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.

Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number is a profound effort to understand as well as to protest against what occurred in the strange and brutal cycle of Argentine politics that began with the return of Peron in 1973. Much of the author’s success in his career as a journalist must have come from his ability as a writer, but the book is all the more eloquent and convincing for some of the defects in the author’s personality that his critics have seized on: Mr Timerman is sometimes both bombastic and evasive, a bit like Mr Toad, all too human. But it must be to his credit that he has come through such an ordeal with some conceit intact. The original Spanish version is not yet published, but the translation seems to be worthy of a careful and subtle text, to which journalists’ accounts have not done justice.

Timerman must write for a large audience that neither knows nor cares about the minutiae of Argentine politics, and must at the same time convey what those politics have been like. He succeeds in giving a number of summaries which are at once vivid, fair and modestly undogmatic. He does not simplify the years 1973-1976:

  Co-existing in Argentina were: rural and urban Trotskyite guerrillas; right-wing Peronist death squads; armed terrorist groups of the large labour 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 organisation of federal and provincial police forces; and terrorist groups of Catholic rightists organised 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. (These, of course, were only the principal groups of organised or systematised violence. Hundreds of other organisations 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. Lefebvre 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.) ... it may be that I’ve lived through a period of such political and social disintegration that it is hard for me to conceive that some coherent explanation would emerge from such disparate and anarchistic opposing elements.

The Armed Forces let Isabel Peron survive 20 months. This, he says, was ‘not the result of her political acumen’:

The military, according to some observers, required that amount of time to lay their plans. In fact, the plans were already laid. The military needed something that proved to be of much greater importance: for the situation to deteriorate sufficiently so that the populace – press, political parties, Church, civil institutions – would regard military repression as inevitable. They needed allies who could be converted into accomplices. They needed the presence of such fear – about one’s personal security, the economic crisis, the unknown – that it would provide them with the margin of time and planning, and the needed passivity, to develop what they regarded as the only solution to leftist terrorism: extermination.

This is not far-fetched. While ‘the situation’ evolved towards exhaustion after 1973, the guerrillas reached numbers unknown elsewhere in Latin America, let alone in Europe. Timerman reports a conversation with a naval officer shortly after the coup that finally removed Isabel:

  ‘But if we exterminate them all, there’ll be fear for several generations.’

  ‘What do you mean by all?’

  ‘All ... about twenty thousand people. And their relatives, too – they must be eradicated – and also those who remember their names.’

Argentine repression had characteristics that distinguished it from what had happened earlier in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. It was more widespread, more indiscriminate, more bent on revenge and extermination than on detection. Uruguayan interrogators could not understand why their Argentine counterparts tortured so many suspects so drastically: ‘they are destroying the archive.’ The upper ranks of the Argentine Armed Forces were riven with faction and distrust. Even within a single military district there might be no effective chain of command. There was a determination that all officers should be involved, though some were more enthusiastic than others. Ambitious officers naturally privatised their commands, and collected information on the activities of their rivals that might come in useful in the future. The arrests, tortures and disappearances went on for a long time. Nobody had the power to stop them.

The guerrillas responded in kind. The difference between the two sides, according to Timerman, was that the guerrillas had fewer resources, with the result that ‘everything was reduced to a confrontation of resources rather than a battle in which one political concept challenged another, one set of morals was pitted against another. The guerrilla force placed bombs in military lecture-halls, in public dining-rooms. But it could not compete. Yet in the ideological and moral realm it remained undefeated, and still wields the irrationality of repression, the abuse of power, the illegality of methods. That is its charter for the future.’ The Montoneros and the ERP lived in a murderous cloud-cuckoo-land, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that at the beginning of this cycle they thought that they themselves had the monopoly of violence. They deserved to be defeated, but Timerman is right in saying that, morally and ideologically, their defeat has not been as complete as it ought to have been because of the excesses that followed March 1976.

Timerman’s book has been criticised principally on two grounds. First, he is accused of failing to give a frank account of his political involvements prior to 1976, particularly of his connections with the Jewish Argentine banker David Graiver, who held a 45 per cent share in La Opinion, who was allegedly the financial agent of the Montoneros (whose kidnappings earned millions) and who allegedly died in a Mexican plane crash in 1976. Secondly, he is said to misrepresent the extent of anti-semitism in Argentina. Another Argentine Jew is quoted as saying in Time Magazine: ‘In playing the Jewish card, Timerman is unscrupulously behaving as an adventurer.’ Neither criticism of the book seems justifiable.

On the first count, the author has the same right to remain silent as anyone who has not been accused, or tried, or convicted. His conduct before 1976 might attract criticism for opportunism, for sharp dealing, for political levity even: but what happened to him after the coup cannot be justified, and it is illogical and inhuman to suggest that he is under any sort of obligation to justify himself. It is perhaps morally and psychologically important to him not to begin to do so. Timerman was complacent and cocksure, had some dubious friends, had Zionist leanings, and liked the company of the powerful: the same could be said of Sir Harold Wilson.

