A bizarre controversy with equally bizarre battlelines has erupted in the debate over America's newly relaxed approach to global human rights. It is a controvrsy studded with accounts of torture, brutality, and Semitism and even Nazism in Argentina and, implausibly, it finds prominent American Jews on both sides of the issue.

In the name of the neo-conservative politics they preach, a small group including prominent American Jews has begun a campaign to discredit Jacobo Timerman, the liberal Argentine newspaper publisher who was arrested by the Argentine military without ever being charged, and who was tortured and brutalized by them for 2 1/2 years, mainly, he says, for being Jewish in a country that is rife with anti-Semitism and is run by a military that openly admires the Nazis.

The neo-conservatives set their ideological sights on Timerman after he appeared in the audience of a Senate hearing on the nomination of Earnest Lefever, then President Reagan's choice to be assistant secretary of state for human rights, and recieved a rare ovation from committee members and spectators.

That led to media interviews in which he expressed opposition to the Reagan administration's desire to bestow diplomatic favors and military aid upon the current military regime Argentina. And that led the neo-conservatives to call in their heavy firepower upon his every position.

In the vanguard of the attack was Irving Kristol, prominent in American Jewry editor of Democrat. ". . . irresponsible and dishonest demagoguery . . .," Kristol wrote in a scathing denunciation of Timerman's new book in The Wall Street Jounral.

(Even as he attacked, however, Kristol conceded that "it is impossible to doubt the authenticity of Mr. Timerman's account, which is substantiated from innumerble sources.")

Other converts to the Reagan foreign policy cause have also pressed the attack, including Norman Podhoretz, editor of the American Jewish Committee's Commentary Magazine, which published an article in its latest editions that also attacks Timerman.

Joining the neo-conservatives in their assault has been William F. Buckley Jr., who is about as neo-conservative as Cochise was neo-American (and who is about as Jewish as well). Buckley recieved information (which has since been discredited) to use in a column attacking Timerman from Carl S. Gershman, an aide to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jews Kirkpatrick, herself a Reagan Democrat and close ally of Kristol and Podhoretz.

("Increasingly, one wonders about Mr. Timerman's stability," wrote Buckley. Also: ". . . again, one wonders about Mr. Timerman's judgment.")

The timerman affair burst upon the debate on global human rights just when that Carter-era heirloom of lofy principle seemed banished to the attic of American policy, pedestal and all, like Aunt Agatha's favorite self-portrait on velveteen that is brought down and dusted off only when Aunt Agatha comes to call.

In their anxiety to attack, the neo-conservatives may have done for human rights what even Jimmy Carter was never able to do: they have focused public attention on the issue as never before. They have provided Timerman and his believers with the ideological equivalent of being banned in Boston.

The Reagan officials and their neo-conservative backers had hoped the push for human rights activism would remain unobtrusively beneath the dropcloth of current Reagan policy, where human rights violations are dealt with according to two-part formula that discerns a distinction between "authoritarian" dictatorships of the right and "totalitarian" dictatorships of the left.

This formulation, championed by Kirkpatrick in a Commentary Magazine article that helped win her the ambassdorship, calls for aggressively attacking violations when they are perpetrated by the totalitarian communists, since they are implacably America's foes; but it holds that such abuses should be mentioned only quietly or not at all when perpetrated by the dictatorships of the right (such as Argentina), since they are redeemable by virtue of their anti-communism.

The furor over human rights in Argentina is seen, by those who have converted to Reaganism from the FDR fold, in terms of left/right politics in the United States. That and secret conspiracies.

"It would be utterly hopeless . . . were we to 'write off' Argentina -- excommunicate it, so to speak, from the community of 'nations," wrote Kristol in The Wall Street Journal.

" . . . One strongly suspects that there are many on the American left who would like to see this happen. The politics of polarization, in which the left crusades against the right under the banner of 'human rights,' while the threat from the totalitarian left is altogether ignored, appeals to their ideological bias as well as to their self-righteous passions. One might almost say it is their secret agenda."

What happened to Jacobo Timerman has happened to thousands of others in Argentina; but the difference is that after 2 1/2 years as a nonperson, he was finally freed (as a result, he believes, of the hard pressing of the Carter administration's secretary of state for human rights, Patricia Derian) and he came back to write of the agony and horror of his experience in his new book, "Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number."

