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Diplomatic Immunity

Jacobo Timerman’s son Héctor says there’s no such thing as an anti-Semitic country

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Héctor Timerman testifying at the 2007 trial of Christian Von Wernich, a police chaplain accused of being present at Timerman’s father’s 1970s torture sessions. (Pablo Busti/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the second in a two-part series.

In December 2009, I interviewed Héctor Timerman, the second of Jacobo Timerman’s three sons. Hector was 22 when his father was imprisoned by the Argentine military junta in 1977. Today he is Argentina’s ambassador to the United States. His country’s embassy is in one of Washington’s most elegant buildings. In an understated upstairs waiting room, an elderly woman dressed in a white uniform and slippers brings me coffee on a sterling silver platter which holding a porcelain cup, a sterling silver milk pitcher, and a small silver spoon. Above and behind me are portraits of Argentina’s 50 previous ambassadors and of famous men of letters. Soon the wall will display the portrait of Héctor Timerman, the second Jewish Argentine ambassador to the United States.

Timerman tells me about his essay, “Torture: A Family Affair,” which concerns the effects of torture on families and was recently published by Human Rights Watch. Every day that went by with the family unable to secure Jacobo Timerman’s release, he says, meant another day of despair over whether their father might disappear or suffer more electric shock.

I ask the ambassador to describe his father. With some reservation he tells me that his father had a strong character and that it was difficult to convince him that he was wrong. “At some point,” he says, “you’d stop arguing with him because you realized you would not change his mind.” But he also tells me that his father was a tender person, who had the uncanny ability to listen, understand, and empathize. The ambassador says that though his father never imposed ideas on his sons, he shared with them his abiding belief in universal human rights. He tells me that he had always admired his father’s efforts, through La Opinión, the newspaper he published, to highlight the junta’s abuses, murders, and acts of anti-Semitism.

When I ask him why the Argentine Jewish community remembers Timerman rather bitterly, he says that his father was an outspoken critic of the regime and that the Jewish community feared this would bring about reprisals. His father, he says, strongly disapproved of those Jews who stayed quiet in order not to draw the regime’s wrath. His father felt ashamed of them. I ask him, as others had asked his father more than 30 years ago, if there is anti-Semitism in Argentina. He bristles at the question, as if angry that people could still ask this of his country, and then answers with the care and caution of a diplomat: the Church, the military, and the aristocracy were the institutions that manifested the most virulent form of anti-Semitism during the dictatorship. But Argentina as a nation, he says, has never been anti-Semitic; its people are not by nature anti-Semites.

I am as confounded as Robert Hill was back in 1976. According to Rabbi Roberto Graetz, who used to bring gefilte fish and challah to Timerman when he was in prison, Argentina has a long and well-documented history of anti-Semitism; several generations of army officers were trained and modeled after the German army, and during the Dirty War the Catholic Church was a prominent agent of anti-Semitism. How to explain the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing that destroyed the Jewish community center, leaving more than 100 dead and three times as many injured? How to explain the May 2009 clash between anti-Semites and Jews during a ceremony celebrating Israel’s independence day?

Héctor Timerman calibrates his remarks in the same way that his father did in the ’70s: anti-Semitism as a broad social phenomenon doesn’t really exist, Argentina itself is not anti-Semitic, no country is anti-Semitic. These statements contradict what Héctor Timerman told a U.S. Embassy official at the time of his father’s arrest. A State Department summary of the meeting describes Héctor Timerman saying “somewhat excitedly” that the current climate in Argentina was like that of Germany “just before Hitler’s Putsch” and that his father was arrested because of anti-Semitism. I can only guess at why Ambassador Timerman today insists on the distinction; his future, like his father’s, would be put at risk if he were to honestly answer the questions that I put to him. He is lying to me out of self-interest, and to protect his country. Or perhaps his opinions are simply a reflection of his social position. He is, in many ways, the man that his father wanted to become—a fully integrated member of the Argentine ruling elite.

