Can Neo-cons Identify anti-Semites? Argentina as a Case Study

by Jim Lobe

As everyone knows, prominent neo-conservatives have been spending weeks insisting that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite. The most toxic of these charges have, of course, been leveled by the Council on Foreign Relations’ mendacious Senior Middle East fellow Elliott Abrams in his now-infamous NPR interview a few evenings ago (which was taken apart by Lobelog alumnus Ali Gharib and which, I hear, is creating some major headaches for CFR president Richard Haass); the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens in a particularly malodorous column; the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin’s regular rants; and Bill Kristol‘s Weekly Standard, which launched the campaign almost a month ago with a quote from “a top Republican Senate aide” that warned: “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” (One wonders whether the source could have been Sen. Mark Kirk’s deputy chief of staff and AIPAC favorite, Richard Goldberg.) Of course, it’s long been a strategic neo-con goal to make criticism of Israel and its policies synonymous with anti-Semitism, so it’s no surprise that Hagel, who, for example, has been critical of Israeli settlements, should incur such attacks, as utterly ridiculous as virtually everyone who has worked with Hagel on Middle East issues (including former and current senior Israeli officials) has subsequently testified.

Neo-cons have long made sniffing out (as Stephens would probably put it) anti-Semites a specialty, although that skill has been deployed in a remarkably one-dimensional way, directed, as it has been, almost exclusively at “the left.” Aside from Adolph Hitler and his Nazis and, more recently, paleo-con Pat Buchanan, their olfactory sense appears to be blocked when inhaling through the right nostril. For example, they have largely absolved the Religious Right of anti-Semitism because of its love of Israel. (As Bill’s dad, Irving Kristol, opined about the more-anti-Jewish tendencies in Christian Zionist thought in Commentary back in 1982, “It’s their theology, but it’s our Israel.” And when Pastor John Hagee said in 2008 that the Nazi Holocaust was part of God’s plan to get Jews to move to Israel, neo-cons — and Abe Foxman — accepted his explanation without question.)

Jeane Kirkpatrick

Much the same applied on the international front. Indeed, while the elder Kristol was arguing for a Judeo-Christian Zionist alliance at home back in the early 1980s, he and other leading neo-cons, notably Midge DecterJeane Kirkpatrick, and, yes, Elliott Abrams, too, were also busy defending really serious anti-Semities abroad. Even as they agitated effectively for the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union, they conveniently averted their view from what was going on inArgentina, whose military junta — which enjoyed normal, even good relations with Israel — conducted its “dirty war” between 1976 until its fall shortly after its disastrous 1982 Falklands/Malvinas conflict withBritain. That war not only targeted Jews in disproportionate numbers, but was also known for treating those Jews who were “disappeared” into its clutches especially brutally — a fact that was well-documented as it happened but about which the neo-cons for several years had virtually nothing to say.

Consider the headline “Argentina Worried Over Anti-Semitism” that appeared in the July 7, 1977 edition of the New York Times. That article noted that:

[T]he complaints in the Jewish community include the leveling of anti-Semitic insults at and the physical abuse of Jews arrested by the security forces during investigations of subversive activities by left-wing guerrilla groups. In some cases, Jews have disclosed after being questioned and released that there were swastikas and pictures of Hitler in interrogation centers.

Earlier that year, two synagogues — one in central Buenos Aires– were firebombed, while pro-junta newspapers headlined lurid plots about the “Jewish-Marxist-Montonero conspiracy” against the country. In early 1980, Amnesty International published a lengthy report that included interviews of escaped detainees who testified that Jews were singled out for especially harsh treatment. Here’s a Jerusalem Post account quoting from the Amnesty report:

“From the moment they were kidnapped until they were included in a ‘transfer’ [a euphemism for being killed, usually taken by truck to helicopters, drugged, eviscerated, and thrown into the sea] they [the Jews] were systematically tortured. Some of them were made to kneel in front of pictures of Hitler and Mussolini to renounce their origins.”

