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Around the Jewish World As Chavez Cozies Up to Iran, Venezuelan Community Shudders

August 21, 2006
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Rebecca, a 44-year-old Jew born and raised here, says she and her husband “increasingly talk about whether we should stay in Venezuela.” While her cousin and aunt have spent the past month in a bomb shelter in Haifa, Rebecca, who refuses to give her last name because her family does some work with the Venezuelan government, says she also feels “increasingly fearful” — not because of war but simply for being Jewish in Venezuela.

This is largely because of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s vehement criticism of Israel during its monthlong war with Hezbollah. Chavez has described Israel’s actions in Lebanon as a “new Holocaust,” and said that “Israel is doing what Hitler did to the Jews.”

Chavez’s supporters have followed his lead: Graffiti featuring swastikas and slogans such as “Judios asesinos” — or “Jewish assassins” — is on the rise.

Many Jews here think Chavez’s heated rhetoric is fanning the flames of anti-Semitism — an ongoing theme during the Chavez administration, they say.

At a recent demonstration, protesters burned an Israeli flag outside the Israeli Embassy in “a campaign orchestrated by the government,” according to Paulina Gambus, who in 1970 founded the human-rights office in the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela, known by its Spanish acronym CAIV.

In addition, the capital’s largest synagogue, Tiferet Israel, has been vandalized in recent months with slogans including “Judios Afuera,” or “Jews out.”

Gambus and others contend that the recent anti-Semitic behavior isn’t typical for Venezuela. Gambus’ parents, a Syrian Jew and a Greek Jew, arrived here in 1929; she was born in 1937.

Attending public school, Gambus — along with the children of Communist parents — was able to opt out of a daily Catholic studies class. “There was never a stigma” for doing so, she says.

In terms of religious tolerance, she says, she “never felt rejection” in Venezuela. Gambus won election to the Caracas City Council, the national legislature — where she served for 16 years — and the national senate in 1999, never hiding her Judaism.

Unlike Argentina or Chile, Venezuela has no history of providing refuge for Nazi fugitives or excluding Jewish immigration.

Daniel Benaim, 46, a Caracas native and leading television producer, says he has “never needed to downplay his faith” in his career. But he’s increasingly concerned about the government’s incendiary comments about Israel and Jews.

Beyond the rhetoric, Chavez is pursuing closer strategic relations with Arab countries and Iran, and is emerging as a key supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly has called for Israel’s destruction.

Analysts say it’s not unusual for Venezuela and Iran, two founding members of OPEC, to maintain friendly relations. But Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, says that “since the foundation of Israel, Venezuela has maintained equilibrium between its interests in Israel and Arab countries. Chavez has broken this.”

“This is very dangerous,” Romero added. “Chavez is going into a black tunnel.”

The Venezuelan Jewish community acknowledges that Israeli foreign policy sometimes warrants criticism.

“I didn’t agree with what happened” in Lebanon, Benaim says.

But he and others say Chavez and his supporters have crossed the line that separates healthy criticism from hateful speech and potential incitement to violence — and examples predate the Lebanon war.

For example, Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz appeared last January on the popular “La Hojilla” program on state-run television. The pro-Chavez show often assesses international and local private media coverage of Venezuela.

The hosts criticized Jakubowicz’s film, “Sequestro Express,” as unfair toward the government. But they went on to identify Jakubowicz as a Jew and claim that Miramax Studios financed the film only because the studio was run by two Jews.

In addition, Norberto Ceresole, an Argentine who was a key adviser to Chavez, has blamed the 1994 AMIA terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, which killed 86 people and wounded more than 300, on a Jewish conspiracy. In fact, evidence points to the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran.

Sergio Widder, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Latin American representative, told JTA recently that the center found on the Internet a group known as “Hezbollah Venezuela,” which calls for “Jihad in Latin America.”

To be sure, the Venezuelan Jewish community is not unanimously convinced that it faces an increasing threat.

Natan Quiaro, 30, has worked for Chavez since 1998, currently as an assessor in the Education Ministry. He feels a strong connection to Israel, where his father lived for 10 years, and he has attended Caracas’ Tiferet Israel synagogue since he was 8 years old.

Quiaro says he never has experienced discrimination or anti-Semitism from colleagues in government, even now.

He thinks Chavez’s criticism of Israel has been appropriate — but admits his opinion isn’t shared by most of the Jewish community.

Quiaro questions whether domestic politics have influenced the community’s fear. Members of the community mostly are middle- or upper-middle class, a socioeconomic group that includes few supporters of Chavez, a populist who purports to be the voice of the poor.

Quiaro contends that the Venezuelan Jewish community is “selective” in its criticism of those who invoke Hitler: For example, when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year compared Chavez to Hitler, CAIV issued no denunciation.

Chavez supporters also point out that Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, along with pro-Chavez legislators, attended an event organized by the Jewish community last year commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Chavez met with CAIV earlier in the year over a Christmas eve speech that the Wiesenthal Center deemed anti-Semitic. CAIV later told the Forward that Chavez was not an anti-Semite, and accused the Wiesenthal Center of interfering in Venezuela’s affairs.

However, several Venezuelan Jews told JTA that CAIV’s statements were made without consulting the community. Since then, they contend, Chavez and his supporters’ true sentiments have become abundantly clear.

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