And you thought Venezuela was such a nice place.
Venezuelans pride themselves on living in an ethnic and religious melting pot. Their homeland, unlike its neighbors Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile, has no history of having harbored Nazi fugitives. Before Chávez came to power, members of the Jewish community reported little animosity from either the government or the populace, and sharply anti-Zionist rhetoric was relatively uncommon. Nor did Venezuela’s fifteen synagogues (all but one of them Orthodox) experience much of the anti-Semitic vandalism common in other Latin American countries with tiny Jewish populations. The Hebraica center—its building functions as a lavish social hub, elementary school, country club, sports facility, and gathering place for Caracas Jewry—was largely left in peace.
No longer. Since Chávez took the oath of office at the beginning of 1999, there has been an unprecedented surge in anti-Semitism throughout Venezuela. Government-owned media outlets have published anti-Semitic tracts with increasing frequency. Pro-Chávez groups have publicly disseminated copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century czarist forgery outlining an alleged worldwide Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world. Prominent Jewish figures have been publicly denounced for supposed disloyalty to the “Bolívarian” cause, and “Semitic banks” have been accused of plotting against the regime. Citing suspicions of such plots, Chávez’s government has gone so far as to stage raids on Jewish elementary schools and other places of meeting. The anti-Zionism expressed by the government is steadily spilling over into street-level anti-Semitism, in which synagogues are vandalized with a frequency and viciousness never before seen in the country.
The details are arresting.
• Graffiti, often bearing the signature of the Venezuelan Communist party and its youth organization, have appeared on synagogues and Jewish buildings, with messages like “mata niños” (“child killers”), “judios afuera” (“Jews get out”), “judios perros” (“Jews are dogs”), and swastikas linked to stars of David by an equals sign.
• Sammy Eppel, a columnist for the independent Caracas newspaper El Universal, has documented hundreds of instances of anti-Semitism in government media. To take one particularly noxious example, in September 2006 El Diario de Caracas, until recently one of the country’s most important papers, published an editorial containing these fiery words:
Let us pay attention to the behavior of the Israeli-Zionist associations, unions, and federations that are conspiring in Venezuela to take control of our finances, our industries, commerce, construction—which are infiltrating our government and politics. Possibly we will have to expel them from our country . . . as other nations have done.
• On television, Mario Silva, the host of a popular pro-Chávez show called La Hojilla (“The Razor Blade”), has repeatedly named prominent Venezuelan Jews as anti-government conspirators and called on other Jews to denounce them. “Rabbi Jacobo Benzaquén and Rabbi Pynchas Brener are actively participating in the conspiracy in conjunction with the media,” Silva has said. “So as not to be called an anti-Semite,” he added, “I repeat that those Jewish businessmen not involved in the conspiracy should say so.”
• Armed government agents have conducted two unannounced raids on the Hebraica club during the past five years. The first occurred during the early morning hours of November 29, 2004, when two dozen men wearing masks invaded the elementary school just as pupils were arriving for class. In the second, which came shortly after midnight on December 2, 2007, government agents broke through the front gate and disrupted hundreds of celebrants at a wedding party in the nearby synagogue. In each case, allegedly, the agents were looking for weapons and other evidence of “subversive activity.”
• The last few years have seen the creation of a terrorist group in Venezuela calling itself Hizballah in Latin America. The group has already claimed responsibility for placing two small bombs outside the American embassy in Caracas in October 2006—one of them, it is thought, intended for the embassy of Israel. Although neither of the two bombs detonated, the group’s website hailed the man who planted them as a “brother mujahedin” and has urged other, simultaneous attacks throughout Venezuela in solidarity with Hizballah in Lebanon.