Venezuelan Synagogue Vandalizing Takes New Turn: The Culmination of a Number of Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel Incidents

– President Chávez seems to be arming his enemies with the weapons of his own destruction.
– Chávez needlessly cheapens the discussion by engaging in rants rather than reasoned dialogue, stressing once again a lack of checks and balances which hinders his rule.
– The dignitary of many world figures and Venezuelans in public life have been unnecessarily offended by the Venezuelan leader’s sometimes thoughtless and sometimes abrasive remarks that do not advance democratic debate, but only serve to poison the well. This allows Chávez’s often mean-spirited adversaries to dismiss him, not on the basis of his admirable substance, but rather his flawed style.
– The group of government supporters who vandalized the Caracas synagogue may not have been instructed to do so, but could have been were inspired by Caracas’ prevailing hyper-atmosphere where anything goes.
– Argentina and Brazil are urged to remind Chávez of his failure to abide by the 2008 Declaration Against Anti-Semitism.
– Chávez and the U.S. Jewish community.

Is Chávez a Worthy Steward of His Own Revolution?
One version is that on January 31, 2009 intruders proceeded to vandalize Tiferet Israel, a Sephardic synagogue in Caracas, Venezuela. The assailants, eight of whom were later discovered to be police officers, seem to be part of a growing and increasingly radicalized leftist group of ostensible government supporters. Such gangs recently have stepped up their intimidating attacks on elements of Chávez’s opposition; it is uncertain the degree of control that the Venezuelan president or his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) party has over their violent-prone behavior, or, for that matter, the full details of the attack on the synagogue.

But the assault by this group, if it is true, displayed no evidence of a forced break-in, perhaps because the synagogue security guard has been accused of cutting the electric cables that led to the electric fence and security system. Once inside, vandals scattered sacred Torah scrolls on the floor, and painted “We don’t want Jews here”, “Jews get out”, and “Death to all” on the walls late Friday night and into Saturday morning.

This most recent ugly occurrence comes as the latest in a series of incidents involving Israeli and Jewish issues in which accusations of anti-Semitism have arisen–in this case catalyzed by Chávez’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in protest of the war in Gaza. This latest event is not the first arising from Caracas’ precipitous action, nor is it likely to be the last. The problem is that such inflammatory statements and provocative events appear to be the result of a runaway, largely instinctual gonzo-style foreign policy making, whose off-the-cuff initiatives generate despair among people of goodwill who genuinely like and admire President Chávez while at the same time allow his ill-intentioned foes to gloat.

Chávez Reacts
“We reject these acts of violence,” exclaimed Minister of Communications Jesse Chacón referring to the synagogue desecration. As so often in the past, the Chávez administration is beginning to retrench on the fury of its anti-Israeli initiative which revealingly transcends the intensity of almost every Arabic nation or normal adversary of Israel. Caracas seems to increasingly realize that the synagogue issue was one step too far and contained an incendiary negative potential of its own. Caracas may be reacting with condemnation of such religiously charged insults, or his handlers may have reached the more sober aspects of his deliberations, but exculpatory comments seemed to be cancelled out by a longstanding criticism of Israel and Jewish issues.

Chávez recently likened Israel’s occupation of Gaza to the Holocaust. As a result, over 75 respected religious scholars and others signed a petition criticizing his remarks. In that document, they cited a 2008 report from the U.S. State Department that maintained that, “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is in itself an example of anti-Semitism. Another example of a variety of de facto merging of legitimate negative critiques of Israeli foreign policy together with thinly veiled acts of anti-Semitism is the use of the word “Zionism.” Unfortunately, in 9 times out of 10 involving the use of this word in fact smacks of anti-Semitism. This is because usually the person using this word in their analysis is not referring to the historic or technical application of the concept, nor do they often have the slightest clue of what Zionism is, but use it to get at the Jews. This tradition dates back to the 19th century unearthing of the malodorous “Protocols of Zion,” which was the mother church for virulent anti-Semitism.

In a Christmas Eve address to the nation, Chávez charged that, “Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ…took all the world’s wealth for themselves.” Here, Chávez was not talking so much about Robin Hood, but rather unquestionably dipping into the lore of anti-Semitism. With this kind of unquestionably trash rhetoric coming from the presidential palace, Venezuelan Jews have good reason to feel vulnerable when their head of state authors such simple-minded crudities. These are not the words of a classy or even relevant analysis, but the kind of gutter bigotries that have insulted and terrorized minorities throughout history, including Jewish populations which actually experienced the Holocaust.

