Chavez's Venezuela: The Jewish Community Under Threat
Posted: February 2, 2009
Anti-Semitism is used as a political tool in Venezuela, fostered by those at the highest levels in government. Pronouncements against Israel and Jews are made by the president, the foreign minister and other cabinet-level officials and parliamentary and government leaders and in the media. All are left unchallenged, and often aided and abetted by officials within the government regime.
The response by President Hugo Chavez in reaction to the most recent conflict in Gaza, when Israel launched airstrikes and sent in troops in an effort to stop Hamas from firing rockets at civilians, played out across all levels of society in Venezuela. Chavez and other government leaders issued a series inflammatory statements and took actions, including ending diplomatic relations with Israel and expelling the Israeli ambassador and other diplomatic staff from Venezuela.
This was followed by a barrage of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements by members of parliament, media commentators and dozens of rallies where anti-Israel expressions were commingled with raw anti-Semitism.
Holocaust imagery comparing Jews to Nazis appeared at anti-Israel rallies in Caracas and other major cities, and the Jewish community and its institutions were the targets of threats, harassment and intimidation.
Venezuela's Jewish community of approximately 15,000 has been subject to hateful rhetoric, intimidation, vandalism to their communal and personal property, as well as targets of boycott to their businesses, institutions and events. On January 31, during the Jewish Sabbath, a synagogue in Caracas was attacked. For five hours, violent anti-Semites ransacked and vandalized the most sacred space and objects of Jewish life, leaving behind graffiti that said "Get out," "Death to All," and "Damn Israel, Death."
Other anti-Semitic incidents included an attempted physical attack to a rabbi who escaped unharmed, a death threat to another rabbi, tear gas thrown into a synagogue, vandalism against synagogues and businesses owned by Jews, and threats of boycotting a production of "The Fiddler on the Roof."
Meanwhile, despite the ceasefire in Gaza, members of the Chavez regime continue to openly question Israel's right to exist while at the same time raising insidious questions about the loyalties of Venezuelan Jews. Those questions are echoed in the public comment sections of Web sites, where ordinary Venezuelans, under the veil of anonymity afforded by the Internet, express virulently anti-Semitic views and call for the expulsion of the country's Jews.
The plight of the Venezuelan Jewish community is nothing new. In recent years Chavez has openly questioned Israel's right to exist while developing close relations with the Iranian regime and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who has called for Israel to be "wiped off of the map." Chavez's rhetoric and actions have left the Jewish community feeling insecure and vulnerable.
Recent statements by officials of the Chavez government about their opposition to anti-Semitism in Venezuela lack credibility. Government officials continue to stoke anti-Semitism by comparing Israel's actions to the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust. The perfunctory condemnations of the January 31 synagogue attack were made in the context of demonizing Israel and were filled with conspiracy theories. The foreign minister blamed the "Zionist Lobby," who he claimed controls the media and uses anti-Semitism to wage a campaign of "extortion" against the government. President Chavez's weak denunciation of the attack on the synagogue did not include any mention of anti-Semitism and was made almost in passing. Using a code word for those who oppose his regime, Chavez also suggested a conspiracy theory. He accused an unidentified group of so-called "Oligarchs" as the alleged perpetrators of the attack and claimed they also control the media.
In contrast to the anti-Semitism fostered by the Chávez regime and its supporters, following the synagogue desecration there has been an outpouring of support from non-Jewish Venezuelan citizens condemning the attack on the synagogue and anti-Semitism in Venezuela. A group of neighbors and grass-roots community organizers went to the synagogue to help the congregation paint over the anti-Semitic graffiti. Hundreds of non-Jewish students participated in a march organized by local Jewish students to denounce anti-Semitism in Venezuela. Mainstream newspapers that are not controlled by or sympathetic to the Chávez regime have also published articles and opinion pieces condemning the outburst and encouragement of anti-Semitism by the Venezuelan government. Ambassadors and diplomats representing many countries in Caracas have condemned the attack and diplomats from Canada, U.S. and France visited the synagogue and expressed their support for the Jewish community.
This report translates statements by Chavez and other government officials and analyzes how the recent conflict in Gaza has played out thousands of miles away in Venezuela, as well as the impact the government's actions have had on the Venezuelan Jewish community.