A sense of urgency and fear was evident at a meeting in Teaneck Feb. 19 as a representative of the Anti-Defamation League detailed anti-Semitic statements and actions on the part of the regime of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Liat Altman, Latino/Hispanic Relations Coordinator for the Anti-Defamation League, said the formerly fertile ground for Jewish life in Venezuela has been threatened by the policies of Chavez, a military man who was elected in 1998 under the banner of socialism and has combined relentless criticism of Israel with rhetoric against the United States.
|Liat Altman Charles Zusman|
The Chavez regime has crossed the line beyond what might be considered reasoned criticism of Israeli policy to outright anti-Semitism, Altman said, with government-controlled media assaults and pressure on Venezuelan Jews to publicly condemn Israel, with their loyalty questioned if they don’t.
Altman spoke at what was billed as an “emergency meeting” of the Club Hispano Hebraico, for Jews from the Spanish-speaking world, which meets monthly at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Some 60 persons attended Thursday’s session, including non-club members.
Altman illustrated her talk with a slide presentation based on a 38-page pamphlet by the ADL detailing the incidents and statements in Venezuela.
The Colombian-born Altman was introduced by Etzion Neuer, director of the ADL for the New Jersey region, who drew an eerie parallel between Chavez’s statements and events leading up to the Holocaust.
“It strikes me that meetings like this should really be extinct by now,” Neuer said. “Who would have thought that, 60 years after the Shoah, American Jews would have to go through this unspeakable ritual…. Waking up in the morning, opening the newspaper,… and reading about the Jewish community overseas that is imperiled…. It should be an anachronism.”
“Leaders must speak out,” he continued. “If they don’t, they are political failures and they will be ethical failures. Silence is not an option.”
Chavez calls Israel an arm of the United States in the Mideast, Altman said, and he openly sides with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. There are weekly flights from Caracas to Teheran, and one of the main thoroughfares in Caracas has been renamed Teheran Avenue, she said.
The media run anti-Semitic cartoons, Altman said. There are accusations of ethnic cleansing by Israelis against Palestinians, denial of the Holocaust, claims of penetrations of Venezuelan institutions by the Mossad, and talk of boycotting businesses owned by Jews.
The fear of anti-Semitism was heightened when on the night of Friday, Jan. 30, and into the morning, a 15-member gang broke into the country’s oldest synagogue, Tiferet Israel, left graffiti, and damaged the Torahs. Government investigators say the vandals included intelligence agents and police, including one who had worked as the rabbi’s bodyguard. Eleven have been charged.
Chavez quickly condemned the attack, calling it a simple robbery, but the ADL fears it was a part of the permissive anti-Semitic environment fostered by the government, Altman said. Of special concern was the theft of a computer containing the names and personal information about congregants.
Altman said Chavez frequently condemns anti-Semitism in public statements, saying his criticism is aimed at Israel’s policies, not at the Jewish people. But, she said, his government’s actions belie that claim.
On Jan. 6 Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador and six other diplomats, and on Jan. 14 cut relations with Israel.
Chavez won a referendum Feb. 11 abolishing term limits. This cleared the way for him to serve for his lifetime. In answer to a question from the audience, Altman said despite criticism of him, Chavez was democratically elected.
For some, there are positive aspects to the Chavez regime, Altman said. He has worked to combat disease and social ills and has seen to it that oil profits filter down to the lower echelons of society. But at the same time, she said, he has closed broadcast stations and jailed critics.
Scrutiny by neighboring countries has kept Chavez from worse excesses, Altman said, explaining that he has signed a “Declaration Against Racism” along with Brazilian President Luiz Inacia da Silva and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Jews have been a presence in Venezuala since 1871, Altman said, and the Jewish population now is 12,000 to 15,000 out of a high of some 25,000. The country’s population is some 26 million, 90 percent of whom are Roman Catholic.
Jewish emigration has been the result of the political and security situation in general and in no way because of anti-Semitism by the population, Altman said. She noted that Holocaust refugees were warmly welcomed in Venezuela, as were Jewish refugees from Arab countries in the 1950s and ’60s.
“The citizens are not anti-Semitic at all; it is not an endemic feature of Venezuela,” Altman said. “It is just recent anti-Semitism that is state-sanctioned.”
After the recent synagogue attack, a delegation from a poorer section of Caracas helped eradicate the graffiti, she said. The church, students, and opposition leaders also stood up in support of the Jewish community.
In answer to a question, Altman said that Chavez hopes to remain in power for his lifetime and to spread his socialist revolution. If he succeeds, she said, it’s feared that he will drive the remaining Venezuelan Jews out of their country, despite their patriotism.
The criticism of Israel and Jews in general has heightened since the recent Israeli action in Gaza, and the ADL’s Neuer noted that repercussions of Operation Cast Lead continue to be felt around the world. He cited incidents in European cities, where Jews have been beaten on the street. He said three synagogues have been defaced in Chicago.
“At times like this we turn to leadership,” he said. “Political, religious, and community leadership has to send a loud and clear message that attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions have no justification, have no excuse, and will not be tolerated.”
Isaac Student, the club’s president, called the situation in Venezuela “very scary,” and noted that what happens there has ramifications across Latin America. He cited Bolivia’s severing of relations with Israel and raised the specter of the Holocaust.
“By raising awareness, maybe this time we’ll be able to stop it before it gets started,” he said.
The Club Hispano Hebraico, which was formed a year ago, has grown from 11 members to 60, Student said. The countries they come from include Colombia, Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Uruguay, and Morocco. Also, there are some American-born Spanish-speaking members.