‘Some people have tried to wage a campaign saying that I am anti-Jewish and an enemy of the Jews,” Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s then-president who died on Tuesday, said in September 2010. “In fact, we respect and love the Jewish people.”

Chavez’s newfound affinity for Jews was expressed just a day after dictator Fidel Castro, his apparent role model (Chavez received nearly all of his cancer treatment in Cuba), condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Iran, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

“I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims,” noted Castro, who initiated the interview with Goldberg.

Castro was clearly sending a message, via The Atlantic, to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he probably had Chavez in mind as well.

And Chavez got the message, judging from his sudden outpouring of philo-Semitism, which was nothing but empty rhetoric engineered to appease Castro.

As Latino-Yiddish scholar Ilan Stavans put it in an essay that appears in his new book, Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture, “In Chavez, Venezuela’s Jews encounter one of the most sophisticated dancers along that thin line separating demonization of Israel from outright anti-Semitism, one who touches down at times on the forbidden side like a ballerina, then bounds back quickly while his supporters, not he, rumble over in the direction in which he has pointed.”

Before Chavez’s rise to power in democratic elections in 1999, Venezuela was not known as a place where Jews felt threatened. But during the 14 years since he came to power, the Jewish community has shrunk from about 20,000 to fewer than half that number.

Admittedly, the Jewish exodus from Venezuela was largely economically motivated.

Chavez’s socialist policies have only exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities and crime.

But emigration from Venezuela carried with it the added value of escaping rabidly anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In December 2008, just three days into Operation Cast Lead, Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador to Caracas and seven embassy staff members and made the following announcement: “A Palestinian community lives here with us, which we adore and love, and there are also Jews that live here whom we love as well. But I wish the Jewish community would declare themselves against this barbarism. Do it. Don’t you strongly denounce any act of persecution and the Holocaust? What do you think we are looking at [in Gaza]? Put your hand on your heart and be fair.”

The Jews of Venezuela were given one valid way of interpreting Israel’s attempt to defend itself against Hamas’s aggression – equate it with the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews.

Less than two month later, the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas’s Mariperez neighborhood was ransacked. A few days later, another synagogue in the La Florida neighborhood was attacked.

In the same year, the atmosphere of fear led a prominent Venezuelan symphonic orchestra to refuse to collaborate on a Spanish version of Fiddler on the Roof. As recently as 2010, Stavans reported that cheap editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were on sale on streetcorner newsstands. And Aporrea, an Internet news site affiliated with Chavez’s Bolivarian Movement party, regularly features blatantly anti-Semitic articles claiming, for instance, that the world’s financial markets are a wing of international Zionism.

In May 2010, after the Mavi Marmara debacle, Chavez called Israel a “genocidal state” that would be “put in its place.”

When Henrique Capriles Radonski, a Catholic of Jewish descent, was elected as opposition candidate to run against Chavez in the October 2012 presidential election, Chavez and his supporters used Capriles’s Jewish origins to vilify him and to warn of the dire consequences to Venezuela if he wins.

In January of this year, Analisis24, a right-leaning Argentinean news website, provided documents showing that Venezuela’s secret service, SEBIN, was spying on Jewish institutions, apparently viewing them as a fifth column.

Castro seemed to sincerely recognize the iniquity of anti-Semitism and publicly communicated his sentiments to Ahmadinejad and Chavez. Unfortunately, neither took heed. Let us hope that for the sake of Venezuela’s Jews, the situation changes under the country’s new president.

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