The Timerman family, with the help of a lawyer, Alejo Ramos Padilla, has pursued justice in Jacobo’s case by prosecuting those involved in his illegal imprisonment and torture. “It doesn’t matter if they wear a uniform, a cassock, or a tie,” says Ramos Padilla. “We will bring them to justice.” In 2004, the family’s efforts led to the first successful conviction of a Catholic priest, Christian Von Wernich, of crimes against humanity. Some in Argentina say that Héctor Timerman is vengeful. “Maybe they are right,” he responds, “but I’m seeking my revenge through the legal process, through the tribunals.”

Bitterly, Héctor Timerman tells me about others who have made accusations against his father. Tomás Eloy Martínez, a professor and former journalist, has suggested that Jacobo Timerman was never tortured and that he betrayed other journalists. I had heard such rumors in Argentina. Héctor Timerman tells me about General Ramón Camps’s book, El Caso Timerman, Punto Final. Camps, who died in 1994 from cancer, claimed to have tortured 5,000 individuals, including Timerman. The police chief of Buenos Aires during the junta, Camps was sentenced during the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín but then pardoned by his successor, Carlos Menem. He was a zealous military hardliner who went after leftists with special gusto. Camps could not stand the fact that, of the thousands he had tortured, Timerman had survived to write about it. In 1983, he wrote a torturer’s testimony in response to Prisoner without a Name.

“The torturer is believed,” Héctor Timerman tells me incredulously. We both pause at the bizarreness of this idea. I think how absurd it is that a publisher would take on such a book. But then I remember that not all Argentineans disagreed with Camps. The junta instilled in the people of Argentina a moral code so strict and certain that it pitted neighbor against neighbor. Graetz, who today serves a congregation in California, told me, “When I preached against the military regime the members of my congregation would walk out. Then when I returned years later to Argentina, these same members would ask me why, if I was such a proponent of human rights, I hadn’t told them what was going on. And I would remind them that years earlier they had walked out.”

***

And what about Timerman? How should we remember him? Is it possible to believe that the four books Timerman wrote after being tortured contain valid points about politics, human rights, and Jewish identity that should compel our attention, even after we know the truth about the man and his flaws? In these books Timerman is angry and quarrels with the world. He attacks his own community, he attacks Israel, he criticizes Chile and Cuba. In 1991, he went silent.

I initially set out to write a commemoration of Timerman on the 10th anniversary of his death because he inspired me as a graduate student in Latin American studies. But what I found was not the noble Jew I remembered fighting for human rights and against anti-Semitism, but a deeply flawed human being who knew how to pull the heartstrings of those who still believe that human rights are an essential human concern. For me he remains a figure as tragic as the saddest of the great German Jewish thinkers—described so eloquently in Amos Elon’s The Pity of it All—who felt more patriotic than the Germans themselves, yet were never truly accepted as members of the society that eventually killed them. Timerman let himself believe that his embrace of Argentina would allow him a special place in the junta. What then could have been going through his mind as he was accused of being a dirty Jew? He never really tells us, but it surely stung.

The fact that Timerman was a Jew meant that he was less. That knowledge, through electric shock, beatings, threats, and humiliation, led him to write four books in anger—anger at his own deception and downfall, at the world for not understanding Jews, at the open Jewish grave he wrote of carrying in his heart. His four post-torture books reveal a disassociation characteristic of traumatized victims, disassociation between the tortured man and the brilliant journalist to whom this was not supposed to happen. That schism, now reversed, created Timerman’s personal tragedy: his inability to see himself as a potential victim of the junta because he was so close to it; his inability to understand how the junta had so abruptly and irrevocably ruined him by first corrupting his own moral sense and then brutally torturing him. The undercurrent of torment and guilt that runs through his testimony about human rights abuses throughout the world derives from recognizing that he was misguided, even naïve, in his sense of belonging. When throughout his testimony he accuses the Argentine Jewish community of trying to remain “faceless,” of being complicit in its silence, he is really criticizing himself. Deep down, Timerman was a member of the Argentine Jewish community that he condemned. For all his brilliance and power, he, like so many before him, misread the signals, avoided the facts, participated in the game of “it is but it isn’t,” and, in the end, was tortured as a judio de mierda.

Bridget Kevane is a professor of Latin American studies at Montana State University.

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sergio lopez says:

This is the kind of professors that Montana State University has?My god , is worst than Ramon Camps!!!!!!

