Although Chavez – a former army officer and coup leader known for his fiery anti-American rhetoric – has never been much favored by Venezuelan Jews, relations between his government and the community started to deteriorate in earnest in 2004.
In November of that year the Club Hebraica was raided by police under a search warrant issued by a local pro-Chavez judge. The warrant, which came after the murder of public prosecutor Danilo Anderson, suggested that the Hebraica was being used to store weapons.
That accusation apparently sprung from rumors that Anderson had been killed with equipment from Israel”‘s Mossad spy agency. After searching the school and the club, police left empty-handed.
Incredulous that authorities might think the Jewish community was storing weapons in its school, some observers concluded that the raid really was intended to intimidate the community.
“Chavez must have known about” the raid, one community member said.
“In this society, nothing happens without his permission,” this member said. “There was a feeling that the government wanted to send a sign that no group was immune from its control.”
The situation deteriorated further a month later, when Chavez said in a speech that “the descendants of those who killed Christ” and “the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here” had “taken possession of all the wealth in the world.”
Though the Christ-killer comment clearly appeared anti-Semitic, some commentators said Chavez actually was referring to global capitalism. Indeed, when Jewish leaders soon afterward met with the president at Miraflores Palace, his official residence, he assured them that he had not been referring to the Jewish community.
That meeting in January 2006 brokered an uneasy peace, but the official reaction to Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last year unleashed what Freddy Pressner, head of CAIV, the Jewish community”‘s umbrella organization, calls “an explosion of anti-Semitism in Venezuela.”
Chavez repeatedly compared Israel’s behavior to that of the Nazis, a stance that locals say encouraged a wave of similar slanders. Sammy Eppel, a Jewish journalist in Caracas, catalogued a host of violently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic writing and cartoons in the local government and pro-government media.
In one article, which appeared last September in Diario de Caracas, a pro-government newspaper, journalist Tarek Muci Nasir wrote of the “Jewish race” that “the only resource they have left to stay united is to cause wars and genocide.”
A cartoon that ran last year in Diario VEA, a state-owned newspaper, depicted Hitler saying, “How they’ve learned from me, these Israelis!”
One worrying trend is the extent to which these sentiments appear to be approved and encouraged by the government. The Ministry of Information last year organized a demonstration outside the main Sephardi synagogue in Caracas, an act that Pressner called “insensitive and imprudent.”
After the demonstration, the wall outside the synagogue was daubed with “Jews, killers – leave” and “Zionist baby-killers.” At other times, graffitti has appeared there with slogans such as “Jews go home” and “Here are the murderers of the Palestinians.”
A more worrying development was the appearance of a Venezuela-based Web site claiming to be the local branch of Hezbollah. The site warned, “Hizbolla Latin America is analyzing placing explosives against a U.S. ally in Latin America. This would indicate the launch of Hizbolla Latin America.”
Another concern is over Chavez’s increasingly close economic and political ties to Iran. As the world has condemned Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Venezuela has emerged as one of Iran’s few solid allies in the world.
At the same time, Chavez effectively cut all diplomatic ties with Israel last year by withdrawing his charge d’affaires. He had recalled his ambassador three years earlier.
Is this part of a trend?
Only time will tell.