Friday, June 21, 2002

Ilan Stavans on Jacobo Timerman (Forward)

June 21, 2002
An Argentine Mandela, Twenty Years Later

The following is an abbreviated version of Ilan Stavans's introduction to the 20th-anniversary release of Jacobo Timerman's 1981 book, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," to be published in August by the University of Wisconsin.

By Ilan Stavans

'I have lost none of my anxieties, none of my ideology, none of my love or my hate," Jacobo Timerman (1923-1999) writes toward the end of "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," which is more than the mere chronicle of his imprisonment in 1970s Argentina, in the period known as the Dirty War, la guerra sucia. The volume is also a descent to a chamber of hell overused in the 20th century, where prisoners of conscience such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel have been kept in bondage.

It is difficult to think of a more influential book by a Jewish author from Latin America. It became a cause célèbre when the English translation by Toby Talbot appeared in 1981. More than two decades have passed since then, enough time to ascribe to it the adjective "classic." As a window to an age of terror, it ought to be read alongside similar narratives of self-determination from the region, such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's self-defense against the corrupt Catholic priests of Mexico in 1691, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's dispatches against the Rosas tyranny in the River Plate in 1948, and Rigoberta Menchú's controversial autobiographical account of 1978 about human rights abuses in the Indian population of Guatemala. Like them, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number" is a testament to dignity and endurance.

Extending a tradition of tolerance that reaches back to Europe, he was arguably Argentina's most important Jew from the '60s onward: His role as journalist and newspaper editor allowed him venues to express his democratic ideas openly and without reservation. He had been the founder of the newspaper Primera Plana and editor in chief of La Opinión, a paper modeled after Le Monde and closed by the government. In its pages he stuffed reportage about corruption and antisemitism. It also published the habeas corpus to the courts by the families of the desaparecidos. The nation's army became furious and went after him. It made him turn the term "dissidence," in vogue at the time of Juan Domingo Perón's second presidential period (1973-1974), back to its semantic origins. (Dissidence: from the Latin dis + sedere, sitting apart.)

At the time Latin America didn't yet know how best to approach democracy. His arrest came on April 15, 1977, as some 20 civilians obeying orders from the army besieged his apartment. He was described as the scum of the earth: a Zionist, a usurper. The description Timerman offers of his physical ordeal is macabre. "The cell is narrow," he states. "When I stand at its center, facing the steel door, I can't extend my arms .... The floor... is permanently wet. Somewhere there's a leak. The mattress is also wet. I have a blanket, and to prevent that from getting wet I keep it on my shoulders constantly. If I lie down with the blanket on top of me, the part of my body touching the mattress gets soaked."

At one point, a guard leaves the peephole ajar: Timerman knows he is observed, and he too observes his counterpart outsider. In those extreme circumstances, a friendship evolves between torturer and victim. Each wonders what is in the other man that he might recognize in himself. The conscience that evolves from this self-recognition pushes the prisoner to a roller coaster of reflections in which he questions his loyalty as a Jew toward the Ukraine, his place of birth; toward Argentina, to where he immigrated at the age of 5, and toward Israel, a state where, stripped of his Argentine citizenship, he was flown to when the Argentine junta, under international pressure, finally set him free.

"Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number" uses a literary technique that mimics his state of mind, moving back and forth in time from the isolation in jail to philosophical meditations on the nature of evil and the excesses of the state. As the pages accumulate, the reader gets the sense that Timerman is growing stronger. He discusses his Jewish education, his journalism and how tyranny seeks to impose "an Artificial Order" onto the universe. His Judaism, he concludes, is "a political act. But Judaism as a political category [is] impossible for the military to understand." For them it is a religion; or better, a conspiracy.

Eventually, Timerman learns from Holocaust survivors that he is a victim only if he recognizes himself as one. Thus, he seeks his own courage. Freedom, he is convinced, is a state of mind. The word "Argentina" keeps popping up. What does it mean to be an Argentine? As a Jew, has he ever become an integral part of his adopted country? He becomes emotional in the process. He doesn't shy away from a critique of the Argentine Jewish community. But his true target is more abstract. "It is essential, I suppose, to attempt some explanation of what Argentina is," he announces.

Yet I find it almost impossible to do so in normal terms.... [The problem] is that I myself perhaps am unable to understand her. Or it may be that I've lived though a period of such political and social disintegration that it is hard for me to conceive that some coherent explanation would emerge from such disparate and anarchistic opposing elements. In this context, a statement by Borges is, I think, useful. Borges remarked, some thirty years ago, that the Argentine is not a citizen but an inhabitant; that he lacks an idea of the nation where he resides, but views it as a territory which, owing to its wealth, can be exploited rapidly.

Timerman recalls that Argentina, since the late 19th century when the first Yiddish-language settlers arrived from Eastern Europe, had been perceived as a Promised Land of sorts. Intellectuals such as Alberto Gerchunoff dreamed of a society where Jews would not only be accepted but where they would become active participants in the civil dialogue. But already in 1919 a pogrom, known as la semana trágica ("the tragic week"), crushed those utopian aspirations. From then on, the dream shattered repeatedly as one coup d'état after another crippled the hopes of the population. The land of milk and honey became the land of sour grapes. "We'll show the Nazis how to do things," an Argentine officer says while handling a Jewish prisoner. And adds: "Don't worry, you only die once."

The critic Howard M. Fraser once stated that the touchstone of Timerman's work is the uprootedness of the Jewish tradition "brought about by centuries of wandering in the diaspora." In the end, he portrays himself as a transhistorical Jew, whose mission is to enhance tolerance around him. He stumbles at times but comes back to his senses. "Was it inevitable for me to die like this?" Timerman asks himself. "Yes, it was inevitable," he replies. "Was it what I desired? Yes, it was what I desired. Wife, children, I love you. Adiós..." But he changes his mind. He convinces himself that his obligation — his only obligation — is to survive and become a witness. No room for tenderness, for "tenderness, is the enemy," Timerman states. "The intoxication of tenderness is tantamount to death."