Hank Heifetz says:

What I found most disturbing and surprising about this two part article was the identification of the author as a scholar of Latin America. Her omissions (of fact and of human sympathy) become more astonishing as a result. Speaking from the basis of a long involvement with Latin America (including years in Mexico where I met many refugees who had fled the Argentine military dictatorship of the late ’70′s,) let me make the following points:
1)the traditional Argentine power-elite who led the coup were and are certainly anti-Semitic, an anti-Semitism abetted by the wholesale welcome (accorded by Peron) to German Nazis, Croatian Ustashe and other Eastern-European nationalist participants in the Shoah.
2) the Jewish community of Argentina is the largest, most successful and most wide-ranging (in the nature of its membership) Jewish presence in Latin America. And it still is.
3) The junta’s aim was to physically exterminate all leftist and (in the American sense of the word) liberal Argentines. It did not specifically target the Jewish community, though many Jews (as leftists, liberals or psychologists and psychiatrists — a special objective of the junta’s policy of exterminating “foreign influences” –were kidnapped, subjected to unspeakable tortures (the woman suffering brutal and constantly repeated rape) and eventually murdered (often by being dropped alive from airplanes into the ocean. The “leaders” of the Jewish community were very circumspect in relation to the ongoing terror (as were many non-Jews, including the great writer Borges himself) out of fear. Timerman was not and (though he was a centrist and not politically left), he insisted on publishing the names of desaparecidos in his newspaper, La Opinion, perhaps the most important in Argentina. For this, NOT because he was a Jew, he was seized, held secretly for months and bestially tortured.
4)Jews were often showered with specifically anti-Semitic insults and sadistic improvisations — as in Timerman’s description of an electric torture session many hours long when he was was asked no questions but simply hammered with anti-Semitic insults — but to say they they were treated worse then others(as the ADL in the ’70s did, presumably in ignorance)is quite untrue (and intrinsically offensive), given the unmitigated horror meted out to nearly everyone seized by the junta’s thugs.
5) Timerman himself actually survived the almost inevitable progress of these prisoners toward a horrifying death BECAUSE he was Jewish. The torturers, in their abysmal and barbaric ignorance, imagined that he was a member of the mythical (Czarist-propaganda-created) Elders of Zion and hoped to torture “secrets” out of him.
6) The torture was mostly electric, incredibly painful but a form of torture which leaves burns in situ but no other visible marks. The meeting described with a healthy-looking Timerman took place after he was no longer being tortured, as he mentions himself in his prison narrative.
7) After he left Israel, furious at the invasion of Lebanon and what he considered the shameful policies of the Begin government, he was subjected to considerable verbal attack, much of it completely false. These articles (by a specialist) smell of that type of attack and dishonor the memories of all the tortured and murdered Argentines and the best instincts (and terrible past suffering) of our own Jewish people. Timerman, like most of us, was not a perfect man but what he endured should not be reduced to a parochial — and inaccurate — issue (including by the way the author’s simplistic characterizarion of the frightful bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center in which Argentines were certainly involved but which is generally regarded as a retaliatory act (and outrage) connected with Hezbollah seeking revenge for an Israeli assassination of one of their leaders.)

PeteSahl says:

The attempt to shine new light on a complex subject by the lame author of the smear articles illustrates how even the lowliest of unprofessional hacks can stir up deep emotions on subjects they know very little about. By extropolating a few words out of context a writer has single-handedly created a maelstrom of dis-content. It is obvious to everyone, educated or not, Argentine, or not, Jewish or not, that this lady who wrote these discombobulated paragraphs really knows very little about anything except how to string 26 letters together, like a two year old. In this day and age of information overload it is too easy say anything at anytime. Therefore, the value of the written word has lost a certain amount of clout, but at the same time has the power to stir people up like never before. One little article with misinformation disinformation, quotes taken out of context and numerous biases can be disseminated across the world in a second. And, thank goodness for the combined and common intelligence of us readers it is our duty and obligation to strike those ill conceived dictums right down before they boil into something not intended. So my fellow free thinkers: Follow this blog entry with as much and as many comments as you can to thwart the enemy of TRUTH wherever it rears its ugly head. And to Mr. Jacobo Timerman, whom I met I on several occassions, you are and were a GREAT MAN and will always be regarded as such!!!!! We will NEVER FORGET you and will fight for your ideals until the death, singularly, and collectively. Your strengths are our strengths and we take them onward in adfinatum.

