By Abraham H. Foxman
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; Page A19
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his followers have sought to
harass and intimidate the Catholic Church, the media, university
students, political opponents and multinational companies doing
business in Venezuela, to name just a few targets. Thus it can hardly
come as a surprise that Chávez would also attack the Jewish community.
Indeed, it’s an old, old story.
The point, of course, is to bully and discredit institutions that have
existed and thrived for years in Venezuela. Perhaps because of their
vitality and independence, Chávez sees them as an intolerable threat.
The Venezuelan president has, of course, already turned public
institutions into pawns of his regime. His political party controls
the legislature, the vast majority of local governments, the trade
unions and the electoral commission. Chávez has undermined the
independence of the judiciary, sought enactment of laws to allow the
government to dominate the broadcast media, and generally used his
power to intimidate opponents and stifle dissent.
The rising wave of anti-Semitism in Venezuela is part and parcel of
this effort by Chávez’s increasingly repressive regime. The complex
housing the Jewish community school and cultural and sports center has
been inexplicably raided twice by Venezuelan police since Chávez came
to power. It is especially dangerous when law enforcement carries out
these kinds of unfounded acts, since some may interpret them as
justification to commit violence against Jews. When a community is
singled out and bullied in this way, the danger exists for xenophobes
and anti-Semites to take license from the government’s actions to
spread their hate.
Certain government officials and commentators in the official media
frequently resort to implicit and explicit anti-Semitic displays,
including rehashing the ancient canard about Jewish control, vilifying
Jews and Israel as agents of imperialism, and adopting anti-Semitic
stereotypes about Jewish financial influence. Instead of denouncing
such hateful speech, Chávez chooses to overlook anti-Jewish rhetoric
and often endorses notorious anti-Semites in the media. As dangerous
and hurtful as this is for the small Venezuelan Jewish community, it
is a symptom of something much deeper and far riskier for all
Venezuelans: the breakdown of democratic ideals and institutions.
Chávez has repeatedly compared Israel to Hitler and the Nazis, and he
has accused Israel of engaging in genocide against Arabs. These views
have been expressed in various Venezuelan government-sponsored media
outlets, on radio and TV broadcasts, and in newspaper articles and
Chávez has aligned Venezuela with countries and radical Islamic
movements that are a verifiable threat to Israel and world Jewry,
including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Hezbollah’s secretary
general, Hassan Nasrallah; and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He
has also fostered relationships with convicted guerrilla terrorist
Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. “Carlos the Jackal”) and the
now-deceased Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole of Argentina.
Leading international human rights organizations have reported on
activities by the Venezuelan security forces such as torture,
extrajudicial executions and unexplained disappearances. Kidnappings
and contract killings, which are common in some parts of the country,
go unpunished. There have also been reports of threats and
intimidation directed at individuals who seek to vindicate the rights
of Venezuelans against the government. Under these conditions,
democracy cannot thrive.
Throughout the ages, Jews have been the canary in the coal mine, with
any downturn in their treatment or status as equal citizens signaling
the decline of democracy within a society. History has taught us that
when a government fosters intolerant attitudes and behavior among its
people, democracy and civil rights are endangered and the society
suffers. The people of Venezuela deserve better.
The writer is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and
author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish