Venezuela: charges and counter-charges in synagogue attack

An analysis this week by the Council for Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), “Venezuelan Synagogue Vandalizing Takes New Turn: The Culmination of a Number of Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel Incidents,” accuses President Hugo Chávez and his government of creating a climate that fostered the Jan. 31 attack on the Tiferet Israel Sephardic temple in Caracas.

For instance, COHA wrote:

Chávez recently likened Israel’s occupation of Gaza to the Holocaust. As a result, over 75 respected religious scholars and others signed a petition criticizing his remarks. In that document, they cited a 2008 report from the U.S. State Department that maintained that, “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is in itself an example of anti-Semitism.

The Washington Post, in Feb. 12 analysis of the controversy, has the exact quotes:

After Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, the caudillo expelled Israel’s ambassador and described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide.” Then Mr. Chávez turned on Venezuela’s Jews. “Let’s hope that the Venezuelan Jewish community will declare itself against this barbarity,” Mr. Chávez bellowed on a government-controlled television channel. “Don’t Jews repudiate the Holocaust? And this is precisely what we’re witnessing.”

COHA also recalled last winter’s police raid on a Caracas Jewish center on suspicion of “subversive activity” (the search turned up nothing). The raid came days before a constitutional referendum that would have eliminated presidential term limits, thus allowing Chávez to serve indefinitely. The synagogue attack again comes in the prelude to a popular referendum on the same question.

Predictably, COHA’s mostly lefty readers responded with a storm of protest. The letters, complied on a page entitled “Debate on Chávez and Anti-Semitism Continues,” contained the following nuggets:

1. It is simply not legitimate to equate criticism of the government of Israel with anti-Semitism. I am very disappointed in your organization.

2. People who know how things work in Venezuela knew from DAY ONE that the attack on the synagogue was a black op by the so-called opposition. Street vandals are not going to be able to get into this facility – and any cursory check of this situation would have made that perfectly clear to you. It had all of the classic signs of being a U.S.-backed operation… You fell for it and you are supposed to be one of the sophisticated voices on matters related to Latin America. Amazing.

3. First off, as I am sure you are aware, there were lots of incidents of vandalism at Jewish sites all over the world, especially in Europe, after Israel began another of its massacres of Palestinians, this time in Gaza… [N]o statement made by Chavez called specifically for such an action in Venezuela. Thus, the acts on the surface look like independent acts with no causal relation to anything President Chavez did or said.

Nor do I think it is it fair to say that all these incidents are anti-Semitic if those who acted out did so to voice their anger and outrage over the horrible destruction and deaths caused by Israel, and to show their support for the plight of the Palestinians. You just can not just presume such prejudice, especially when both parties to the conflict are Semitic.

While not all of COHA’s points were convincing, these responses indicate a very deep level of cynicism and denial. Since COHA chose not to respond, we will (at risk of legitimizing this noise by stooping to argue with it):

1. It certainly it is not legitimate “to equate criticism of the government of Israel with anti-Semitism.” But is it also not legitimate to dismiss real anti-Semitism as “criticism of Israel.” A gratuitous police raid on a Jewish center is not “criticism of Israel.” Neither is baiting opposition leaders for their Jewish last names, as some prominent chavista commentators have done.

2. Deciding in the absence of evidence that the synagogue attack was a “black op” by the Venezuelan opposition, CIA, Mossad or whoever is utterly dishonest. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. But to say that we “knew” this was the case (“from DAY ONE,” no less) is kneejerk conspiracy-mongering.

3. The fact that Chávez wasn’t so impolitic as to openly call for an attack on a synagogue does not necessarily let him off the hook for contributing to the climate that led to the attack. But far worse is the obscene notion that a synagogue attack is not anti-Semitic “if those who acted out did so to voice their anger and outrage” at Israel’s actions. Would anyone on the left apply this sick logic to the mosque attacks that followed 9-11? (The notion that anti-Semitism can’t be at work in the Gaza backlash because Arabs are also Semites is too ludicrous to warrant comment. We hope.)

Meanwhile, the mainstream media continue to be provided with plenty of grist for the anti-Chávez mill by chavista commentators, up to and including the president himself. Simon Romero writes in the New York Times Feb. 13:

The government’s handling of the episode has also sown confusion. Mr. Chávez has denounced the attack and other forms of anti-Semitism and proclaimed his friendship with Venezuela’s Jews. But he has also asserted that unidentified opponents of his attacked the synagogue to cause disarray before a referendum this Sunday to decide whether Mr. Chávez can run for re-election indefinitely.