The second criticism seems to me to be made by people who have either not read the book itself, but only what has been said about it, or who have read it superficially. The account the author gives of the anti-semitism of which he himself was the victim cannot reasonably be challenged. He says of the casual anti-semitism which exists in Argentina, as elsewhere, that in his working life he found it ‘humanly bearable’: ‘where the difference became unbearable was in the prisons.’ He felt that with their Gentile enemies his captors simply wished to destroy a particular opponent, but that ‘with Jews ... there was a desire to eradicate.’

Was it really important? Most of those killed were not Jews, and if we continue to feel sorry for ourselves as Jews, we will end up by being hated by the non-Jewish victims, by the families of the priests and nuns who were murdered, by the parents of those missing boys and girls who were raised in the Christian faith. 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. It seems so humiliating to have been born.

At times he argues that the ‘moderates’ in the Armed Forces, and the opponents of anti-semitism generally, have far more strength than they suppose, and that they could confirm this by being more forthright.

Many times I have been asked whether a Holocaust is conceivable in Argentina. Well, that depends on what is meant by a Holocaust ... What you can say is that recent events in Argentina have demonstrated that if an anti-semitic scenario unfolds, the discussion on what constitutes anti-semitism and persecution and what does not will occupy more time than the battle itself against anti-semitism ... But perhaps the holocaust is in a way already occurring ... it depends on one’s view of anti-semitism – or of a Holocaust. There are no gas chambers in Argentina, and this leaves many with a clear conscience. Yet between 1974 and 1978, the violation of girls in clandestine prisons had a peculiar characteristic: Jewish girls were violated twice as often as non-Jewish girls. (Must all anti-semitism wind up in soap? If so, then anti-semitism does not exist in Argentina, and it becomes a matter of accidental, coincidental situations, as the leaders of the Argentine Jewish community claim. But can there be anti-semitism without soap?) ... A curious dichotomy exists. Argentine Jews are prepared to renounce many more rights and much more respect than the military believe; and the military for their part are much more fearful than the Jews realise of some kind of public Jewish self-defence. Provided that it is of a public nature.

He does not represent the Argentine Armed Forces as monolithic: the author is obviously far more intimately acquainted with their divisions than he chooses to show here. Nor is his account of the extremes of the Argentine military mentality confined to its anti-semitic aspects, the belief in the Soviet-Zionist conspiracy. He has made the first attempt in print to analyse many other aspects of what happened, in a series of events for whose analysis no models are available. The treatment of suspects in Argentina must often have been the result of a closed view of the world, one that is the harder to explain because it is never fully exposed: ‘an arrest with intent to question, without infliction of violence, would have been an acknowledgment of the validity and logic of [the prisoner’s] existence. And this in turn would mean acknowledging the existence of a world other than its own hermetic one. Which is intolerable.’

In Argentina the publication of the book and the publicity it has attracted abroad have been sadly but predictably denounced as part of an ‘Anti-Argentine Campaign’. It is nothing of the sort. With its display of learning, its quotations from Borges and Arlt, its evocation of Buenos Aires camaraderie, its pride in certain friendships, it is a very porteno book, even to the note of anomie in the title. The Argentine political situation is unfortunately still so unstable that for anyone in power to cast doubt on the existence of an ‘Anti-Argentine Campaign’ would be imprudent. Dr Oscar Camilion, the Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto, recently accused Timerman of using ‘the techniques of Goebbels’. He says the campaign is paid for; he does not say who by. One is relieved that Dr Camilion does not approve of Goebbels, but one wonders how much he is aware of the ironies of his statement.

The situation in Argentina has improved. Disappearances have ceased, and some of the most notorious enthusiasts of repression have been limogé, posted to other regions and duties. Argentina still has a flourishing and varied Jewish community, the seventh-largest in the world, some 350,000 citizens who can, understandably, regard Timerman as an irritant. It has been said that his book can only make things worse by increasing the numerous difficulties of President Viola, a moderate to whom there are many worse alternatives. Somebody was bound to write such a book, and sooner or later the issues it raises for Argentina have to be faced. Thousands of people did die in the repression, but their relatives were not exterminated, nor ‘all those who remember their names’. How an undefeated Army, which did face and overcome a genuine subversive menace, but is still far from united in its command or ideology, manages the process of reconciliation and a return to normality remains to be seen.

What are the failures of this society, one that has been, and in many ways remains, so successful? How can two minorities within a nation conduct such a ferocious battle amid such general indifference? What made each minority go to such apocalyptic extremes in this most bourgeois republic? Why has this relatively small population supported such a large army, present in so many spheres of national life? One is left even without an explanation of the local anti-semitism. In the Thirties and earlier still, Argentina was one of the most hospitable destinations for Jewish refugees. Argentine neutrality in the Second World War was not anti-semitic, and Eva Peron herself sent a relief ship to Israel in some of its darkest days. What circumstances of terror and confusion led some minds back to the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’?

In better days, the sociologist Gino Germani was fond of saying: ‘There is nothing wrong with Argentina, if only the Argentines would realise it.’ That is no longer an acceptable paradox. Everything is not wrong with Argentina, and in the past the country has proved, in a different fashion, to be as resilient and indestructible under misgovernment as is Cuba. What went wrong nonetheless has to be described, if there are to be any remedies apart from the passage of time.