You can’t call me an anti-Semite. My grandparents were Jewish.
That’s the message from newly elected Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who rejected charges of anti-Semitism by revealing his Jewish roots in an interview with pro-government news site Apporea.
But even if the Venezuelan president is a member of the tribe, some observers are questioning his intentions.
“Why is Maduro so interested in making a claim about Jewish ancestry? If it’s true he will have to prove it,” said Caracas-born Yolanda Potasinski, whose family “helped establish the Jewish community” there after emigrating from Poland and Austria.
“I’m suspicious of his motives. He was handpicked by a predecessor who hated Jews and surrounded himself with leaders of other countries who are anti-Semites. Maduro is following in the footsteps of Chavez,” said Potasinski, who emigrated to New York 20 years ago, is now executive director of LGBT synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan. “We know the name Maduro has Jewish origins but I think his grandparents might have been baptized.”
After the head of the Latin American Jewish Congress accused Venezuela of “driving the rise of anti-Semitism in the region”, Maduro hit back by revealing his Hebraic roots.
“My grandparents were Jewish, from a Moorish background, who converted to Catholicism in Venezuela … The mother of [Minister of Communication and Information] Ernesto Villegas, also comes from that tradition,” according to a transcript on ArutzSheva.
“We are a humanist people, we are not anti-Semitic. There has never been anti-Semitism in Venezuela. Here we welcome all religions. We are an open-hearted people,” Maduro told the news site.
As the Forward has reported, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, routinely used anti-Jewish rhetoric against opponents – particularly opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, whose grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors.
If Maduro’s claims hold water — and they haven’t been verified — Venezuela’s recent presidential campaign might go down in history as the most significant national race between candidates with Jewish heritage anywhere in the world outside Israel.
And since he was open about his own background, Capriles carried the hopes of many Jews in Venezuela.
“Personally, I was so encouraged when I saw (Capriles) step up to the plate trying to unseat Chavez,” Potasinski said. “I just could not believe that his grandparents survived the Shoah and I began to pray for a miracle. I spoke to friends and family in disbelief. Could it be true that a grandson of survivors of the Shoah could possibly be the next leader of Venezuela? Could it be true that (Capriles) was going to turn things around for all of Venezuela?”
“Unfortunately, it was too good to be true.”
A spokesperson for the Confederacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, the main Jewish community organization in Caracas, did not return repeated requests for comment on l’affaire Maduro.