He wrote of how his captors stripped him of his clothes and his dignity, and ultimately, upon his release, his citizenship. He wrote of military jails decorated with swastikes and photos of Hitler; of being jolted with electric shocks, of being held in cramped cells where he could hear a family being tortured en masse, the family looking on helplessly as the guards kicked the father in his genitals, the daughters forced to trade sexual favors with the guards to spare parents the horror of torture or perhaps grant the parents the privilege of going to the bathroom.

He wrote of how they questioned him about being Jewish and Zionist (he said he was both), and about whether there was a Zionist plot in which the Jews would take over mineral-rich Patagonia in the south of Argentina, and about thier belief that Zbigniew Brzezinski was the head of a Jewish conspiracy (Brzezinski is not Jewish), and whether Timerman was Brezinski's Argentine connection.

"Later," he wrote, "during a conversation with the Israeli leader Yigal Allon, I told him that I had not been humiliated by the torture but that I had been humiliated -- profoundly -- by the silent complcity of Jewish leaders."

His writings and his subsequent interviews are laced with bitterness toward the Argentine Jewish leaders who he says passively accept the anti-Semitism that is around them and that is condoned by their government. He likens their silence to that of the Jewish leaders in Germany in the 1930s.

". . . perhaps the Holocaust is in a way already occurring -- perhaps the seeds have already been planted. Again, it depends on one's view of a Holocaust. There are no gas chambers in Argentina, and this leaves many people with a clear conscience . . . . But everyone knows that something terrible has already happened."

To this, Irving Kristol fires broadside:

"He wants very much to persuade the world that he was imprisoned and tortured simply because he was left wing and a Zionist; that the Argentine government is already a neo-Nazi regime bent on a new holocaust against Jews; that our State Department is delinquent in having any dealings with it; and that the Argentine Jewish community, along with the major American Jewish organizations, is simply too cowardly to face this reality

"On the other hand, to say that it has already happened -- or is on the verge of happening -- is irresponsible and dishonest demagoguery. Though anti-Semitism may be rife in certain segments of Argentine society, the government has been doing -- and is doing -- its best to render it ineffectual."

The government, in doing its best, must have been powerless to prevent the airing of an interview shown not long ago over the Army-controlled channel in Buenos Aires.

In the interview, which had been videotaped well before it was permitted to be telecast, the interviewer asked a Jewish businessman a number of questions that were themselves of questions that were themselves statements of anti-Semitism, not of interrogation, questions, as reported in the Sunday Times of London, about why it was that "practically everybody" has hated the Jews for 4,000 years; why are there no poor Jews and why do "you Jews" think you are so superior?

The interviewer, according to the Sunday Times, was the brother of the general in charge of press services for the military junta that rules Argentina.

The attacks on Timerman have left deep divisions within the ranks of America's Jewish leaders, at times even within the ranks of the same Jewish organizations.

"I regret very much the attacks on Jacobo Timerman," says Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee. "They are most unfortunate. It is very regrettable that what could have been a most powerful and noble chapter has now been deflected into a political power struggle."

Bookbinder said he takes issue with Timerman's opposition to speaking quietly in an effort to achieve results in Argentina because Timerman counseled just that approach not long ago.

"Now he's trying to rewrite his own history," Bookbinder said. ". . . But this effort to discredit and destroy Jacobo Timerman at a time when he was making such progress in behalf of human rights is a real tragedy."

Jacobo Timerman, his hair gray and thinning, his shoulders stooped, his waistline thickened, is not without his flaws. He was known by those who worked for him and with him in Argentina as a man of considerable skill, surpassed only, perhaps by his ego.

He is today a man who knows well how to make the rhetorical most of his position to further his political views. And he was equally skilled when it came to writing his book.

There is, therefore, one glaring omission, which is pointed out at length by Kristol, midway through his fusillade. Timerman's book makes no mention of one David Graiver, who was his financial partner in the ownership of La Opinion, and who was indeed a figure of political controversy among Argentine authorities at the time of Timerman's arrest.

Graiver has been accused in Argentina of having held and invested the money of the left-wing urban terrorists known as the Montonero. The case was portrayed in Argentina as evidence of a Jweish-Marxist-Montonero conspiracy and was, in that way, part of the anti-Semitic climate of which Timerman writes.

Graiver has also been accused by the district attorney in Manhattan of having bilked as much as $40 million from two failed U.S. banks, Century National Bank and Trust ant American Bank and Trust.

Graiver has not been heard from since August, 1976, when a private plane in which he was flying was said to have crashed in Mexico; he has been declared legally dead, despite protests of the Manhattan district attorney that Graiver might still be alive and well and living somewhere, if not in Argentina.

