The motives behind the Spanish Inquisition are a better reference point for understanding contemporary Argentine attitudes toward the "Jewish Question" than is the criminal racism of the Nazi Holocaust -- though that, too, is present in the country.

The Spanish Inquisition of 1480 was directed against the religiously subversive influence of Jews who had recently converted to Christianity. But it was also motivated by envy. Hannah Arendt, in "The Origins of Totalitarianism," repeated the truism that envy is at the heart of anti-Semitism. The high clergy and old nobles of Aragon coveted the positions and the prominence acquired by the new Christians.

Responding to the court, and not to Rome, the Inquisition was used to eliminate assimilated Jews from Spain's body politic. Influential converts were tried for religious subversion, then smeared, and their goods were confiscated. Those who repented under torture were forced to wear a special dress of shame called sambenito. Ultimately, in 1492, all Jews were expelled from Spain.

The reason? According to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's edict of expulsion, it was to stop Jews from conversing with Christians, because those conversations were seen as the cause of religious subversion in their kingdoms.

It is a modern political variant of this medieval anti-Semitism, intolerance and envy -- always envy -- that explains many Argentine attitudes of both Christian and Jew toward that quintessential assimilated Jew: Jacobo Timerman.

Timerman is not the only Jewish victim of these attitudes. Threats, a bombing and smear campaigns have also been directed against Julio Broner, a millionaire businessman, David Graiver, a financier and philanthropist, Manuel Sadosky, an academician, Oscar Varsvasky, a researcher, Mauricio Goldenberg, a psychiatrist, and Adolfo Gass, a Radical Party politician, to name a few.

Apologists for these persecutions will say that these Argentines have exercised in a variety of ways a politically subversive influence in the country and that explains the actions taken against them. True, some of these persons have been connected directly or indirectly either to Peronist activities or left-wing activities; others have not. Some had family members involved in guerrilla activities; others did not.

Before he died in exile -- stripped of his citizenship -- former Peronist economy minister Jose Ber Gelbard reported that his decision to take his whole extended family -- 36 persons -- out of Argentina in 1976 was prompted by the fact that a distant relative, a nephew that he might encounter once a year, had been tortured for no reason at all -- unless the family connection to Gelbard can be considered a reason. This young man was found alive and nude in the street of a provincial city with a sign tied from his neck that read: "I am a Jewish Pig."

Such things do not happen to every prominent family with questionable connections or politics. For example, retired general Julio Alsogaray had a son who was killed by the military in an action against guerrillas. His family, which is not Jewish, has not been smeared or uprooted. Alvaro Alsogaray, his brother, could be the next Argentine minmister of economy.

It is an accepted fact that some of David Graiver's financial dealings are highly irregular, and he might have managed the money of the Montonero guerrillas, though that four-year-old accusation has not been proven. But none of Graiver's non-Jewish former associates have been smeared like Jacobo Timerman; neither Alejandro Orfila, secretary general of the Organization of American States, nor Msgr. Antonio Plaza, archbishop of La Plata. There are more.

One reason that being Jewish is a category of guilt in Argentina is that the Jew is not given the benefit of the doubt. That is why so many Jews are careful not to associate with those "bad" Jews who have run afoul of the suspicions of the intelligence services of the military and police.

Those who try to discredit Timerman from the right in the United States should listen to what is said by those who try to discredit him from the left in Latin America. They would find that they are attacking, in some respects, one of their own kind.

The left criticizes Timerman because, until the day of his abduction in April 1977, he was an influential member of the civilian entourage of the military. He was so much a member of that establishment that he offered to testify before an American congressional committee in favor of the "authoritarian" military government. The left believes that this is a black mark against his name. I am not so sure.

It can be said that Timerman was kidnapped because he opposed in situ -- sometimes timidly and compromising a lot, but more than most -- the criminal features of the regime he supported.

Surely Timerman's Jewishness does not fully explain why he was abducted. But it does explain why he has been publicly vilified, why he has been denationalized and why his property has been confiscated. It also explains the peculiar attitude of some Argentines toward his fate.

Had he failed, or died, he would be remembered as a sharp, aggressive, rather courageous, no-holds-barred editor. Unscrupulous? Perhaps. Surely controversial. But he was a success before his ordeal, and worse, he is a huge success after; he will make money, the thinking goes, because he is a Jew. All this is not easily forgiven.

Soon after his abduction, Carta Politica, a journal respected by the military but now defunct, published a widely noticed cover story titled "The Jews." In any other Western country, this article would have been considered preposterous. But in Argentina it expressed a bien-pensant attitude toward the racist anti-Semitism in the military that everyone in the country knew was behind much of the actions being taken against Jews at that time -- for example, the imprisonment of David Graiver's elderly parents because their son was a suspect and they had possible access to the "Jewish, Montonero, Zionist" money; the systematic abuse of other wealthy Jewish families for the same reason; and Timerman's abduction.

In this climate, and in a misguided effort to help, Carta Politica told its readers that the Jewish community in Argentina, even after three generations, is still something alien to the nation. In order to achieve the desired integration, the author of the piece made two suggestions to Argentine Jews:

First, they should not be Zionists, because "Argentina will not be able to integrate its Jews if they are Zionists."

Second, Jews should not be "contestants," because Argentina is too young a nation to assimilate the contestants of a community that has produced "Marx, Freud, Marcuse."

Where does this leave Timerman, facing his captors with his commitment to Zionism and 30 years of Argentine political journalism? Is he supposed to give up his commitment and stop thinking to become a good Argentine? Absurd.

When all is said and done -- though a lot more could be said -- and when one reflects on Timerman's testimony about how Nazis in the Argentine military torture and kill people, then one may ask: why did he not take time to explain his partnership with the alleged subversive David Graiver? An answer comes: this contestant, this Zionist Jew, refuses to wear a sambenito, whether it be offered by his anti-Semitic tormentors in Argentinas or by Irving Kristol and William Buckley in the United States.