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Jewish Journal

Dictators’ Waltz

June 8, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Among the myriad new possibilities opening up for American Jewish women these days, there's none quite as dizzying as the possibility facing Eliane Karp in the coming weeks. There's a chance she might become first lady of Peru, the third-largest country in South America.

Karp's husband, mild-mannered economics professor Alejandro Toledo, is the unlikely insurgent seeking to topple Peru's iron-fisted ruler, President Alberto Fujimori. They were supposed to face off at the polls May 28, but Toledo withdrew, charging massive fraud. Fujimori, unopposed, was reelected by a slim margin. He now plans a July 28 inauguration. The Organization of American States is now trying to isolate him. Toledo, meanwhile, has taken his case to the streets. He hopes to lead a protest campaign like the one that unseated Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Eliane Karp, an anthropologist and rural development expert, is widely viewed as the fire beneath her scholarly husband. "She's got excellent political antennae," says journalist and Latin America expert Douglas Payne. "She's had a significant role in Toledo's emergence as a major contender against Fujimori."

A naturalized U.S. citizen, Karp was born in Paris to Belgian parents. Reared in the leftist Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, she went to kibbutz after high school, earned a B.A. at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, then went for a master's at Stanford University in California. That's where she married Toledo in 1979.

Since then, except for stints with the World Bank in Washington and Bank Leumi in Tel Aviv, she's worked steadily among the Indians in the Peruvian Andes, becoming something of a local hero.

An avid feminist, she wants to reshape Peruvian notions of presidential spouses. "For the first time," she says, "they would have a first lady who is a professional and could work with grass-roots organizations."Such talk brings constant comparisons to another outspoken first lady, Hillary Clinton - or, for detractors, Argentina's Eva Peron.

There's another, more precise parallel: Janet Jagan, former first lady of Guyana. Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago in 1920, she was married in 1943 to Cheddi Jagan, a Guyanese dental student. He went home to lead Guyana's independence struggle from Britain,was repeatedly elected prime minister, deposed twice, restored to power by Jimmy Carter. After Cheddi died in 1997, Janet was elected president in her own right, perhaps the first American Jew to rule a South American country. She resigned last summer after a heart attack.

The parallels between Karp and Jagan are uncanny. Both married foreign grad students. Both saw their parents, furious at their intermarriage, refuse to talk to them for years, relenting only when a grandchild came. Both played lead roles in their adopted nations' democracy struggles.In Karp's case, though, the story's still unfolding.

There's another key difference. For Jagan, a lifelong Marxist, "Jewishness wasn't much of a factor in my life. There's no Jewish community in Guyana."

For Karp, it's central. She visits Israel frequently, made sure her 17-year-old daughter speaks Hebrew, attends Lima's small Conservative congregation. But, she says, "for the first time in my life I'm not really involved in the Jewish community."

Her Judaism is straight from the kibbutz teachings of her youth. "My vision of Judaism, although it is not religious, is one of enlightenment and justice," she says. "This is how I was brought up."Opposition to Fujimori follows naturally, she says. "My commitment as a Jew and a human being is to fight against dictatorship and injustice wherever it exists."

Not everyone considers Fujimori a dictator. First elected as a reformer in 1990, he suspended the constitution in 1992 to crush Peru's Marxist insurgencies. The crackdown won him broad popular support.But he never eased up. He insists he's Peru's last defense against communism and anarchy. Controlling the press, suppressing dissent, contemptuous of legal niceties - his current bid for a third term isn't even constitutional - he's widely regarded as one of the Western Hemisphere's most autocratic dictators."Every dictator makes the same argument, 'After me comes chaos,'" says neoconservative scholar Elliott Abrams, who headed Latin America policy in the Reagan administration. "It isn't true. I would argue that the greatest threat to stability in Peru right now is Fujimori."

Peru's 3,000 Jews, like much of its middle class, don't necessarily agree. "People in the community are very, very afraid - not so much of Toledo, but of the change that might follow if he's elected," says Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, the Conservative rabbi. "They're looking to their own interests. The last item on the community's agenda is whether Fujimori is democratic or not."

As for Karp, many admire her - but can't forgive her marriage to a non-Jew. Beyond that, says Bronstein, "people in the Jewish community are indifferent to politics."

A few are very political, though. Ephraim Goldemberg, a longtime community leader, is Fujimori's finance minister. The Winter family, pillars of the community, control TV Channel 2, Fujimori's main mouthpiece. "Every day they spit out more lies about my husband and me," says Karp.

How the Winters took over Channel 2 is one of the ugliest episodes of the Fujimori era. The station was founded by Baruch Ivcher, an Israeli who settled in Peru in 1970. As Fujimori cracked down, Channel 2 dogged him with hard-hitting coverage of corruption and human rights abuses.

Fujimori and his generals responded with savage attacks. They accused "the Jew Ivcher" of spying for Israel and selling arms to Ecuador, Peru's traditional enemy. In May 1997 he fled to Miami. "If I'd waited another day they would have tried me for treason and put me before a firing squad," he says.

The government promptly revoked his citizenship and seized his assets. Channel 2 was handed to the Winters, minority shareholders.

For foreign policymakers and diplomats, the persecution of Ivcher, Peru's leading press baron, epitomizes Fujimori's heavyhandedness. "The government of Peru was responsible for arbitrarily depriving Baruch Ivcher of his nationality, his right to own property and his freedom of expression," declares Claudio Grossman, a Chilean Jewish lawyer who heads the human rights commission of the Organization of American States.

The Peruvian Jewish community has scarcely spoken, though. "The community was very, very slow to react," says Bronstein. "They finally produced a letter asking the government very politely to give Ivcher back his citizenship."

Karp, who was raised with different Jewish values, says she's outraged. "I come from a family of Zionist fighters who fought the Nazis in the Second World War," she says. "This is the first time in my life that I've seen Jews serve dictators and dictatorship."

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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