A watered-down report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that came out shortly afterwards confirmed that Jewish detainees were being singled out for especially cruel treatment by their captors.

Or, read this 1981 account of one prominent Jewish family’s ordeal by the extraordinarily courageous columnist for the Buenos Aires Herald, Mario del Carril, to get some notion of what was happening in Argentina:

“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.’ [Imagine if any of these things were happening in Iran today.]

Jacobo Timerman

The Carter administration, with its new emphasis on human rights, reacted to the repression quite strongly by U.S.historical standards. It downgraded ties with Buenos Aires; it cut bilateral assistance and opposed loans to the country from international financial institutions like the World Bank; and, through the persistent and public hectoring of the first human rights assistant secretary, Pat Derian, it pushed relentlessly for the release of some of the more prominent detainees, notably and fatefully newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman, who was abducted by unknown assailants in April, 1977 and spent a year in a torture chamber and prison before being transferred to house arrest one year later and finally freed by a Supreme Court order in September, 1979, only to be immediately stripped of his citizenship by the junta which also expropriated his property and newspaper, and bundled him onto a plane bound for Israel. To its credit, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also spoke out strongly against the treatment of Jews by the regime during this period.

And what was the reaction of the neo-cons at the time to all this? They not only looked the other way; they actively criticized the Carter administration’s efforts, arguing, as Kirkpatrick did in her famous “Dictatorships and Double Standards” essay in Commentary that Washington’s human-rights policy was dangerously naive, especially in the context of the global struggle between the West and the Soviet Union. In her view, one had to make a distinction between “traditional autocrats” — especially friendly ones — which, in her view, were far less threatening to human rights (they respect “habitual patterns of family and personal relations” as opposed to “totalitarian” regimes, especially of the Communist variety, which deny their subjects all rights and are incapable of internal reform). Pressing “friendly authoritarians” like Somoza in Nicaragua and the Shah in Iran to respect human rights too quickly and punishing them if they failed to do so were ultimately counter-productive in her view, both politically in terms of encouraging internal reform and strategically in terms of the greater contest with Moscow. As Ronald Reagan took power in January 1981, the notion that “friendly authoritarians” — be they the military junta in Argentina, or apartheid South Africa, or genocidal Guatemala — should be dealt with through positive incentives and “quiet diplomacy” became the guiding light for the new administration for which Kirkpatrick would serve as UN ambassador and Abrams initially as assistant secretary of state for international organizations, soon thereafter as assistant secretary for human rights, and ultimately as assistant secretary for Inter-American affairs.

Meanwhile, Timerman had written a book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, which detailed his experience in exceptionally powerful terms. In addition to describing his own torture by electric shock (and the reaction of his torturers as they chanted in glee after each jolt, “Jew…Jew…Jew!…Jew”), he also addressed the fate of other victims, including entire families whose torture he personally witnessed or overheard.

“Of all the dramatic situations I witnessed in clandestine prisons, nothing can compare to those family groups who were tortured often together, sometimes separately but in view of one another. …The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty, collapses with a kick in the father’s genitals …or the sexual violation of a daughter. Suddenly an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice collapses.” [Recall Kirkpatrick’s defense of authoritarian regimes based on their respect for “habitual patterns of family and personal relations.”]

Unfortunately for Ernest Lefever, Reagan’s first pick for the human rights post and a man who fully embraced Kirkpatrick’s theories and many other highly questionable ideas, the English-language edition of Timerman’s book came out just as his confirmation hearings were about to begin. Until that moment, U.S. mainstream media had paid amazingly little attention to what had been going on in Argentina, but the book made such a splash, and Reagan’s repudiation of Carter’s human-rights policy had been so stark, that when Timerman himself showed up to witness and comment on the hearings, the military junta, its torture chambers, and its anti-Semitic —  not to say neo-Nazi — inclinations, suddenly became front-page news and the focus of long-delayed attention to the nature of the Argentine regime.

