At the height of the Argentine terrorist war a few years ago, a prominent Buenos Aires publisher, Jacobo Timerman, received successive threats on the same day from extremists of the left and right.
The mordant Timerman thereupon addressed them in his daily: La Opinion would maintain its editorial position, he wrote, "but I am intensely interested in seeing which organizatzion gets hold of my cadaver first."
As it turned out, neither terrorist band silenced Timerman. But the Argentine military government did, jailing him for a year during a futile search for a charge to place against him. He has been under house arrest since last April, despite exoneration by a military tribunal and even by the normally cowered Supreme Court.
There is a phrase used by a high official of the armed forces that, Timerman himself has said, sums up the cause for his predicament-"Timerman is a talented, arrogant Jew."
All available evidence indicates that it was Timerman's raspy personality and his Zionism alone that provoked the anti-Semitic fringe of Argentine society to move against him.
Timerman, 55, was born in Poland, raised poor in Argentina. He made his name first as an aggressive reporter, then editor, for one of Buenos Aires' traditional dailies. In the 1960s, he launched Argentina's first "Time" and sold it, only to begin another newsweekly that fared as well.
In 1971, he started La Opinion, along the lines of Le Monde. It leaned left, a risky business with the military then in power. With such venerable dailies as La Prensa and La Nacion intimidated, Timerman pushed out the limits of permissible coverage. He correctly sensed that the military, seeking a graceful way to bow out after failing to win over the followers of the exiled Juan Domingo Peron, were ready to tolerate a liberal forum for reviving political debate.
It is safe to say that La Opinion's readership reflected the religious makeup of the country, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.But Timerman paid particular attention to Israel. Bright writers with recognizably Jewish names were among the bylines.
Timerman reported the return of Peron and then the headlong unraveling of the second Peron era. His sympathies had been with the all-embracing movement's democratic left, whose economic spokesman was another Polish-born Jew, Jose Ber Gelbard.
Soon Peron died. His widow took office as president and fired Gelbard. The reign of terrorists, incipient under the military, blossomed.
The military, which Timerman in his way had helped retreat to barracks, again seized power in 1976. Timerman had called for a coup; the Peronists had shut La Opinion for 10 days when he did so. Yet some of the military saw Timerman as a leader of plotting leftist Peronist Jews.
On April 15, 1977, soldiers arrested Timerman in the night. Timerman told an associate that very day that, were he not a Jew, he might flee abroad. "But being the only Jewish editor of a nationally influential daily," he would not leave just as an anti-Semitic campaign was intensifying.
Its focus became yet another Jew of Polish origin, banker David Graiver, alleged to have become the guerrillas' broker. Graiver was implicated in an international banking scandal, and is believed to have died in a plane crash in 1976. He had lent money to Timerman for the paper in 1974, presumably before any possible guerrilla tie. Still, the vision of a Jewish conspiracy to seize Argentina's journalistic and financial heights intensified Timerman's ordeal by prison-cell questioning.
The Argentine press failed to rally to him. The most charitable explanation is that it felt intimidated.It is true that many other journalistic targets of the extreme right were being assassinated. A Briton long resident in Argentina and editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, Rober Cox, broke the silence to stand up for Timerman. Later, La Prensa joined in.
Jewish and other groups abroad took up the cause. They charged that Timerman was tortured fiercely. He is said to have concluded that he is now in double jeopardy-having been tortured, he is being held so that he cannot go abroad and denounce his treatment.
Argentina's presidnet, Gen. Jorge Videla, has been repeatedly questioned about Timerman's case. But Timerman remains under house arrest. His wife, who pressed his case as long as there was legal recourse, has fled to Israel with their three children. Timerman could be expected to join them if freed.
Timerman reads-but not a lot. He lost an eye as a youth and an infection in the good one now troubles him. Recently the authorities acceded to his visiting a clinic.
The military has continued to publish La Opinion since seizing it, capitalizing on the name, though the spirit is gone. It is as though they were tacitly acknowledging his contribution to the culture of his city.