“Some sectors of the oligarchy want to overshadow the advances of the revolution with acts of violence,” Mr. Chávez said shortly after the attack.

When the Interior Ministry seemed to contradict his assertion that the attack was an effort to weaken his rule, arresting 11 people and saying robbery was their motive, Mr. Chávez shifted his position. He attacked critics who claimed he had created a political atmosphere in which anti-Semitism could flourish, accusing them of harboring the “criminal intent to unleash a religious war in Venezuela.”

The robbery motive seems unlikely, given the anti-Semitic graffiti and Torah desecrations. But note that either way, Chávez portrays himself as the victim.

Commentators on state media and pro-Chávez Web sites have taken up with relish Mr. Chávez’s initial position that the attack was a plot by his opponents. “The synagogue case seems to us like a media show assembled by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad,” said Hindu Anderi, a pro-Chávez journalist, in comments published by the government’s Bolivarian News Agency.

Here we go again.

Meanwhile, Mario Silva, the host of a program on state television, issued a menacing call for the rabbi of the desecrated synagogue to express gratitude publicly for a swift investigation.

“I still have not seen the first declaration from the rabbi of the synagogue saying, ‘Sirs, I am thankful to the government,'” Mr. Silva said Monday night.

Actually, as we noted, Caracas Jewish leaders had indeed publicly thanked the authorities after the arrests in the case Sunday Feb. 8—and Silva is the same commentator who made the charming Jew-baiting comments against opposition leaders.

The Times notes a second public statement of gratitude by Caracas’ Jewish leaders Feb. 12, at a ceremony in which Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro visited the synagogue. Nonetheless, the Times continues:

Despite the government’s efforts to put the controversy to rest, a sense of dread still lingers among Venezuela’s 12,000 to 14,000 Jews. That number is down from as many as 20,000 in the 1990s because of emigration.

Mr. Chávez and his government have long been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, at least since his association with Norberto Ceresole, an Argentine with anti-Semitic views who advised Mr. Chávez in the 1990s.

We have also noted before the Norberto Ceresole connection.

Mr. Chávez later distanced himself from Mr. Ceresole but recent statements have led to renewed criticism from Jewish leaders — including one by Venezuela’s ambassador to Russia, who said last year that the brief coup against Mr. Chávez in 2002 included “many Mossad snipers, who were Venezuelan citizens but Jews.”

Could be. But some evidence please, Señor Presidente?

The tensions intensified last month when Mr. Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador to protest the war in Gaza, and senior officials attended a rally at the Sheik Ibrahim Mosque here in Caracas. “Our revolution is also the revolution for a Free Palestine,” Tareck El Aissami, the interior minister, said at the rally.

On the sidelines of the televised rapprochement on Thursday at the synagogue, one observer, LeĂłn Benaim, summed up his view of the attack and the government’s reaction to it.

“The motive was simple,” said Mr. Benaim, 73, a Moroccan Jew who moved to Venezuela three decades ago. “It is to threaten and frighten the Jewish community so that we leave.”

There is nothing wrong with the pro-Palestine rally at the mosque, of course. The problem comes with the implication (or flat accusation) that Venezuelan Jews are Israeli agents and Mossad operatives. On the government’s Venezuela National Radio Feb. 4, HindĂş Anderi again made the charge that “we believe the Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) is behind all this”—meaning the synagogue attack. This comes in a report entitled “Organizations reject criminalization of solidarity with Palestine.” Once again, it seems an attack on a synagogue is being conflated with “solidarity with Palestine.” Note the insidious propaganda of the opening paragraph:

The Itinerant Forum of Popular Participation and groups working in a coordinated way with this organization supported the initiative for the constitutional amendment, and denounced the criminalization that is pretended to be made out of solidarity with Palestine, trying to link groups of solidarity and the very Bolivarian government with the execution of alleged attacks against Israeli facilities.

First, the synagogue attack is not even explicitly mentioned, much less denounced. Instead, it is invoked vaguely and inaccurately as “alleged attacks against Israeli facilities.” Use of the word “alleged” implies there is some doubt the attack even happened. Worse, the synagogue is not an “Israeli facility.” Now who seems to be confusing Jews with the state of Israel?

