Chavez Sends Mixed Signals on Synagogue Attack

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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Washington — Still roiling from the desecration of a Caracas synagogue, Venezuela’s small Jewish community is trying to make sense of the conflicting messages it is getting from the Chavez government.

On one hand, the country’s leader, facing international criticism and pressure from Jewish leaders worldwide, has renounced antisemitism and moved quickly to make arrests in the attack. But at the same time, the government-run media outlets are continuing to feed the flames with a barrage of antisemitic articles.

“Is this double talk, or is there a fracture between Chavez and his own media? We don’t know the answer,” said Sammy Eppel, a columnist for Venezuela’s biggest newspaper El Universal and an active member of the Jewish community.

The blatant antisemitic attacks in the media are not new for Venezuela’s 12,000-member Jewish community, but President Hugo Chavez’s harsh criticism of Israel for its military operation against Hamas in Gaza, and his severing of diplomatic ties with Israel, has made matters worse.

On the pro-government Web site, Emilio Silva wrote an article calling on Venezuelans to support the Palestinian cause and to “denounce members of powerful Jewish groups in Venezuela,” which he calls “Zionist Hebrew capitalist agents.”

Dina Siegel-Vann, director of the Latino and Latin-American Institute at the American Jewish Committee, said antisemitic voices in the Venezuelan press have become a daily occurrence. “This is government-controlled media. Someone from the government is behind this.”

The January 30 attack on Tiferet Israel synagogue in Caracas prompted an unusually quick investigation that led local police to arrest 11 suspects. Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s Interior minister, said February 9 that among those arrested were eight policemen and a guard, who was employed by the synagogue. The case was investigated as a criminal matter and the official statements did not point to an antisemitic motive, even though religious objects were broken and “Jews, get out” was spray-painted on the synagogue’s walls.

After the attack, Chavez stressed in several public appearances that he opposed any manifestation of antisemitism.

Experts believe that the swift denunciation reflects the susceptibility of Chavez’s regime to outside pressure, especially at a sensitive political time. Chavez is facing a February 15 referendum on his bid to become president for life.

The U.S. State Department expressed concern over the attack, and Congress stepped in with a harsh letter authored by Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

But for some activists in the Jewish community, the letter and the impact it may have had on Chavez prove that the U.S. and the Jewish community reacted too late to the antisemitic outbreak.

Shmuel Herzfeld, a Washington rabbi and activist in Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, was among those urging Engel and the Jewish community to take action. Herzfeld, who met with the Venezuelan embassy’s deputy chief of mission, claims that Jewish groups were reluctant to take a vocal stand on the attacks, fearing negative repercussions for the Venezuelan Jewish community.

“Our experience shows that a beleaguered community needs to speak out. This is one of the lessons of the Holocaust,” Herzfeld said.

The debate within the community over the most effective course of action was echoed in a letter written by Michael Cromartie, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to Herzfeld, and Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Amcha. “As you well know, there has been some disagreement within the Jewish community on how best to handle the Venezuela situation,” the U.S. official wrote. However, he concluded that after consulting with American Jewish Committee experts, the commission has found the latest attacks have “taken the issue to a new phase” which require direct involvement of the commission.

Dina Siegel Vann of the AJC said she believes the public outcry forced Chavez to try to clear himself from claims of antisemitism. She also believes that the new Obama administration, which has taken a less confrontational approach toward Venezuela, and the falling price of oil may have played a role.

“Maybe they are thinking now more about the future of their economy and of their image in the world,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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