Jacobo Timerman

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Jacobo Timerman

Jacobo Timerman (born 1923) was an Argentine journalist who wrote articles opposing human rights abuses in Argentina and elsewhere. He founded the newspaper La Opinión, which also condemned human rights abuses wherever they occurred.

Jacobo Timerman was born on January 6, 1923, in Bar, a town in the Soviet Ukraine. Timerman's family emigrated to Argentina five years later to escape the pogroms which threatened Jews in the Ukraine in the 1920s. When Jacobo was 12 his father died, leaving his wife to support Jacobo and his younger brother José (Yoselle). They lived in a one-room apartment in the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. Large numbers of Europeans had immigrated to Argentina in the early 20th century, and among them were thousands of Eastern European Jews.

Argentina, along with much of the Western world, witnessed the rise of vocal right-wing movements in the 1920s and 1930s, many drawing their inspiration from the success of Hitler in Nazi Germany. The rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s, the presence of a large Jewish community, and the strong encouragement of his mother spurred Timerman's involvement in Jewish cultural and political organizations at an early age. At 14 he joined Avuca, a Jewish youth organization, which spurred his interest in Jewish history and culture. Timerman became a strong supporter of the struggle for a Jewish homeland as a teenager, and his Zionism stood out as one of the central principles of his life and work.

Although originally a student of engineering, Timerman turned to journalism in the 1940s, a period of intense political turmoil in Argentina. Juan Domingo Perón rose to political power in the mid-1940s and ruled Argentina for a decade, forging a national political alliance built on a charismatic appeal to the masses, in particular labor unions in a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing nation. The fascist overtones of Perón's politics, his determination to forge an independent foreign policy, and his economic program chilled relations with the United States and made Perón a symbol of Argentine nationalism. The death of Perón's charismatic wife Evita and his overthrow in 1955 ushered in three decades of political and economic chaos in Argentina.

Amidst the political tribulations of the 1950s and 1960s Jacobo Timerman rose to prominence as a journalist and publisher. He became a national figure in the 1950s as a resourceful reporter for the newspaper La Razón, and in the 1960s he became involved in radio, television, and magazine publishing. With friends he founded Primera Plana, a successful weekly news magazine along the lines of TIME or Newsweek. Timerman sold the magazine and founded another news weekly, Confirmado, which he also later sold. In 1971, he helped found the newspaper La Opinión. The paper was influential and widely read in political and intellectual circles. David Graiver, a young financier, bought 45 percent interest in the paper and worked with Timerman in several publishing projects.

The 1970s were an exceptionally difficult time in Argentina. Assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and urban guerrilla warfare became commonplace as armed right-wing and left-wing groups gained strength. Thousands of Argentines "disappeared" when they were picked up and never seen again, many the victims of government security forces operating in secrecy. Successive military and civilian regimes failed to achieve political order or economic growth, and in 1973 the aging Juan Perón triumphantly returned to Argentina with his new wife Isabel to win a resounding electoral victory which swept him into the presidential palace after nearly 20 years in exile.

Amidst the disintegration of political order in Argentina, Timerman's newspaper took a strong stance against human rights abuses by both the right and the left. Editorials in La Opinión condemned human rights abuses in regimes as diverse as those in Chile, Israel, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. Timerman began to publish the names of the "desaparecidos" ("missing ones") in La Opinión and to criticize the regime of Isabel Perón, who had succeeded her husband on his death in July 1974. A supporter of Juan Perón in the early 1970s, La Opinión openly supported the overthrow of Isabel by the military in March 1976. Continuing criticism of political violence and government economic policies angered the military regime.

In April 1977 armed civilians, purportedly acting on orders from the military, surrounded his home and arrested Timerman, beginning a two and one-half year ordeal of imprisonment, torture, house arrest with his wife and three sons, and, finally, forced exile. Timerman's case aroused international attention, drawing strong pressure for his release from the Vatican and the Carter administration (among others). In Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number Timerman traced in chilling detail the rise of his political problems and his arrest, torture, and imprisonment at the hands of the military. No formal charges were ever brought against him. (Timerman's financial partner, David Graiver, died mysteriously in 1976 and allegedly had been linked to the financing of the left-wing guerrilla movement, the Montoneros.) Several hearings and three judicial verdicts in Timerman's favor failed to achieve his release. Under mounting international pressure, the military regime stripped Timerman of his Argentine citizenship and his property and expelled him from the country in September 1979.