We note that the Spanish version uses the phrase “instalaciones israelitas.” Now, israelita can translate as either “Israeli” or “Israelite,” which can legitimately be used as a synonym for Jews. So this could have been an honest translation error. But there is no translation error in “presuntos atentados” (alleged attacks)—or in the baseless Mossad-baiting.

It is perfectly predictable that the corporate media will use this affair as an excuse for a round of Chávez-bashing—and throw in some purely specious accusations of anti-Semitism for good measure. But when propaganda like the above appears on a Venezuelan government website, it is pretty disingenuous for lefties to protest that everything is kosher in the Bolivarian Republic.

See our last posts on the Venezuela synagogue attack and the politics of anti-Semitism.

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  1. Internment Camps
    I am perfectly OK with Hugo expelling Israeli diplomats. I don’t think that what Israel does in Gaza is Holocaust, but it comes pretty darn close. But those are actions of Israeli government, and to imply that Jewish communities around the world are somehow involved is the same like suspecting every Muslim to be a terrorist, because of September 11. The history now says it was wrong for FDR to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps after Pearl Harbour, because they were not responsible for the politics of the imperial Japan. The same is applicable in this case – even if all 12 thousand Jews of Venezuela would support Israeli politics, because that’s their right to free speech, so as long as there is no provable material support to Israeli policy, they should be free of suspicion. Synagogues are places of worship, they are not Israeli facilities. Hugo and like-minded leaders are actually doing a dis-service to Palestine by persecuting Jews for Israeli policies. Further claims that Mossad attacked a synagogue, dig chavistas just deeper in a “Serbian hole”, reminding us of claims how Muslims bombed themselves in Sarajevo to provoke world’s sympathy. Chavez can do better than to hinge his political survival on provoking hatred against minorities.

    1. Gaza – the Holocaust – 911 – All the same?
      Dear “anonymous” (of Sat, 02/14/2009 – 10:23),
      If you think “what Israel does in Gaza” is “pretty darn close” to the Holocaust, you need to do your homework, both about the Holocaust, and about Gaza. Additionally, to compare Israel’s recent military attack on Hamas in Gaza with 9/11 is ridiculous. On the basic numbers, 9/11 was nearly 3 times as many dead and all of them were deliberately targeted for slaughter. The number of Palestinians casualties in the recent war in Gaza was high, but the important difference is that (1) many of them were armed combatants involved in a military conflict and (2) they were not all targeted to be slaughtered.

      1. No tragedy is ever comparable to another
        I did not compare attack on Gaza to September 11. I just said that it would be wrong to collectively punish all Jews globally after Gaza attacks, as it is to collectively punish all Muslims globally after September 11. The alternative to that would be to think that it is OK to hold that all Muslims are indeed terrorists, because September 11 was in scope so much bigger tragedy than the attack on Gaza. On the purely numerical side of argument if you count all the victims in Gaza since 1948, you’d come up with a statistically significantly higher number than it is that of the one-time tragedy of the September 11 slaughter (although, still far below the total Holocaust count). I agree that the recent attack on Gaza was very surgical, but I ponder whether this is because of high human rights awareness in Israeli military, or the latest military technology that US military shared with Israel, like the GBU-39.

        1. “On the purely numerical

          “On the purely numerical side of argument if you count all the victims in Gaza since 1948, you’d come up with a statistically significantly higher number than it is that of the one-time tragedy of the September 11 slaughter (although, still far below the total Holocaust count).”

          And if you count the number of stones on the beach compared to the number of stones in my backyard, you would also have a numerically higher number. And simultaneously, you would have absolutely nothing.

          1. Vulgar bean-counting
            This is all a bogus distraction. The poster never did equate Gaza with 9-11, he just said the same principle applies re. collective guilt. So let’s stop changing the subject.

            My only issue with what he wrote is use of the word “tragedies” to refer to political crimes. The Gaza assault, 9-11 and the Holocaust were all acts of man, not God.

            1. Holocaust Relativization

              “I don’t think that what Israel does in Gaza is Holocaust, but it comes pretty darn close.”

              I found this statement of Holocaust relativization very problematic.