To make a long story short, Timerman’s book and the critical acclaim it received posed a major challenge to neo-con worldview both with respect to their cherished authoritarian/totalitarian dichotomy and their conviction that the greatest threat to Jews came from the left, rather than the right. (Indeed, Lefever’s nomination was quickly derailed, permitting the more diplomatic Abrams to take his place.) In more concrete terms, the neo-cons (and the Reagan administration in which they were ascendant) saw Argentina as a critical ally in the fight against the Soviet menace, especially in Central America where they had sent some of their torturers to help train and equip what, with the Reagan administration’s help, would become the anti-Sandinista contra army. Not only that, but the junta enjoyed very good relations with Israel, which, in the words of the Reagan State Department at the time, was “an important supplier of arms and military equipment toArgentina.” (This was cited in a memo to Congress as evidence that the junta could not be considered anti-Semitic and that “those outside Argentina who state that Argentine Jews and Soviet Jews are in the same situation do a grave disservice to Argentine Jews.”) In other words, the military junta was on our side, and here they were being exposed by Timerman as a bunch of sadistic neo-Nazi murderers, who decorated their torture chambers with banners of swastikas and giant photos of the Fuehrer himself.

So how did the neo-cons react, now that the junta’s anti-Semitism — real, Nazi-like anti-Semitism, not rhetorical denunciations about Jewish control of the media and the banks and the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, but serious, sadistic and murderous anti-Semitism that resulted in the most horrific treatment and killings of hundreds of Jewish people — had finally hit the headlines and captured the public attention in a way that it had escaped for the previous five years?

Irving Kristol

They attacked Timerman, of course. They didn’t accuse him of entirely fabricating his story, at least not publicly. (Chris Hitchens told me a few years ago that Irving Kristol had told him at a dinner party at the time that he really didn’t believe that Timerman had suffered anything like what he had described in the book.) But they — and by they, I’m referring specifically to the elder Kristol (“The Timerman Affair”, WSJ, May 29, 1981); Decter (“The Uses of Jacobo Timerman”, Contentions, August, 1981); another Journal columnist, Seth Lipsky (“A Conversation with Publisher Jacobo Timerman”, WSJ, June 4, 1981); and numerous NYT columns by William Safire — very much echoed what the Argentine regime itself had been saying: Timerman wasn’t abducted and tortured because he was a Jew, but because he had a business relationship with David Graiver, a shadowy financier suspected of funding the Montoneros (a notion thoroughly debunked by del Carril who noted in a 5 July 1981 Washington Post op-ed — “Reflections on Timerman” — that Graiver had a number of other business associates, including an archbishop and the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS) who were not Jewish and never questioned, let alone kidnapped and tortured). Or that the military consisted of different “factions”, the more moderate of which — supposedly consisting of successive presidents of the junta (both of whom were later convicted of and imprisoned for crimes committed under their command, including the theft of babies of detained mothers who were murdered after giving birth) — had worked tirelessly to secure Timerman’s release and free other Jewish prisoners. Or that it was a chaotic period in which difficult decisions and extreme measures had to be taken. Or that anti-Semitism was never an official policy of the government.  Or that Timerman was a leftist, not just an innocent victim (thus echoing Kirkpatrick’s remarks about the four U.S. churchwomen who were raped and killed close to San Salvador’s airport in December, 1980 — “The nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were political activists.”) Here’s how Kristol, the most influential of Timerman’s assailants, wound up his op-ed in the Journal:

The military regime in Argentina, for all its ugly aspects, is authoritarian, not totalitarian

Now that the Montonero terrorists have been crushed, theUnited Statesis using its influence to try to move the regime gradually toward greater liberalization. …[W]e are doing what we can to strengthen the more moderate and sensible elements in the army. The outlook of far from hopeless.

It would become utterly hopeless, however, were we to “write off”Argentina– excommunicate it, so to speak, from the community of nations. Then the more extreme right-wing elements in the armed forces — the ones who illegally arrested and tortured Mr. Timerman — would surely take total power. 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.” [You see: it’s all the left’s fault. Or, in Kirkpatrick-speak, “Blame the Left First.”]

