Venezuela Community in Eye of Storm As Chavez Assails Israel

Letter From Caracas

In Solidarity: Thousands took to the streets in Caracas to protest the desecration of one of the city’s main synagogues in January 2009.
COURTESY OF FRATERNIDAD HEBREA B’NAI B’RITH DE VENEZUELA
In Solidarity: Thousands took to the streets in Caracas to protest the desecration of one of the city’s main synagogues in January 2009.

By Ilan Stavans

Published October 06, 2010, issue of October 15, 2010.

It was just a few weeks ago that Fidel Castro condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Iran, telling 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.”

And already, the impact of Castro’s self-described message to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is evident — in Venezuela.

“Some people have tried to wage a campaign saying that I am anti-Jewish and an enemy of the Jews,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told the press at an international trade fair in Caracas on September 8, just one day after Castro’s interview appeared. “In fact, we respect and love the Jewish people.”

Chávez met directly with leaders of the Venezuelan community soon after appearing at the trade fair, a move that Jewish leaders here attributed directly to the remarks of the man Chávez describes as his mentor.

But Venezuela today is a country on a precipice. And whether this most recent episode will mark a turning point for Venezuelan Jewry remains very much an open question. In Chávez, 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.

Can Chávez afford to play his brand of politics without wielding anti-Zionism as part of his arsenal? For years, Chavistas have used anti-Zionism as a useful tool to express the government’s anti-imperialist stand. The United States and Israel are always the enemy. And what unites these two threats? The Jews.

Twelve years after winning a national election with the promise of “peace and prosperity for all,” it is clear that what Chávez has delivered

is a populist revolution that has polarized the citizenry and, moreover, feeds off that polarization. Amid a recession that has largely increased the number of Venezuela’s poor, the only thing that unites people appears to be fear. I could sense it everywhere in Caracas during my recent visit there.

Aside from the petty thefts, burglaries, rapes and, notoriously, the usurpation of real estate by government entities, there are also the secuestros express, or kidnappings, mostly targeting the middle class. These involve the abduction and release of a victim after a sum of money changes hands, all within 24 hours. The media, especially in the opposition, are so overwhelmed by the general violence these days that they barely bother to report these cases. At a rate of 130 homicides for every 100,000 residents, this city of 3.2 million is the world’s most violent, according to the American publication Foreign Policy.

The feeling among some people in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America is that Castro’s sudden yet emphatic denunciation of anti-Semitism sent a clear message to El Líder that, in addition to all this, he was becoming known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric, and his country known as a safe haven for Jew haters.

Indeed, every time the Israeli army embarks on another operation, the aftershocks in Caracas are predictable, including the increase of anti-Jewish vitriol on Chavista TV and radio. It’s a pattern that has been documented by the Human Rights Commission of Fraternidad Hebrea B’nai B’rith de Venezuela, the Venezuelan Jewish community’s branch of B’nai B’rith.

The problem is, Chávez allows anti-Semitic innuendos from his supporters under an anti-Zionist banner, with no word of disapproval from him. Even since Chávez’s declaration of love and respect for his country’s Jews, the link between this anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism remains obvious in Aporrea, one of the regime’s principal press organs. A September 13 article by Alfredo Jalife-Rahme, titled “‘La guerra de las divisas[’ y los Rothschild” (The Foreign Currency War and the Rothchilds), criticizes the world’s financial market as a wing of international Zionism.

A day later, also in Aporrea, a piece by Javier Monagas Maita argued that “el sionismo imperialist yanqui,” the Yankee Zionist Imperialism Axis, has as its goal “to castrate the minds of the young so that it can control the world with less resistance.” The iconic Yankee imperialist, reviled throughout Latin America, is thus twinned with the age-old stereotype of Jews striving to dominate the world and deform its children. When this type of hatred appears, it is inevitably as a link to Chavismo. And even though these outlets are at a remove from official edict, the fears they spawn in the end make that almost academic.

Before Chávez, Venezuela wasn’t known as a place where Jews felt threatened. This is a country famous for its conviviality and joie de vivre, and for its love of melodrama. Soap operas produced here are exported throughout Latin America and beyond. (In popularity, they are ranked third, after their Mexican and Brazilian counterparts.) And there have been more Miss Universes from Venezuela, six in total, than from any other country in the world.

