One of the great heroes is gone. Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine journalist and great warrior for human rights, has died. With awe and reverence, I report that Timerman at one time or another ticked off practically everybody. He was of the Saul Alinsky school when it came to popularity — Alinsky, the great Chicago radical, was once given some award and afterward said to his organizers, “Don’t worry, boys, we’ll weather this storm of approval and come out as hated as ever.”
I would call Timerman a fearless man, but he wasn’t fearless. He was brave.
His book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number — the account of his thirty-month imprisonment and torture by the Argentine military in the late seventies — is one of the most poignant testimonies ever written by a political prisoner and will remain a classic of world literature. In it, he never poses as a hero but instead writes frankly about the terror and loneliness he experienced, weeping silently in his cell as his captors passed and spat the word “Jew!” at him.
His memoirs, on which he was working at the end of his life, reportedly deal extensively with his fears. But courage is not the absence of fear — it is the ability to fight despite fear. And Timerman always did.
Jacobo Timerman was born in 1923 in Bar, Ukraine, in a Jewish family that fled the pogroms when he was five and settled in the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. He grew up in poverty and all his life fought for powerless people. He was a radical in the tradition of Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Jack London, Erich Maria Remarque, and Henri Barbusse.
As a teen-ager, he became a passionate Zionist, but he was never a man of party. He had studied engineering, but in 1950 he joined a Buenos Aires newspaper and soon became a respected political reporter.
He and some other young journalists started a weekly newsmagazine in the manner of Time. He later sold it and started the newspaper La Opinion, another successful progressive publication.
In 1976, a military junta overthrew President Isabel Perón and began the infamous “dirty war” against the leftist terrorists called Montoreros, and anyone else who opposed the junta. Timerman often received death threats from both the right and the left; he sometimes published defiant responses on his front page. The Montoreros bombed his home; the junta finally had him arrested.
The military charged Timerman with being part of an alleged conspiracy to set up a Jewish state in southern Argentina; Jews make up one percent of the population of Argentina but accounted for ten percent of the victims of the “dirty war.” Officially Argentina now claims that more than 9,000 people “disappeared” during that war, but most human-rights groups place the figure closer to 30,000.
After two and a half years of torture, during which three judicial proceedings found no evidence against Timerman, the Argentine Supreme Court ordered his release. An international human-rights campaign helped to free him; Jimmy Carter, Cyrus Vance, Henry Kissinger, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Vatican, and many human rights organizations all helped. The junta finally illegally stripped Timerman of his citizenship, took all his property and deported him to Israel.
Timerman arrived shortly before Israel’s war against Lebanon, which culminated in the hideous massacres of civilians at Sabra and Shatila. Of course, Timerman spoke out against the atrocities and wrote a scathing book, The Longest War. He also wrote, with his usual piercing vigor, against the Israeli torture of Palestinians.
Naturally, this made Timerman, the lifelong Zionist, highly unpopular in Israel. He left the country.
Timerman also had a cameo role in American politics. The pro-Israeli magazine The New Republic attacked him for The Longest War, and even before he went to Israel, the neo-conservative intellectuals, in a most despicable episode, tried to destroy his reputation.
Christopher Hitchens of The Nation once heard Irving Kristol, editor of the right-wing Commentary, say that Timerman had made up the entire story of his imprisonment and torture — that it had never happened. This was after Timerman’s testimony had destroyed the nomination of Ernest Lefever to be President Reagan’s point man on human rights. Lefever so patently did not care about human rights that the nomination was offensive to the point of being obscene.
At the time, the Reaganites, who disliked Carter’s policy of emphasizing human rights, were advancing a peculiar theory that torture and oppression by left-wing or “totalitarian” regimes were evil but that torture and oppression by right-wing or “authoritarian” regimes were somehow forgivable. It was not known at the time, but the Argentine junta had a contract to train the Nicaraguan contras being supported by the Reagan administration. In a memorable appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Timerman quietly noted that when you are being tortured, it really doesn’t make much difference to you what the politics of your torturers are.
Timerman’s devotion to human rights, unlike that of some Americans, was never swayed by his political perspective. He often attacked the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro. His book, Cuba: A Journey, contains, among other things, a brilliant attack on Gabriel García Marquez, the respected left-wing writer who has been notably uncritical of Castro.
What a record, what a life. Go with God, brave fighter.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her forthcoming book, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected]