From the beginning of his rule in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has stridently criticized Israel. In recent months, Chavez has found a more vulnerable target: the Jewish population inside Venezuela.
Last week, an angry mob broke out in Miranda, Venezuela’s second largest state. Reports indicate that the Mayor of Miranda’s capital city incited an angry group of Chavez supporters to paint Nazi swastikas on the home of an anti-Chavez Jewish politician, Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski. “We are showing Capriles that …people are opposed to his continuous attacks against the initiatives and socialist projects of president Chávez,” explained Los Teques Mayor Alirio Mendoza. Governor Radonski is a charismatic Chavez opponent, and has spent time in jail for a minor role in Venezuela’s failed coup of 2004. Further, since he is perhaps the only well-known Jewish politician in the country, it is easy to understand why he has become a prime target for irate Chavistas.
A mob vandalizes Governor Radonski’s House in Miranda province, Venezuela.
To add to the growing number of anti-Semitic acts committed in the country, the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas was the subject of another act of vandalism on June 16th. In an email to NewMajority, Rabbi Pynchas Brener, the Chief Rabbi of Caracas, reported that the outer walls of the temple were covered in anti-Semitic graffiti. Photos provided to NewMajority show graffiti that includes a crossed out Star of David, swastikas, a hammer and sickle, pro-Palestinian rhetoric, and repeated references to Jews as fascists.
Anti-semitic graffiti on the walls of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas.
These incidents follow a trend of anti-Semitic behavior that has strikingly worsened since the beginning of the year. In January 2009, Chavez accused Israel of attempting to carry out “genocide” against the Palestinian people and expelled Israel’s ambassador. Soon thereafter, a pro-Chavez columnist named Emilio Silva posted on a pro-government website urging Venezuelans to “publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park, shouting slogans in favor of Palestine and against that abortion: Israel.” A week later, a group of at least a dozen men raided the aforementioned Tiferet Israel Synagogue, vandalizing property and spraying the words ‘Jews, get out!’ on the walls. In February, someone threw a hand grenade at another synagogue, damaging it.
The hand grenade incident jolted world attention, and seemed to have persuaded Chavez to draw back for a time. For a short period, it seemed like there might be some cause for optimism. A month ago, an American resolution calling on Venezuela to “protect the rights of the Jewish Venezuelan community” was withdrawn after several Jewish Congressmen and the American Jewish Congress came out against it. Apparently, those who opposed the resolution feared that such legislation could prove to be counterproductive. In justifying his organization’s opposition to the resolution, Confederation of Israelite Associations Venezuela (CAIV) spokesman David Bittan was quoted as saying that the number of anti-Semitic articles in Venezuelan media decreased by 60% in the weeks after the grenade attack. Yet, this optimism turned out to be slightly misguided. As international pressure dissipated, the regime seems to have resumed its anti-Jewish actions, leading to the mob in Miranda and the vandalism in Caracas.
While most would agree that the rise in anti-Semitism is driven by Chavez’s need to scapegoat a minority group for his own disappointing record of achievement in power, a secondary motive is his desire to ingratiate himself with his most important international ally, Iran. As Forbes’ Venezuelan commentators note in a piece on this topic, “Chavez and Iran speak with one voice about the Jews.” Lacking positive results to show their people, both autocratic regimes benefit from a coordinated effort of propaganda that blames Jews for domestic issues and foments anti-Semitic violence and vandalism.
It is no surprise that Hugo Chavez was among the only world leaders to defend President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad electoral “triumph”. Like the rest of the world, Venezuela’s Jewish community is watching the protests in Iran with hope for Iran itself. But they might also wonder: might change in Iran help put an end to their government’s actions against them?