Is it a coincidence that in an authoritarian socialist state that has sidled up to the world's most dangerous Islamist state is home to an increasing spree of violence targeting the Jewish community? Is it a spree being directed by Hugo Chavez out of bigoted or self-aggrandizing reasons? Or is any collectivist nation dominated by a strongman an inevitable incubator of anti-Semitism and scapegoating of its Jewish minority?
Whatever the answers, Venezuela is providing the evidence. Observers like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Latin America expert Andres Oppenheimer cite "a well-orchestrated [anti-Semitic] campaign" that has been taking place on Venezuela's government sponsored radio and television stations, newspapers and websites such as Aporrea. Stoking anti-Semitic fervor, such outlets frequently compare Israel to Nazi Germany and denounce "international Jewish conspiracies." Meanwhile, an association of reporters urged Venezuelans to boycott local businesses owned by Venezuelan Jews. And the media is not alone in fueling anti-Jewish incitement.
As in any authoritarian state, the media parrot the line originated by their leader, President Hugo Chavez. His bombastic condemnation of Israel's invasion of Gaza shaded into overt anti-Semitism, and the nation is aware of his increasingly close ties with Iran's Islamist regime.
Tensions escalated sharply in early January, when Chavez expelled Israel's ambassador to protest Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Shortly thereafter, approximately 15 individuals attacked the Tiferet synagogue in Caracas. According to Paul Hariton of the Caracas Ashkenazi community, the January 30 attack "was a well-organized event. The attackers were heavily armed. They jumped a wall and overcame two guards. They even took the videotape out of the security camera before they left." The president of the Jewish Organization of Venezuela says that "the hoodlums occupied the building" for five hours, during which time "they profaned the holy Sefer Torah, which is the Jewish holy book of prayer and laws." In an ominous sign for the rest of Venezuela's Jewish community, the hoodlums also stole a computer database containing the names and addresses of all the synagogue's members.
At first, Chavez condemned the attack. However, his government now seems intent on blaming the synagogue's desecration on Venezuelan Jews, depicting the vandalism as "deliberately self-inflicted act aimed at discrediting the regime." This Sunday, Venezuelan authorities arrested a local rabbi's former bodyguard and ten others in connection with the attack. In a televised interview following the arrest of the 11 suspects, Chavez remarked sarcastically, "What a coincidence, the gang leader is a metropolitan police officer who for the last four years was the personal bodyguard of the synagogue's rabbi." When announcing the names of the suspects, Chavez's Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami (who happens to be Muslim), similarly alleged that the synagogue's rabbi had "directed" his former bodyguard and his compatriots to carry out the vandalism. Thus did an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory become the official position of Venezuela's government.
There are even reports that Venezuela's Jews have been punished for the attack on their synagogue. Examiner.com's Aimee Kligman reported on January 31 that "without fanfare or publicity, three of the most important rabbis in the community were expelled from the country. Their names for the record are Rabbi Mizrahi, Rabbi Cohen, and Rabbi Brenner."
Kligman added this may have been a cynical ploy of Chavez himself. Kligman noted, "the political message indicated that if Chavez does succeed in getting a constitutional amendment to lift term limitations, that this would mean that allegedly, Jews might have to leave lest they be killed."
It is not only in Venezuela that Latin America's Jews are becoming more concerned for their safety. Jewish groups in both Argentina and Bolivia say they feel increasingly under attack in their respective countries. According to leaders of the 250,000-person-strong Jewish community in Argentina, swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti have recently become more commonplace, while demonstrators recently targeted the InterContinental Hotel because it is owned by Eduardo Elsztain, a Jewish businessman. Argentina hasn't witnessed such public displays of anti-Semitism since 1994, when the offices of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association were bombed by suspected Iranian and Hezbollah operatives. Bolivia, too, is becoming more dangerous for Jews. Like his Venezuelan counterpart, Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the Israeli ambassador during the Gaza invasion; anti-Semitic graffiti is reportedly becoming more common in Bolivia.
So far, the U.S. State Department's response has been muted. At a February 9 press conference, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said, "We expect that the government of Venezuela will do what it can to make sure that that type of activity doesn't continue and to…arrest any perpetrators who may have carried out any type of anti-Semitic activity."
Coming from an administration that has made a cardinal virtue of "diplomacy," such a cautious statement was not surprising. But in the absence of more definitive condemnations, there is every reason to believe Hugo Chavez's Venezuela will become an ever-more dangerous place for its besieged Jewish minority.