A mention of Graiver might have gotten in the way of the case Timerman was making so eloquently in his book, and so his name does not appear. "Why should I mention Graiver?" Timerman asks during an interview. "I was never accused of any conspiracy with Fraiver. It had no part -- nothing, absolutely nothing -- to do with my being arrested. There were no questions asked about Graiver."

No questions relating to Graiver? He is asked again. Actually, he says the second time, they did ask him some questions during his 2 1/2 years of incarceration about what connection there was between himself and Graiver and the Montonero. "I said I didn't know of any connection," he continues, "and that was accepted by them."

There is no way to know that it was otherwise.

There is, perhaps a more central question to the Jacobo Timmerman affair, as it is being played out in the American media, pressed into controversy largely by the pro-Reagan conservatives among the prominent American Jews. It is: Why is he being attacked at all?

Should it make a difference in the conduct of U.S. human rights policy that the reason Timerman was held in prison without charges and tortured was perhaps 80 percent because he was Jewish and 20 percent because he was a leftist, or perhaps 80 percent because he was believed to be a leftist and only 20 percent because he was Jewish?

And if he does exaggerate the immediacy and virulency of the anti-Semitism in Argentina, is this not understandable given his perspective for 2 1/2 years? And is he does take strong rhetorical offense at a U.S. administration that wants to give aid and comfort to the regime that gave him torture and brutality, is that not understandable, too?

"What prompted Irving Dristol to write that piece," says Carl Gershman, counselor to Ambassador Kirkpatrick at the United Nations, "is that Timerman had become a symbolic figure, and he was being used by forces in the United States who want to attack this administration.

"Okay, he has a grude and was treated very badly [in Argentina]. But there are many people who have gone through a lot worse hell than he has."

Gershman recently gave conservative columnist William Buckley quotations from an Uruguayan newspaper article that were sent to Kirkpatrick in an unclassified State Department cable, in which Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was criticizing Timerman.

After Buckley carried the quotes in a column attacking Timerman, Wiesenthal said that the quotations were inaccurate and that he had never attacked Timerman in that interview with the Uruguayan journalist.

Gershman defends his passing along of the information, saying it was, after all, just a newspaper article already in the public domain, and that he had no way of knowing whether the journalist had quoted Wiesenthal accurately or not.

The issue, as Gershman sees it, is not really just human rights. "The issue is a more subtle one. It is about attitudes toward communism . . . and how American foreign policy is to deal with the complex questions of authoritative governments that are friendly to the West."

At the United Nations, Kirkpatrick offers a bit of diplomatic elaboration. "We should, by quiet deplomacy and our president's speeches, make it clear that we think torture is a bestial process, and that we do it," she says. "I have no problem with our government making it clear that our relations with other countries are affected inevitable by their moral and social conduct."

The attacks on Timerman, she explains, have occurred because "Timerman has linked his experience to recomendations about American foreign policy . . . He has never been criticized by me, however. He has had a dreadful experience and he has suffered a great deal.

"But I am not criticizing people who are criticizing him. It comes down to this:

"Jacobo Timerman attacks me, and that is all right. So Irving Kristol attacks Jacobo Timerman, well, that is all right, too, because we are involved in a debate on public policy. And when you et involved in a debate on public policy, being attacked just goes with the turf, for me and for Timerman, too."

EPILOGUE: Irving Kristol sees a conspiracy in the fact that Jacobo Timerman's torture in the jails of fascist Argentines has been widely publicized while Huber Matos' torture in the jails of communist Cubans has not.

"A major intellectual and propaganda campaign is now being mounted by the left and liberal-left against [the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships]," Kristol wrote, notwithstanding the prolonged media celebration that greeted the freedom of rightist hero Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

". . . Finally freed, Mr. Matos is now in the United States, where the self-styled 'human rights movement' studiously ignores him. The New Yorker has not published his memors, as it has Mr. Timmerman's . . . . Mr. Timerman is a hero of the human rights crusade.Mr. Matos is consigned to the shadows. Can anyone believe this is accidental?"

It is no accident. Literary agent George Bourchardt says in New York that he represents both Timerman and Matos. He said he has had "numerous inquiries" from publishing houses that want to buy Matos' memoirs of his life in Fidel Castro's jail, but that Matos so far has been unable to deliver. He explains: "We're still waiting for a manuscript."