Upon his release, Timerman authored a polemical critique of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, as well as autobiographical volumes of reportage on Chile and Cuba. After Raúl Alfonsín came to power, he returned home with his wife. By then he was seen as a statesman, with local and international honors regularly bestowed on him until his death by a heart attack in 1999.

Jean-Paul Sartre believed in a dialectical relationship between antisemites and Jews: Both exist thanks to the other. The thesis might be flawed, but it applies to Timerman, an assimilated Jew whose victimizers turned him into a symbol of survival that is, to a degree, the voice of the approximately 1,500 Jewish desaparecidos in Argentina. Their death and his anguish he turns into fortitude.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His memoir, "On Borrowed Words," will be issued in paperback in August by Penguin.

Monday, June 17, 2002

Anti-semitism is back (Todd Gitlin)

Mother Jones
June 17, 2002

The Rough Beast Returns

COMMENTARY: Anti-Semitism is back, taking the place of intelligent criticism of Israel and its policies. And if that wasn't bad enough, students are spreading the gibberish.

By Todd Gitlin

The email sent out last month by Laurie Zoloth, director of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, was chilling on its face.

"I cannot fully express what it feels like to have to walk across campus daily, past maps of the Middle East that do not include Israel, past posters of cans of soup with labels on them of drops of blood and dead babies, labeled 'canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license,' past poster after poster calling out Zionism=racism, and Jews=Nazis," she wrote -- and the details only became more shattering from then on.

I read Zoloth's words with horror but not, alas, complete amazement, Eleven years ago, during the Gulf War, across San Francisco Bay, the head of a student splinter group at Berkeley addressed a room full of faculty and students opposed to the war, spitting out venomously, "You Jews, I know your names, I know where you live."

The faculty and students in attendance sat stiffly and said nothing. Embarrassed? Frightened? Or worse -- thinking that it wasn't time to tackle this issue, that it was off the agenda, an inconvenience.

Far more recently, two students of mine at NYU wondered aloud whether it was actually true, as they had heard, that 4,000 Jews didn't show up for work at the World Trade Center on September 11. They clearly thought this astoundingly crazy charge was plausible enough to warrant careful investigation, but it didn't occur to them to look at the names of the dead.

Wicked anti-Semitism is back. The worst crackpot notions that circulate through the violent Middle East are also roaming around America, and if that wasn't bad enough, students are spreading the gibberish. Students! As if the bloc to which we have long looked for intelligent dissent has decided to junk any pretense of standards.

A student movement is not just a movement. It's a student movement. Students, whether they are progressive or not, have the responsibility of knowing things, of thinking and discerning, of studying. A student movement should maintain the highest of standards, not ape the formulas of its elders or outdo them in virulence.

It should therefore trouble progressives everywhere that the students at San Francisco State are neither curious nor revolted by the anti-Semitic drivel they are regurgitating. The simple fact that a student movement -- even a small one -- has been reduced to reflecting the hatred spewed by others should profoundly trouble anyone whose moral principles aim higher than simple nationalism -- as should be the case for anyone on the left.

It isn't hard to discover the sources of the drivel being parroted by the students at San Francisco State. In the blood-soaked Middle East of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, in the increasingly polarized Europe of Jean-Marie le Pen raw anti-Semitism has increasingly taken the place of intelligent criticism of Israel and its policies.

Even as Laurie Zoloth's message flew around the world, even as several prominent European papers published scathing but warranted attacks on Israel's stonewalling of an inquiry into the Jenin fighting, the great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago was describing Israel's invasion of Ramallah as "a crime comparable to Auschwitz."

In one of his long, lapping sentences, Saramago wrote in Madrid's El Pais (as translated by Paul Berman in The Forward, May 24):

"Intoxicated mentally by the messianic dream of a Greater Israel which will finally achieve the expansionist dreams of the most radical Zionism; contaminated by the monstrous and rooted 'certitude' that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner."

Note well: the deliciously deferred subject of this sentence is: "the Jews." Not the right-wing Jews, the militarist Israelis, but "the Jews." Suddenly the Jews are reduced to a single stick-figure (or shall we say hook-nosed?) caricature and we are plunged into the brainless, ruinous, abysmal iconography that should make every last reasonable person shudder.

The German socialist August Bebel once said that anti-Semitism was "the socialism of fools." What we witness now is the progressivism of fools. It is a recrudescence of everything that costs the left its moral edge. And, appallingly, it is this contemptible message the anti-Semitic students at San Francisco State chose to parrot.

We are not on the brink of "another Auschwitz," and to think so, in fact, falsifies the danger. The danger is clear and present, though not apocalyptic. It's no remote nightmare that synagogues are bombed, including the one on the Tunisian island of Djerba, famous for tolerance, an apparent al-Qaeda truck bomb attack. This happened. It is no remote nightmare that hundreds of Palestinian civilians died during Israeli incursions into the West Bank. This, too, happened. The nightmare is that the second is being allowed to excuse and justify the first.

Laurie Zoloth wrote: "Let me remind you that ours is arguably one of the Jewish Studies programs in the country most devoted to peace, justice and diversity since our inception."

But anti-Semitism doesn't care. Like every other lunacy that diminished human brains are capable of, anti-Semitism already knows what it hates.

This is no incidental issue, no negligible distraction. A Left that cares for the rights of humanity cannot cavalierly tolerate the systematic abuse of any people -- whatever you think of Israel's or any other country's foreign policy. Any student movement worthy of the name must face the ugly history that long made anti-Semitism the acceptable racism, face it and break from it.