Today, Venezuela’s Jewish population is estimated at 10,000. That’s down from 15,000 to 20,000 in its heyday, made up of Yiddish and Ladino speakers from, among other places, Romania, Poland, Bessarabia, Syria, Greece and Turkey. It isn’t surprising, then, that when the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas’s central Maripérez neighborhood was assaulted, at around 4:30 on January 30, 2009, not only its members felt shaken, but also minorities across Venezuela. Photos of the attack spread widely via the Internet. Apparently, several intruders had entered the synagogue, but not with the intention to rob it, since nothing of value was taken. Instead, religious paraphernalia was spilled out of the aron ha-kodesh, the holy ark in which Torahs are kept, onto the ceremonial gallery. The number 666 was graffitied on walls, accompanied by swastikas and Stars of David. The synagogue’s security fence was cut, and several office desks were looted.

Sacrilege: Vandals desecrated Tifferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas in January 2009, soon after President Hugo Chavez denounced Israeli military actions in Gaza and demanded that Venezuelan Jews take a stand against them.
NICOLE BIGGIO
Sacrilege: Vandals desecrated Tifferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas in January 2009, soon after President Hugo Chavez denounced Israeli military actions in Gaza and demanded that Venezuelan Jews take a stand against them.

Portions of the media tried to portray the incident as just another example of urban violence. But others charged the Chávez government with culpability. Earlier that month, just three days after Israel began its ground assault in Gaza against Hamas in the military campaign it dubbed Cast Lead, El Líder had expelled Israel’s ambassador to Caracas and seven embassy staff members, and harshly condemned the Israeli action. At the same time, Chávez exhorted his own country’s Jewish community to publicly and collectively condemn Israel’s action.

“A Palestinian community lives here with us, which we adore and love, and there are also Jews that live here who we love, as well,” he said then. “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.”

It was a brilliantly subtle rhetorical performance: The president of the country declared his love for Venezuela’s Jews, while at the same time decreeing that they could hold but one legitimate view on Israel’s controversial campaign; moreover, they were obligated to publicly declare that one legitimate view (“Do it”), or, as a community, be labeled moral lepers by their president.

In fact, the Caracas Jews I talked to offered myriad opinions on Israel, from cautious support to unabashed outrage. That’s how it is in a democracy, or should be. The question is, what kind of democracy is Venezuela under its current president?

Chávez was quick to denounce the synagogue attack, but he rejected the suggestion that he or any of his supporters might be tied to it. To the contrary, he said: “It must be asked… who benefits from these violent incidents? It is not the government, nor the people, nor the revolution.” El Líder went on to suggest that political opponents plotted the attack to reduce his chances in a then imminent referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay in office after his term ends in 2013.

The incident in Maripérez wasn’t isolated. There have been other anti-Semitic events in previous years, including two searches by the Venezuelan police of the Hebráica, the Caracas Jewish community center. The police claimed to be on the lookout for explosives and other weapons. These searches occurred as Chávez began to talk about the Mossad as an intrusive entity in Venezuela. A few days after the Tiferet Israel Synagogue was attacked, another small synagogue in the neighborhood La Florida was targeted. But public opinion coalesced around the Maripérez incident, and a campaign in support of Venezuelan Jews took place inside the country and beyond. It included a manifesto published with 800 signatures. The government was on the defensive.

Now, the tide may be turning. In parliamentary elections September 26, the opposition made unexpected gains. Though Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela retained a substantial majority in the National Assembly, it fell short of the two-thirds super-majority it needs to further rewrite the constitution and achieve other big legislative changes. But the country appears to be balanced on a knife’s edge.

