Jacobo Timerman, the Argentinian Jewish newspaper publisher whose 29 months in prison and house confinement became a litmus test of the Argentine government's policy on human rights, arrived in Israel today and said "only Jews can save Jews."
In an emotional news conference at Ben-Gurion Airport, Timerman, who was released Tuesday following relentless efforts by American Jewish organizations, the U.S. government, several congressmen and others, was handed Israeli citizenship papers and reunited with his wife, Rischa, who sat tearfully at his side.
"Once, a member of the military junta said of me, 'He's in prison because he is an arrogant Jew'," said Timerman, who spent a year in prison and has declared he was tortured for an alleged association with a leftist guerrilla group.
"Yes, I was born arrogant, because I am a proud Jew," Timerman added Timerman, smiling and apparently physically fit, sidestepped questions about political repression in Argentina, where an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 persons have been jailed or have disappeared in the last three years.
Timerman said there "will be plenty of time for that later."
But the former publisher of the influential daily La Opinion said that during a stopover in Rome, he telephoned Israeli immigration authorities and told them that since he had been stripped of his Argentinian citizenship upon being expelled, "I wanted to become an Israeli citizen the moment I landed in Israeli. I didn't want to wait.
"It is really important to a Jew who is deprived of his citizenship and expelled from his country that he doesn't need to go around the world to find a country. I learned from the 2 1/2 years in jail the meaning of Jewish life -- the richness and solidarity of Jewish institutions in the United States. They fought from the beginning."
Timerman's imprisonment and torture began in the middle of a night in April 1977, when 12 heavily armed men in civilian clothing dragged him from his home and took him to prison.
Timerman is a talented publishing entrepreneur who in the 1960s brought the news magazine concept to Argentina by starting the journal Primera Plana. A year after his arrest he was cleared by a military tribunal of charges that he received money for La Opinion form the Montoneros, a Peronist-Marxist guerrilla group.
But the military junta kept him under house arrest in his 15th-floor apartment, apparently because of his publication of liberal views or because of suspected "Zionist" plots.
La Opinion, while tolerant of the junger for revolutionary change after an earlier period of military rule that ended in 1973, was tame by comparison with some other publications. In those turbulent years, Timerman often visited Israel and considered moving there. Following a brief infatuaing with president Juan Peron, whose rule turned chaotic, Timerman ironically advocated the 1976 military coup that was his own undoing.
Relaxed and smiling in his first appearance in Israel, Timerman told reporters, "I hope you will have some mercy on me. In this long and eternal war of journalism, I was on your side. Please be on my side today and give me the time to think and relax."
He said he plans to settle in Tel Aviv -- "at 56 years, I realize it is the first time I have a home" -- but that he is uncertain of his professional future. In an earlier stopover in Madrid, the Polish-born Timerman said he was concerned that his ignorance of Hebrew would impede him as a journalist.
But with a reporter's sense of detail and with an abundance of description, Timerman recalled his last day in Buenos Aires and his long flight to Israel.
He said the police came to his apartment Tuesday and told him to pack some shirts, a towel and soap, which made him think he was being returned to prison. "But we went to central headquarters, and five or ten minutes later they took me in a helicopter to the airport. They save me a ticket, and I saw 'Rome-to-Tev Aviv.' I realized I was free," Timerman said.
"It all happened so quick, perhaps part of the Army wanted to let me go and the other part didn't. One part didn't want the other part to know."
Timerman said two policemen stayed with him until his plane was about to leave for Israel, during which time boarding passengers who recognized him whispered, "Shalom."
"As soon as the guards left, people came up and said, 'I'm a Jew. Can I help?' They offered money. I was thinking of organizing a personal magabit," a charitable fund, Timerman said, laughing.
I feel like I'm an Israeli citizen," Timerman said. When somebody replied that he now is, Timerman said, "But now I feel it. That's quite different."