This Day in Jewish History

1999: Jacobo Timerman, the 'Prisoner With No Name,' Dies

Israel pressed Argentina hard to release the 'rebel' journalist from confinement, for which Jacobo Timerman was not sycophantically grateful.

AP

On November 11, 1999, Argentinian-Israeli journalist, onetime political prisoner and enfant terrible Jacobo Timerman died, at age 76. Timerman was best known for his kidnapping and imprisonment by the military government that ruled Argentina in the late 1970s, which he described in detail in his acclaimed 1980 memoir “Prisoner with No Name, Cell with No Number.”

Jacobo Timerman was born on January 6, 1923, in the town of Bar, in what was then Soviet Ukraine, the second son of Nathan Timerman and the former Eve Berman. In 1928 the family fled the country’s anti-Semitism and emigrated to Argentina.

The Timermans settled in District 11, the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, where his father sold second-hand clothes. After Nathan’s death, when Jacobo was 12, the family lived in a one-room apartment in a building for which, in place of paying rent, they served as janitors. Jacobo also worked as a messenger, and later as a herdsman and coal miner.

As a young man Timerman joined the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, and began his career as a journalist working for several Jewish community papers. In 1950, he married Riche Mindlin, whom he had met at a Zionist conference in the city of Mendoza.

During the 1940s and ‘50s, Timerman worked at a number of different general periodicals, and also as a local translator for Agence France Presse, before, in 1962, founding Primera Plana, a weekly newsmagazine that modeled itself on the American Time. That was followed in 1965 by another magazine, Confirmado. 

Descent into chaos

In 1971, Timerman founded La Opinion, a daily that he described as being "rightist economically, centrist politically and leftist culturally." Earning itself a reputation for independence and reliability, within three years it had achieved a daily circulation of 150,000.

In the period preceding the military coup of 1976, as post-Peronist Argentina descended into violent chaos, marked by terror emanating from both the radical right and radical left, Timerman supported the idea of a military takeover. Even in the early months of the junta rule, after the coup of March 1976, he was supportive of the move.

As part of its so-called “National Reorganization,” the military government arrested and murdered thousands of Argentinians, a disproportionate number of whom were Jews. Talk about Jewish conspiracies to take over the country became common among some leading officers.

Arrest and torture

After it became known that the late David Graiver, a banker and a Jew who had provided Timerman with funding for La Opinion, had been laundering money for one of the Marxist guerrilla groups fighting the government, Timerman came under increasing scrutiny. Then on April 15, 1977, Timerman was arrested.

For the first months, he was held in secret with no charges brought against him. He was subjected to torture and frequent anti-Semitic rants. 

Although an estimated 1,300 of the up-to-30,000 Argentines who were “disappeared” during the junta years (1976-1983) were Jews, both the country’s organized Jewish community and the Israeli government were reluctant to speak out about the situation. In the case of Israel, it sold arms to the junta and trained its intelligence officers. At the same time, though, it also maintained quiet pressure on the junta with regard to Timerman, who, when he was finally released and deported, in 1979, after 30 months of prison and house arrest, was given refuge in Israel.

Though Timerman remained a Zionist till the end of his life, his honeymoon with the State of Israel and its institutions was short-lived. Very quickly, his outspokenness began to grate on people, climaxing with his sharp criticism of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in the book “The Longest War.”

The comments of then-deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben-Meir to “60 Minutes,” to the effect that, “We got him out of Argentina. Now he attacks and denigrates Israel,” were typical of the response here, and in the Jewish Diaspora as well, to “The Longest War.”

Timerman left Israel in 1983, and in January 1984, he returned to Argentina, a month after the democratically elected government of Raul Alfonsin took power. Over the next 15 years, he wrote books about Chile and Cuba, and was involved in legal proceedings against his former persecutors.

Jacobo Timerman died of a heart attack on this day in 1999.