Moreover, the local Venezuelan Jewish population has been concerned, for good reason, with Chávez’s amicable relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given the latter’s denial of the Holocaust, his repeated calls for the destruction of Israel, and the fusion of Jews and Israel in his diatribes, and his covert fishing in Lebanese waters, he either is to be condemned or applauded; there is no middle ground.

Empty Out the Embassies
In response to the Israeli ambassador’s expulsion, Israel sent home all Venezuelan diplomats from the country. “We receive them with jubilation, and it is an honor for this Socialist government, for this revolutionary people, that a genocidal government like Israel expels our delegation,” retorted Chávez. Yet the most recent diplomatic rift is not the first time Venezuela and Israel have interrupted their ties. Demonstrating the close nature of the Arab-Venezuelan partnership, Venezuela recalled its ambassador to Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel promptly did the same regarding Venezuelan embassy personnel in the country.

While it is an indisputable fact that Israel’s Latin American policy is deplorable and that its government invokes an annual cargo of agonizing embarrassment for those who wish Israel well, when it votes with the U.S., along with one or two other U.S. satrapies to defend Washington’s mooncalf Cuban embargo policy, or to register its selective indignation when it comes to condemning Havana’s human rights violations, Israel serves the cause of pandering to Washington rather than its authentic national interests. Clearly Israel deserves flat out condemnation for such pathetic foreign policy making as well as no great admiration in Latin America for these votes. But the Gaza matter was something else. “Proportional” response in military matters is a legal matter even if it is a fairly tame argument to fall back on when Hamas, at its discretion, daily launches missiles at civilian populations in Israel. Some would argue that it is less an act of self-defense than an act of provocation. What would such apologists say if the Colombian rightwing vigilante group AUC would lob grenades at Caracas?

Breaching the Declaration Against Anti-Semitism
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international human rights organization, has urged the governments of Argentina and Brazil to denounce President Chávez for having breeched the terms of the 2008 Declaration Against Anti-Semitism which they all signed. The measure confirmed a commitment collectively entered into by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, President Luiz Inácio Lula of Brazil, and the Venezuelan leader to condemn “discrimination and religious intolerance, in particular, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism.” It is believed by some Jewish institutional leaders that recent events concerning the Gaza conflict illustrate the degree to which Chávez regards the declaration with a certain degree of flexibility.

Although the declaration was a worthy initiative, evidently, the situation within Venezuela concerning its ethical position is much more conflictive. With Chávez apparently prepared to boil the water of discord with no particular warning, at a certain point the question must be posed by outside discussants whether the path to a Socialist economic system twinned to parliamentary democracy is too important a journey–not to be condescending–to be left to the Venezuelan leader’s often immature and all too frequent and unpredictable violent outbursts, which tend to operate without a compass, but often at the dictates of blind rage. While it is true that Chávez is certainly not a human rights violator or an anti-constitutionalist, nor opposed to freedom of the press, nor a cruel nor particularly petty person–none of these–it also is impalpably correct that what is lamentable about his profile are the demonstrable shortcomings in his personal behavior. This includes the lack of a capacity for self-censorship and self-restraint. The irony here would be if his excesses and lack of prudence will be what ultimately jeopardizes the revolution, far more so than the country’s local disloyal opposition or complots coming from the U.S.

Vulnerable Environment
The expulsion of the Israeli ambassador came with a lamentable history behind it. In December 2007, state security forces raided La Hebraica, a Jewish community center in Caracas, in pursuit of weapons and explosives that the social center was allegedly storing. The unit searched the entire building, but to no avail. According to Jewish and Israeli News, “the raid was seen as a provocation against the Jewish community, which is largely opposed to Chávez.” Coincidently, the event came on the eve of a major constitutional referendum that, if passed, would have eliminated all presidential term limits, thus allowing Chávez to serve as president indefinitely, depending upon his ability to be reelected. The referendum issue was only narrowly voted down. Sunday’s February 15 constitutional referendum, among other proposed changes, contains an amendment equivalent to the 2007 measure, which is aimed at removing presidential term limits.

As of now, Venezuela’s Jewish community continues to feel embattled, with more than an estimated one-fifth of the country’s 20,000 Jews having fled in recent years, with more undoubtedly planning to do so in the near future, if the referendum passes. The vote is expected to be strongly contested by the opposition. Chávez’s relationship with the Jewish question has regrettably helped to demonize him within the less sophisticated elements of the U.S. Jewish community, who should not be forced to choose fatuously and needlessly between the two allegiances. On the other hand, he should be made aware that some of his most resolute advocates and committed defenders disproportionately come from the U.S. Jewish community.