With the publication of Prisoner in several languages in 1980 and 1981, Timerman provoked an international controversy. In his book Timerman attributed many of his problems to his Zionism and focused on the anti-Semitism of his captors. He condemned the military regime for its Nazi characteristics and severely criticized Argentine Jewish leaders for what he perceived as their passivity in the face of a possible "holocaust" in Argentina. He praised Jimmy Carter's support for human rights and denounced Ronald Reagan's "quiet diplomacy" and support for friendly "authoritarian" regimes, particularly the Argentine regime. Conservative commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Irving Kristol in the United States attacked Timerman's views and credibility. Timerman won a number of prestigious international prizes for his defense of freedom on the press and for his contributions to inter-American relations.

Settling in Israel with his family, Timerman continued to provoke controversy. In 1982 he published The Longest War, a scathing critique of the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, setting off another bitter debate on international politics. In 1984 the military regime in Argentina stepped down, completely discredited after economic collapse and the disastrous war against Great Britain over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. The newly-elected civilian regime began the prosecution of former military leaders for their responsibility in the torture and disappearance of thousands of Argentines between 1977 and 1983. Jacobo Timerman returned to Argentina in August 1984, declaring his intention to testify against his torturers and to reclaim his confiscated newspaper, which he did.

In 1987 he published Chile: Death in the South, a blistering indictment of the dictatorial rule of General Augusto Pinochet. In 1991, he published, Cuba: A Journey, another somewhat controversial work.

Further Reading

Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1980-1981) contains extensive autobiographical material. The Progressive (December 1981) has an interesting interview with Timerman. □

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TIMERMAN, JACOBO (1923–1999). Argentinean journalist. Born in the small Ukrainian town of Bar, he migrated to Argentina at the age of five with his family. During the years 1948–50 Timerman was a member of the editorial board of Nueva Sion, a Socialist-Zionist left-oriented biweekly published in Buenos Aires. He achieved his first great success with the newsmagazine Primera Plana (1962–66), followed by Confirmado (1965–66), both inspired by Time and Newsweek. In 1971 Timerman founded the liberal newspaper daily La Opinión, on the model of Le Monde, and edited the paper until it was shut down by the military regime in 1977. Between 1973 and 1976 La Opinión had been closed on a few occasions, because it campaigned against the right-wing populist supporters of the antisemite minister José López Rega as well as the neo-fascist squads known as Triple a (aaa). La Opinión was one of the few important newspapers in Argentina to extensively denounce government corruption, state-tolerated antisemitism, and the Junta's flagrant violation of human rights during the repression. Timerman condemned the arbitrary arrests and abductions by military forces, and published the writs of habeas corpus presented to the courts by the families of the desaparecidos (the disappeared ones), particularly of journalists. In July 1977 Timerman was arrested, tortured, and held until 1979, first clandestinely, then in a regular military prison, and finally under house arrest, although he was cleared by the judiciary of charges brought against him. Timerman was deported and stripped of his acquired Argentinean citizenship by the military Juntas. During his stay in prison he received moral and spiritual assistance from both Rabbi Marshall *Meyer and diplomats of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires. Timerman was released from prison by the Junta thanks to the joint diplomatic efforts of the State of Israel and the United States.

His first place of exile was Israel, and he later moved to New York and Spain. His testimony Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number (1981) became a worldwide bestseller, describing his personal ordeal and documenting the Argentine institutionalized violence of the military dictatorship in Argentina and its violation of human rights, including the antisemitism among the rank and file of the repressors.

Timerman was outraged by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and published a critical book, Israel, the Longer War (1982), denouncing the unjust treatment of the Palestinians. This book aroused severe criticism of the author in Israel.

He returned to Argentina in 1984, one year after the restoration of democracy, and testified against the Juntas and violators of human rights. He became editor of the daily La Razón. In 1988 Carlos Saul Menem, then governor of the province of La Rioja and presidential candidate, sued him for libel and defamation. He was acquitted in two separate trials, but during the administration of President Menem the case was reopened by the Supreme Court of Argentina, and Timerman decided to flee to Uruguay. The charges against him were finally dropped in 1996.

Timerman wrote books critical of Augusto Pinochet (Chile, el galope muerto, 1988) and Fidel Castro (Cuba, a Journey, 1990).


G. Mochkofsky, TimermanEl periodista que quiso ser parte del poder (1923–1999), (2003).

[Leonardo Senkman (2nd ed.)]

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