Jay Fisher says:

I am most disturbed by the author’s attempt to have Ambassador Timerman admit that Argentina is an anti-Semitic country. This broad and inappropriate generalization confuses the idea of anti-Semitism as state policy versus anti-Semitism among specific members of society who, occasionally, manage to muster enough power and influence to carry out some horrendous acts. Argentina under the former definition simply does not exist presently. One can visit the Once neighborhood in Buenos Aires or one of the Jewish sports clubs (like Club Hacoaj) to see how vibrant and, generally, left alone in peace they are. Also, I’ve had the privilege of competing against Argentine Jewish sports teams. I have yet to see athletes who are more patriotic and proud of being both Jewish and a citizen of a specific country.

Under the idea that anti-Semitism is more isolated among specific people within society: if this is the author’s definition of an “anti-Semitic” country, then any nation with a respectably sized Jewish population would fit this definition – even our own beloved USA. Think the Leo Frank murder in Marietta, GA, or any of Pres. Richard Nixon’s outbursts against Jews on the Oval Office tapes.

Samuel Millburn says:

Perhaps the author should be more concerned with her parenting style than with Timerman.
When I googled Bridget Kevane numerous blogs appeared about her leaving a three year old in a Montana mall with her 12 year old daughter….completely inappropriate. Ms. Kevane, stop using your energy to write ludicrous articles and accompany your kids to the mall! Ridiculous.

Marcelo Bater says:

“La opinion” was the only newspaper that openly criticized and opposed the military dictatorship. For those of us who got to experience those awful times first-hand during our teenage years, they were the only refreshing voice in the midst of people dissapearing and the fear we felt.
It is way too easy to just give an opinion from the United Stated 35 years later, so let me tell you that you are completely misinformed. I currently live in Argentina and we don’t have a newspaper (much less an Editor in Chief) as qualified as Mr. Timerman.

Ana Magnani says:

The vitriol of the comments seems strange given the complex shading of the article… So Timerman was very much a human, like, as Kevane alludes, many of the German Jews who told themselves a comforting tale of assimilation, or the Igbo traders of northern Nigeria who spoke Hausa and converted to Islam, only to be massacred in religious-regionalist riots.

The tragic figure is maybe the author herself (and many of the letter writers), who want to believe that special heroes are taking care of injustice, and ordinary people should look up to them and be inspired by their words and deeds. Unhappy the land that needs heroes, no?

Gene Kupferschmid says:

It is usually necessary to look beneath the surface and cast a glance at history. Jay Fisher appears to have done neither. The once-vital Jewish day schools in Buenos Aires have all but disappeared as many parents could no longer afford the fees due to the recurring economic economic crises or feared having their children picked up by buses bearing the names of the schools. Both Jewish sports clubs have concrete barriers on the sidewalk in front. No one is allowed into the building that houses the AMIA without a foreign passport or an Argentine cedula. Both the Israeli embassy and the AMIA were bombed with heavy loss of life. When Argentine Jews speak of their country with pride, it is because they choose to forget history just or never learned it. “Vivimos en una burbuja” “we live in a bubble” they say as they choose to ignore both history and reality. Today’s young athletes probably weren’t even born at that time. We have to ask ourselves why the Argentine Jews were silent during the military junta in which so many “disappeared”, many of them Jews. “Algo habrá hecho” they said when hearing of someone who “disappeared”, “he must have done something”. They knew they had no voice or that harm would come to those who raised it.

I suggest reading Nathan Englander’s “The Ministry of Special Cases”.

Bruce Edelman says:

Argentina has a long history of anti-Semitism helped along by a large and well-established German community. The country under Peron was a haven for Nazi spies during WWII. After the war, the German community, along with an accommodating government, gave safe haven to many Nazi war criminals including Mengele and Eichmann. Read “Hunting Eichmann” by Neil Bascomb for a detailed description of the anti-Semitism rampant in Argentina during that era.

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Diplomatic Immunity

Jacobo Timerman’s son Héctor says there’s no such thing as an anti-Semitic country

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