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Chavez and the Jews

Voters in Venezuela decided in a referendum earlier this month to extend their country’s decade-long flirtation with autocratic rule. Voting to abolish presidential term limits, they cleared the way for their stormy left-wing president, retired general Hugo Chavez, to run for a third six-year term in 2012 — and, presumably, as many more as he likes. It’s a depressing prospect for Venezuela, not to mention for Washington policymakers, who detest Chavez’s theatrical anti-Americanism. As for members of Venezuela’s Jewish community, most of them are just plain scared.

For good reason. A militant socialist and fiery orator, Chavez laces his speeches with a mixture of Marxist rhetoric and Christian Crucifixion imagery, making local Jews very nervous. His oratory, combined with his sweeping health, jobs, school and land reforms for the poor — funded by Venezuela’s prodigious oil revenues — have won him throngs of passionate followers who regularly take to the streets and intimidate, and sometimes assault, critics. On the world stage, Chavez presents himself as a champion of the downtrodden and an enemy of American imperialism. He’s allied himself with the likes of Iran. His anti-Israel rhetoric sets new standards for viciousness.

Predictably, the venom trickles down to the public. Pro-Palestinian street rallies regularly feature placards and chants bordering on rank antisemitism. Persistent rumors surface in the pro-Chavez press that Israeli intelligence agents, operating out of local Jewish institutions, are plotting to sabotage the government. Radio commentators periodically accuse Jewish community leaders of working with “plotters.” They’re just words, but they make life feel very tenuous for Venezuela’s 10,000 remaining Jews. (There were twice that many Jews a decade ago, before they started leaving.)

The ugliness has peaked lately, following Israel’s military action in Gaza. Eleven days into the assault, on January 6, Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador, accusing Israel of perpetrating a “holocaust.” Four weeks later, 15 men attacked the Tiferet Israel synagogue in Caracas, tied up the security guards, trashed the sacred books and scrawled antisemitic slogans on the walls.

Remarkably, the government responded this time. Police quickly rounded up 11 suspects. Chavez announced the arrests personally, saying the attackers’ leader was a disgruntled former synagogue security guard. Opposition leaders confirmed his version. And, in a first, the foreign minister visited the synagogue to show sympathy.

That’s good, but it’s not enough. Chavez’s venom continues to escalate. If the upcoming Durban II conference on racism turns into a hate-fest like the last one, Chavez will undoubtedly be center-stage.

Missing is the influence of American Jewry. A few trenchant statements have been released over the years, some letters written, many hands wrung, but that’s about it. Compare this to 1974, when the same roster of Jewish organizations joined forces in a coordinated campaign and convinced Congress to impose trade sanctions on the Soviet Union for mistreating Jews. Or 1991, when a coordinated effort by Israeli and American Jewish officials resulted in a 25-hour airlift bringing 22,000 endangered Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. American Jewry is capable of great things when we work together. But that hasn’t happened in years.

Close to press time, the World Jewish Congress held several meetings with high-ranking Chavez aides in Caracas and received some lovely promises. But there ought to be a longer-range plan for protecting Venezuela’s Jews. Other major Jewish groups should be consulted, to pool resources or at least avoid overlap. For those who say it’s too early for that sort of thing, well, we hope it’s not too late.

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