Today, entire sections of Caracas appear to be marked as Chavistas, and opponents of Chávez avoid them like fish approaching oil — and vice versa. At the Unión Israelita de Caracas, I engaged in a breakfast dialogue with various leaders of the Venezuelan Jewish community. Among my concerns was how such a small minority is able to cope with state-sponsored animosity amid such polarization. What was an acceptable response? Was Chávez as blatantly anti-Jewish as he was anti-Zionist? Did he make an effort to distinguish between the two terms? How far could things go? Could the menace reach a violent scale where human lives could perish? What I heard was dismay. There are about 20 synagogues throughout the country; however, the situation in other Venezuelan cities, among them, Maracaibo and Valencia, is less worrisome, because the country, with its centralized approach to politics and culture, filters everything through the capital. It is Caracas Jews who feel the heat.

This heat, of course, is never from El Líder himself. Manipulation is among his best talents: At one point he attacks Israel, then allows anti-Holocaust propaganda to be used among Chavistas, portraying it as a myth orchestrated so that Israel could be established after World War II. Then, at another point, he shows sympathy for Jews.

The consequences of this dance are not always clear and direct. Instead an air of uncertainty and insecurity permeates everywhere.

An example is the revival, in a commercial theater, of the Broadway musical El violinist sobre el tejado, the Spanish version of Fiddler of the Roof. In early 2009, after the attack to the synagogue in Maripérez and two weeks before the premier of the play, the Orquesta Sinfónica Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho notified the play’s production company, Palo de Agua Producciones, that because of its Jewish theme, they would abstain from performing in the show.

The reason, a person involved in the decision told me, was that their budget depended on subsidies from the federal government and participating in the show would put in question the continuity of that subsidy. The same director, Michel Hausman, and the theater producer, Yair Rosenberg, had staged Spanish-language adaptations of Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Andrew Loyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which also openly address Jewish topics. Together these plays have been seen in Venezuela by more than eighty thousand spectators.

The Venezuelan magazine Zeta investigated the incident, finding out that the orchestra’s conductor hadn’t received any direct orders to stop its partnership with Palo de Agua but that the atmosphere of fear that prevailed in Caracas after the Maripérez incident prompted him, and his musicians, to play it safe by disconnecting themselves from the show, a maneuver that, in the conductor’s eye, wouldn’t put in jeopardy the orchestra’s government subsidy. In the end the musical was staged with players, many of them from Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, hired on an individual basis. But it left a deep feeling of discomfort, not to say alarm, among those involved.

Chávez claims to have Jewish friends, and with Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aka Lula, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he signed an accord against regional anti-Semitism. Yet Jews in Venezuela define themselves as “a community under threat,” as Abraham Levy Benshimol, president of the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela, told me.

Meanwhile, the community is weakening as a result of the departure of large numbers of its members. Intriguingly, the librarian of the Biblioteca Leo y Anita Blum in Unión Israelita de Caracas, which survives from donations, told me that she’s able to speculate how large the Venezuelan Jewish diaspora is based on the increasing number of gifts the library receives from people about to leave the country for good. In other words, the Biblioteca is growing in volumes and shrinking in readers.

The Jewish community understands that the goal of the Chavista outlets is to effect a change in the Venezuelan atmosphere, which until recently has been relatively free of ethnic hatred’s pungent odor. And in its own ways, it is resisting. One expression of that dissent is the creation of the Espacio Anna Frank, an entity that is sponsored by philanthropist and culture patron Esther “Dita” Cohen. She believes that the best response is to educate the masses and the government about intolerance.

At first sight, having Anne Frank as a symbol appears to be a safe bet: The Dutch girl is a neutral voice that, while associated with Jewishness, is really about pluralism, forbearance and broadmindedness. “The Diary of Anne Frank” isn’t read in Venezuela’s schools, and the organization wants to change that. It won’t be easy in a country where cheap editions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are on sale on street corner newsstands.

After a week in Caracas, my own emotions ranged from love to fright. Chávez’s stern face is a constant feature on the street, the screen, in talks. At one point during a conversation, an elderly lady covered her ears. “Stop mentioning that name!” she begged. “Can’t people utter a sentence without invoking it?”

The challenge is obvious: El Líder has pushed Venezuela to the brink. He has turned the country into his own personal box of resonances. He nurtures the people’s adoration by constantly invoking an inside and foreign threat that, in his view, undermines the nation’s well-being as well as international security. Is there a limit to his rhetoric about the threat?

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, just out from W.W. Norton.

Contact Ilan Stavans at feedback@forward.com



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.