So how did it work out? Well, the Reagan administration, presumably with the agreement of its new human rights czar, Abrams, soon lifted almost all the sanctions that the Carter administration had imposed against Argentina; worked with Buenos Aires to ease scrutiny of its record by the UN and Inter-American Human Rights Commission; cooperated and encouraged the junta to help build up the contra forces that were gathering in Honduras; expressed regret for all the liberal abuse the junta had taken under Carter, reassured Buenos Aires that more goodies would be forthcoming; even talked up the possibility of its inclusion in a South Atlantic Treaty Organization with South Africa,  etc. — all in the service of strengthening the “more moderate and sensible elements” in the army.

And what did those “moderate and sensible elements” do in response? They invaded the Falklands/Malvinas, thus precipitating a war and a major split within the Reagan administration between Secretary of State Al Haig, who argued the U.S. had to provide some support – even if limited to intelligence — to its closest NATO ally, Britain, and the neo-cons led by Kirkpatrick who argued that Washington should remain neutral, presumably to ensure the survival of a “friendly authoritarian” regime whose help in Central America was considered important to the administration’s ambitions there. Indeed, as the Argentines were routed, the administration tried to broker a negotiated settlement that would save the junta’s face, but, as recently declassified British documents have revealed, Maggie Thatcher would have none of it. As for Kirkpatrick’s role in this, the British ambassador at the time, Nicholas Henderson, described the administration’s highest-ranking neo-con as “more fool than fascist” for her support of the junta. Utterly disgraced in the eyes of its public, the junta under which anti-Semitism had flourished, and hundreds of Jews had been tortured and killed, was out of power within months.

Did this experience change perceptions by the neo-cons about anti-Semitism on the right? There is certainly no evidence to suggest that it did, despite the enormous amount of documentation that has subsequently been adduced by Argentina’s 1984 Truth Commission (whose report was entitled, significantly, “Nunca Mas”) and the many subsequent trials against junta officials that followed over the following years – all of which vindicated what the early reports, Amnesty, and Timerman had written about.

Indeed, Abrams and the head of Reagan’s controversial “Office of Public Diplomacy”, Otto Reich (later George W. Bush’s first assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs) worked tirelessly in the mid- to late-1980’s with the help of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary magazine to tar the Sandinista government with the anti-Semitism brush (relying primarily on wealthy Jewish exiles who had strong financial ties to ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza and left the country when or soon after he did), despite the fact that the U.S. embassy in Managua “found no verifiable ground on which to accuse the GRN [the Sandinista government] of anti-Semitism,” according to a July 28, 1983, cable. Their goal was to rally support in the Jewish community, the great majority of which was strongly opposed to the Reagan administration’s policies inCentral America, behind arming the Nicaraguan contras.

Yet the strongest anti-Semitic statement issued by any prominent Nicaraguan figure during Sandinistas’ 11-year rule was unquestionably that of the anti-Sandinista and U.S.-backed Archbishop (later made Cardinal, in part at Washington’s urging, by Pope John Paul II) Miguel Obando y Bravo. In an October 1984 homily that was reprinted in the anti-Sandinista (and U.S. government-supported) La Prensa newspaper, he stated:

[T]he leaders ofIsrael…mistreated [the prophets], beat them, killed them. Finally as supreme proof of love, God sent his divine Son, but they …also killed him, crucifying him… The Jews killed the prophets and finally the Son of God. …Such idolatry calls forth the sky’s vengeance.”

The ADL protested the homily; the neo-cons, including Abrams and Reich, ignored it.

So, if you want to identify an anti-Semite, the last person to consult would be a neo-conservative.

Featured Photo: Pictures of some of the estimated 30,000 people who were “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War. By “miss buenos aires” Flickr. 

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Great piece Jim.

    Thanks from one who does not know much about that part of history. The neocons are even worse than I thought.

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