Echoes of the '30s in Caracas

The Venezuelan Jewish community had no history of tension with the local population - 'til Chavez.

Chavez 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Chavez 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
It is one thing to read reports about state-sponsored anti-Semitism from the comfort and security of the United States, but it is entirely different to step into the world of those who are persecuted and experience their fear as your own. On a recent mission of discovery, I traveled to Caracas, Venezuela, to visit with the Jewish community as it responded to the latest attacks against two synagogues. Throughout my short visit I was repeatedly urged to bring the community's story back to the US and tell others of its plight, conscious of the heavy responsibility of speaking for those whose speech is restricted by a vengeful and suspicious government. The Venezuelan Jewish community traces its roots back more than 200 years and has no history of tension with the local population. Before the rise of Hugo Chavez, the Jews were a welcome part of a society known for its warm temperament and amiable disposition, free from the discrimination and anti-Semitic violence in many other countries. Over the last 10 years conditions have worsened dramatically, and although 15,000 still remain, more than half the Jewish population has already fled. CHAVEZ'S CAMPAIGN against the Jews has three principal components. The first is the systematic stigmatizing of Israel as a "bloodthirsty," "oppressive," "genocidal" and "monstrous" country (quoted from Chavez and his officials) that disregards basic human decency and arrogantly defies international law. The second is the objectification of Jews as Zionists, seamlessly tying the Jews to the imagined evils and horror of the Israeli state. Statements such as "Zionism is Nazism" abound, both on the streets and in parliament. All of this takes place in the context of anti-capitalist class warfare, in which "enemies of the people" are labeled by the government-controlled media to provide both justification and an outlet for bitter frustration and anger. This strategy was used to great effect in the national socialist movements of the 20th century, where Jews were specifically targeted as "elitist" to subject them to the anger and resentment of collectivist masses. With crime exploding to astonishing levels, and disastrous economic policies destroying the middle class, Chavez is applying this same model. He uses his charisma and populist appeal to instill hatred of Jews and capitalists in his supporters, who are mainly from the lower class, the military and those who profit from his power. This process began years ago, but reached unprecedented heights (or depths) after Israel initiated its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. After his supporters staged demonstrations and vandalized the Israeli embassy, Chavez's government seized the opportunity to expel all Israeli diplomats on January 6. There is public documentation of more than 400 anti-Semitic and anti-Israel public statements made by government officials since the expulsion, including a call to action in a state-run newspaper urging Venezuelans to "challenge Jews" where they live and work. "Denounce publicly, with names and last names, the members of the powerful Jewish groups present in Venezuela, indicating the companies they own to establish a boycott." THIS CAMPAIGN is intensifying. I visited the Beit Shmuel synagogue and saw where a hand grenade exploded on February 26 outside the main entrance, damaging a vehicle and the building's exterior. I saw the Tifereth Israel synagogue where a highly coordinated and well-equipped team broke through extensive security, spray-painted hate messages throughout the house of worship, desecrated the holy texts in the sanctuary and, most ominously, stole the congregation's membership information from a locked safe and a desktop computer. I visited the Hebraica school and community center, where Venezuelan police pushed past students on their way to class to raid the facility on November 29, 2004 and again on December 1, 2007. The latter raid occurred on the eve of an important referendum vote for Chavez, and the former occurred on a day for international solidarity with the Palestinian people - during which Chavez also met with Iranian leaders in Teheran. Hugo Chavez continues to deny any involvement in these incidents and claims to have no antipathy toward the Jews. Instead, he cunningly offers them a Faustian deal by demanding their support in publicly denouncing Israel for its alleged misdeeds. Yet even these statements clearly promote a climate where anti-Semitism is not only tolerated, but is encouraged by his government. Here is how he put it in a recent interview, "I ask Venezuelan Jews to speak out against these barbaric actions... Don't you forcefully reject any act of persecution? Don't the Jews reject the Holocaust? What do you think this is? The cowardly army of Israel attacks defenseless and innocent people, yet they boast they are defending their people." His exterior minister called the Israeli army "the worst criminal armed forces known by humanity" and dramatically demanded a "change of attitude of the Jewish people worldwide." The Jews of Venezuela are afraid, as well they should be. Walking their streets and visiting their homes and synagogues, I could feel the sense of foreboding that weighs heavier on them day by day. I could hear it in the urgency of their prayers during religious services, feel it in the embraces and handshakes I received when I introduced myself and my mission and see it in the eyes of the Hebraica high school students as I listened to their stories of frustrated youth. They are asking for our help, for our strength, and our voices. They cannot speak out; will we speak for them? The writer is a former US Marine captain and two-tour veteran of the Iraq war. He currently travels as a freelance writer and senior fellow of Vets For Freedom, contributing to numerous on-line publications.