman never wavered, says that ‘La Opinion gave lukewarm support for human rights and ... maintained weathervane policies according to the views of governments in power at the time.’ Timerman acknowledges that he had extensive contacts with Argentine military men – he would hardly have been able to function so successfully without them. He was particularly close to President Alejandro Lanusse. Like practically everyone else, he supported the 1976 coup that ended the presidency of Isabel Peron. This was not the first coup he had supported.

He was abducted next year in the common fashion by plain-clothes agents, in his case claiming to be from the Tenth Infantry Brigade of Buenos Aires. He was not singled out as a defender of human rights but as a possible source of information that could discredit such ‘moderate’ influences in the Armed Forces, both active and retired, as Generals Videla, Viola and Lanusse. His captors hoped that he might provide evidence to link them to the ‘banker’ of the Montonero guerrillas, David Graiver. He might reveal contacts with subversives, conspiracies of ‘economic subversion’. Some of his interrogators and military judges believed that he would reveal himself as ‘one of the sages of Zion, a central axis of the Jewish anti-Argentine conspiracy’.

He was tortured for months. He explains his survival as the paradoxical result of this last mad belief:

I was captured by the extremist sector of the Army. From the outset, President Rafael Videla and General Roberto Viola tried to convert my disappearance into an arrest in order to save my life. They did not succeed. My life was spared because this extremist sector was also the heart of Nazi operations in Argentina. From the very first interrogation, they figured they had found what they had been looking for for so long: one of the sages of Zion.

‘I kept going and here I am’: the Argentine Supreme Court eventually ordered Timerman’s release, as no charges had been brought against him. He was freed when both the Supreme Court judges and President Videla threatened to resign if he was held any longer. Even then the Junta did not choose to accept the Supreme Court decision, but took the arbitrary course of depriving him of his citizenship and expelling him from the country. He describes his departure even then as hazardous – 15 minutes after he had left for the airport with a variety of competing escorts, a squad arrived at his flat with the intention of making sure he did not go. He is now an Israeli citizen and lives and works in Tel Aviv.

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