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Argentine Activist Remembered for Devotion to Cause of Human Rights

November 15, 1999
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Jacobo Timerman, a former Argentine political prisoner and lifelong Zionist, died here Nov. 11 at 76 after suffering a heart attack.

Timerman, an outspoken and controversial journalist, was best known for his 1981 book on his time in prison, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” which he wrote from exile in Israel.

In it, he detailed his 30 months under house arrest in Argentina during the late 1970s, when Argentina’s military junta killed thousands of people.

After he was released, he went to Israel, where he did not shy away from criticizing the Jewish state, particularly Israel’s role in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which he chronicled in his book “The Longest War.”

But he was also not shy of attacking Palestinian terrorism.

His criticism of both sides of the Middle East conflict resulted from his personal philosophy, which he described as “a world that at times took the form of Zionism, at times the struggle for human rights, at times the fight for freedom of expression and at other times again the solidarity with dissidents against all totalitarianisms.”

Timerman was born in Bar, Ukraine, in 1923. His family emigrated to Argentina when he was 5.

Timerman remembered that as a child living in Buenos Aires’ traditional Jewish neighborhood, he once asked his mother: “Why do they hate us?” Her response: “They don’t understand us.”

He spent the rest of his life trying to find a better answer.

Timerman began his career in journalism writing for Jewish publications in Argentina, later moving on to Agence France Press and major local newspapers until he revolutionized the trade with his own publications.

Because of his strong opinions, he made many enemies, even within the field. When he received the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot award from Columbia University in 1981, past recipients returned theirs in protest.

“He didn’t really care about being well-liked,” said Jorge Abrasha Rottenberg, a longtime friend who worked with Timerman in his first publications, after his death. “He just wanted to be true to his concepts and ideas. Deep down, he was an agitator.”

One of Argentina’s darkest chapters, the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983, changed Timerman’s life.

At a time when the press was heavily censored, Timerman’s newspaper, La Opinion, published the unpublishable: the regime’s terror campaign against suspected leftist activists and sympathizers, students and intellectuals, actors and journalists, union leaders and ordinary people.

He also used La Opinion to condemn state-supported anti-Semitism.

In April 1977, La Opinion was taken over by the military and Timerman was detained. He was then tortured for being a Jew and interrogated about a Zionist plot to take over Patagonia, a vast region in central-southern Argentina.

An estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped and disappeared during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war,” according to human rights organizations.

Timerman became one of Argentina’s most prominent political prisoners, capturing international attention especially from Israel and the United States.

He returned to Argentina after a democratically elected government replaced the military dictatorship in 1983. He testified against his tormentors and earned compensation for his newspapers, which the government had taken over. With that money, he purchased houses in Uruguay and Argentina.

He wife, Risha Midlin, whom he met in a Zionist group, is described as a sweet woman who countered his stubbornness.

She played a big role in making Timerman’s detention public, saving his life. Her death in 1992 sent Timerman into a deep depression.

He is survived by three sons: Daniel, Hector and Javier.

Timerman trained legions of reporters and writers. He is remembered by colleagues as a brilliant writer and editor, but a harsh one as well.

An anecdote that has acquired mythic status describes him standing in the middle of a newsroom literally tearing an article apart and saying, “This is rubbish. Write it again.”

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