The failed 2002 coup against Venezuela President Hugo Chavez loosed an enduring state media hate campaign that blames Israel and a fifth column — Venezuelan Jews — for dual loyalty, secret Mossad plots to undermine El Presidente’s ambitions, and even Christ killing.
Just as such propaganda has worked its black magic in such places as the medieval Vatican, Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany, soon enough damning permeating words prepped the way for physical action against Venezuela’s Jews. A federal police raiding party in 2004 busted down the doors of the Jewish community’s Hebraica center in Caracas and ransacked it in an ostensible search for evidence of disloyalty and Mossad spycraft. Since then, the 12,000 or 14,000 Jews who remain in Venezuela have come to represent a rare living specimen of a very old phenomenon, one with a very long and lethal history in Europe and the Middle East.
It goes like this: canard-laced anti-Semitic propaganda followed by physical intimidation, cowed defenseless Jews looking for the exit, and an indifferent world.
With the 2006 Israeli counter-offensive to silence determined Hezbollah provocations in southern Lebanon, Chavez issued angry public denunciations of his Jewish citizens that left no doubt he believed these few were, with a little help from the Zionist entity, behind his political setbacks. During one tirade on state television, he called Israel a Nazi regime. He recalled the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan embassy in Tel Aviv and cut ties completely. He has nurtured deepening political and economic ties with Iran’s Islamist theocracy, which openly promises it will one day destroy Israel with “a great fire.”
It all started up again with Israel’s rocket pad clearing action in Gaza last December. State-controlled media ginned up, for Venezuela’s impoverished Catholic masses, another hate-filled media filibuster that took on the enemy within: their wealthier Jewish neighbors. In December, heavily armed masked and uniformed federal goons raided the Hebraic center for a second time.
January 2009 brought a break-in and desecration of a synagogue, allegedly involving Chavez political supporters. A grenade tossed over a wall of the Beth Shemuel Synagogue in February luckily didn’t do much damage. But the blast lent special credence to “Kill the Jews” graffiti that appears with alarming regularity on community buildings. Thousands of Jews, the descendants of 19th century emigrants from Europe and northern Africa, have simply left since the troubles with Chavez began in 2002.
Not much has been heard from Venezuela about the situation since a New York Times weigh-in early this year. But there is unreported news, judging by conversations I had in mid-July with a leading rabbi of Venezuela’s Jewish community, Penchas Brener.
Rabbi Brener, who was visiting family in Florida when I hailed him on the telephone for an unrelated story, told me the cycle has started up again in earnest, this time owing to an unlikely catalyst: the political troubles in Honduras.
The hate machine came back to life this summer when it was reported that Israel was one of only two countries in the world (the other being Taiwan) to endorse last month’s ousting of Honduras President and Chavez wannabe Manuel Zelaya and the installation of Roberto Micheletti. For Israel, which was hardly eager to see another Iran-hugging, Chavez-allied Latin American country in the mix, the military’s ejection of Zelaya was happy news.
But the unintended consequence of Israel throwing moral support to the Honduras coup was to bring the propaganda hammer swinging down again on Venezuela’s Jews, Brener told me. Anti-Israel rants spewed forth once again from major media outlets like Radio Union. Once more, Jewish sphincter muscles tightened for more commando raids and assaults “inspired by the vocabulary,” Brener said.
“On the radio immediately was ‘well, well, look at who’s recognizing them,'” the rabbi said. “Mostly it’s been rhetoric on state media. But one never knows when that line may be crossed again.”
Nothing physical has followed yet. But, Brener said, President Chavez’s government has issued a fiat that Venezuelans can no longer obtain travel visas to Israel. This was a measure obviously aimed at Jewish hearts, one the government had to have known would wound as summer hiatuses approached. Brener said the Canadian government was moving to alleviate the visa void at its Caracas embassy.
Today, a fresh sense of insecurity and dread stalks the Jews of Caracas, much like it did the Jews of Venice in the 1200s, Spain in the 1400s, British Palestine in the 1930s, or the Soviet Union in the 1970s. With an immediate past of government raids, presidential denunciations, synagogue desecration, and media rants, Brener says the community especially fears it will take a beating if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites. The new Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu is talking about the Iranian sites like it means business — and soon.
Iran and the Chavez regime have cozied up so closely that two direct flights a week now connect Caracas and Tehran and most passengers and cargo are allowed to bypass normal entry and exit inspections. Venezuela’s Jews are quite mindful of the 1992 and 1994 bombings of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires and Israel’s embassy in Argentina. Hundreds were killed and wounded. In 2007, Argentina indicted senior Iranian officials for orchestrating the blasts under cover of diplomatic privileges afforded by the former Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires.
“If anything ever happened between Israel and Iran, well I don’t know what might happen to us,” Brener told me. “Nobody knows what those planes take, who travels or what is coming in. It’s all shrouded in mystery.”
I asked Brener what, if anything, the community has done to protect itself from any state-sponsored onslaught provoked by confrontation between Israel and Iran, or anyone else.
“One doesn’t really know what to do” against the concentrated power of a whole government, he replied. This is something that hasn’t been seen since the old Soviet Union and its crackdown on Jewish “refuseniks.” The rabbi said local Venezuelan security guards have been hired to protect buildings. But he noted that these hired guns don’t much inspire his confidence because “you can buy off people with very little in Venezuela.”
After some prodding, the rabbi acknowledged that some local Jews had organized a kind of civilian self-protection group. Brener himself travels with a bodyguard these days. But these efforts don’t inspire a sense of security either. For one thing, interest in the self-defense group is tepid. Other Jews in the community won’t support it for fear of further stoking local enmities.
“The community is divided among those who say ‘you’ll only make it worse’ and people like me who believe we should make noise, not keep quiet. I don’t go for that,” Brener said. “History has shown us when you keep quiet, you’re abetting the enemy.”
Brener told me that even the self-protection measures that have been organized might provide a psychological comfort for some but probably won’t help much if the time does arrive when they are needed.
“We can’t withstand any kind of organized aggression; let’s put it that way,” he said. “We can’t withstand that.”
Finally, as we wrapped up our talk, the rabbi fell back on an age-old practice born of last resort for Jews across the span of history who have found themselves in eerily similar straits. He issued an alert, a plea to the outside world for intervention of a sort that he knows has never exactly time-tested well.
“The world should be aware that there is a possibility of something happening in Venezuela,” he said. “And if something did start to happen, the world should cry out.”