Pope Francis, the Dirty War and the Jews

Argentina Little Different From Nazi-Allied Vichy France

getty images

By Robert Zaretsky

Published March 20, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

If the Argentine junta, led by Jorge Rafael Videla, did not introduce anti-Semitic laws, it was because it had turned Argentina into a lawless state. As the Commission of Solidarity With Relatives of the Disappeared has revealed, Jews were disproportionately targeted during the “dirty war.” According to the commission’s report, Argentine Jews “represented more than 12% of the victims of the military regime while constituting under 1% of Argentina’s population.”

Jacobo Timerman’s experience, recounted in his memoir, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” reminds us of the Nazi-inflected worldview of the Argentine military, convinced that Jews were at the heart of a Zionist-cum-communist menace aimed at their nation. There are 10,000 victims on the official list of “the disappeared” — the men and women tortured and murdered by the junta — nearly 1,300 of whom were Jewish.

It was only in mid-1942, when Vichy began to deport Jews to the death camps in the East, that the Catholic hierarchy finally flinched. Jules-Géraud Saliège, cardinal of Toulouse, and Pierre-Marie Théas, bishop of Montauban, denounced these actions. Citing a line in Isaiah, Théas declared: “I didn’t want to be a mute dog and I barked when I had to. It was my duty; my silence would have been a betrayal.” But the great majority of his peers did betray with their public silence.

There were several instances of resistance among the Argentine clergy, most famously two French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, who joined the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement. For their pains, the nuns were abducted and murdered in 1977 by the military. And, of course, there were the two Jesuit priests from whom, according to some accounts, Bergoglio had withdrawn the protection of his order. (Kidnapped by the army, they were tortured, but survived their ordeal.) Another notable example is Enrique Angelelli, the activist bishop of La Rioja. Angelelli was killed by the army in 1976 after persisting in his efforts to discover the whereabouts of “disappeared” members of his parish.

Yet these men and women were the exceptions. The verdict of historian Michael Lowy on Bergoglio’s behavior — “He neither condemned nor criticized the dictatorship” — applies to the Argentine Church as a whole, just as it does to the French Catholic Church.

It was only when Pope John Paul II urged Catholics to confess to past errors that the French and Argentine churches confronted their histories. Their responses revealed subtle but dramatic differences. In 1997, in the Paris suburb of Drancy, home to the transit camp to Auschwitz, the church’s leaders publicly declared: “France’s bishops did not speak out, acquiescing through their silence to the flagrant violations of human rights and enabling this fatal spiral. Our silence was a mistake. We beg for the pardon of God, and we ask the Jewish people to hear this word of repentance.”

Compared with this frank (and frankly inspiring) document, the Argentine Church’s confession, made in a pastoral letter in 1996, staggers under the weight of bad faith. As if dictated by a team of defense attorneys — “Without admitting the responsibilities,” the letter begins, “that the church did not have in these occurrences” — the bishops first finger the “systematic violence” not of the junta, but instead of the Marxist revolutionaries. While acknowledging that “there were other groups which included many sons of the church that responded illegally to the guerillas,” the bishops denied all institutional responsibility for these crimes. Remarkably, not once does the word “disappeared” appear in their text.

But this instance of ethical constriction may now be changing into one of true contrition. In the echo chamber of the Internet, we keep bumping up against a certain number of items from Bergoglio’s biography. He took public transport, lived in a small apartment, made his own meals and had close relations with the Jewish community of Argentina; all of this is telling and important. We also keep hearing that Bergoglio led the Argentine Church in 2012 in a “collective apology” for its behavior during the “dirty war.”

My Internet searches for the text itself proved fruitless. But let us hope its wording equals the French confession, and let us recall that the French church also needed a half-century before its act of repentance.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Pursuit of Meaning” (Harvard University Press).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.