The plight of Venezuela’s Jewish community

Feb 3, 2012 | Allon Lee

The plight of Venezuela’s Jewish community

Venezuelan Supremo Hugo Chavez often accuses Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians.

And so voluminous is the Chavez definition of the term that it is a surprise he has failed to notice that half of his own country’s 200-year-old Jewish community has disappeared since he assumed power in 1998. But then the evaporation of this patriotic, productive, and loyal group is largely a consequence of Chavez’s hostile policies and rhetoric.

Matthew Fishbane at Tablet Magazine has just authored a much-needed lengthy profile of a community of 10,000 souls under siege from a government who seems to feels it duty is to protect its citizens only applies to the right kind of citizen.

That this mass migration of a small but long-standing Jewish community is not receiving the publicity it deserves is regrettable –  but then the world has long been relatively blasé at the destruction of Jewish communities, only lamenting what was once it is no more.

The Venezuelan community is fleeing because it is under both political and physical attack:

On the night of Jan. 31, 2009, a Friday, a dozen unidentified men broke into the Gran Sinagoga Tiféret Israel, the oldest standing synagogue in Caracas, in the tiny central neighborhood of Mariperez, not far from the city’s largest mosque and a major cathedral. The assailants bound and gagged security guards, entered the sanctuary, ripped open the ark, and splayed its silver-tinged contents out across the floor like leftovers from a bad night drinking. Then they rifled through administrative files, apparently stealing nothing, and spray-painted “DEATH NOW,” “OUT, OUT,” “ISRAEL MALDITOS,” and a horned devil with 666 in red on the walls. Before dawn, word had spread through the community that a terrible profanation had taken place, and by first light a significant portion of the Venezuelan Jewish community was gathered in the courtyard, clamoring against the act. No one had been hurt.

With a sizeable proportion of Holocaust survivors among the community, the attack was a chilling reminder of where they had come from and what followed was straight out of 1930s Europe.

The profanation of the Mariperez synagogue occurred barely a month after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s winter incursion into Gaza, which Chávez would soon snatch up as a cudgel in his effort to terrorize the Jews of Venezuela as part of his campaign against the disfavoured rich. On Nov. 3, 2009, Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador and six other diplomats, and in June 2010, he said during a visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: “Israel has become the assassin arm of the United States. The Israelis are not acting alone. They are an executing arm of a genocidal policy.” Raids on Jewish establishments coincided with the demands of Iranian diplomacy or the local campaign calendar. Earlier that month, after the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that included the Mavi Marmara, Chávez, seated in front of a backdrop of stacks of cooking oil, margarine, and other food staples, and wearing a bright red T-shirt under green army fatigues, began an extraordinary, passionate, televised tirade:

You saw the Yankee Empire. You saw the massacre that the genocidal state of Israel committed against a group of pacifists. … You saw it, yes? They massacred people. Look at what the United States said. They said they are “worried.” They are worried. Imagine it. God help us if this had happened in Venezuelan waters. We would have been invaded. Rest assured that they would already have invaded us. But no, because it’s Israel, they are allowed to do anything. That’s an example of a double standard. The government of Obama condemns terrorism—as long as it isn’t committed by themselves. By them, the United States, or their ally, Israel…  I take this opportunity to condemn once again, from the depth of my soul and from my guts, the state of Israel. Damn the state of Israel! Maldito sea! Terrorists and assassins!”

“Viva!” shouted the audience of red-shirted supporters, including the foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, all breaking into applause.

“And viva the Palestinian people!” Chávez replied, visibly pleased by the strength of his condemnation, before saying that Israel “finances the counter-revolution” and that Israel has dispatched Mossad agents to hunt and kill him.

Meanwhile, Commentary online has a must-read piece by Ben Cohen looking at the renewed respectability of antisemitism, a virus equal to or even better at adapting to the particularities of each new generation as its biological analogue.

Cohen identifies the shifts and currents in antisemitism between the Holocaust and today.

In today’s world, he points to the development he calls “bistro anti-semitism” which does not advocate physical violence or restrictive anti-Jewish laws, but nonetheless is devoted to the traditional antisemitic task of confronting the supposed evil power of what were once called “Jewish cabals”. Bistro anti-semitism, according to Cohen features such common concepts as:

the depiction of Palestinians as the victims of a second Holocaust, the breaking of the silence supposedly imposed upon honest discussions of Jewish political and economic power, and the contention—offered by, among others, Mearsheimer’s co-author, Stephen Walt, of Harvard—that American Jewish government officials are more suspect than others because of a potential second loyalty to Israel.

To this list we can now add the assault upon what [some of them call] the “Holocaust narrative.” This type of revisionism doesn’t deny that the Nazis killed Jews, but it redistributes a good deal of the blame among the victims.

Complicating the matter are Jews who vehemently oppose the concept of Jews as a people with the right to invoke a claim to be masters of their own destiny in a sovereign Jewish state. 

Cohen comes closest to articulating the real power of today’s antisemitism, in noting:

the rising fixation with Jewish power in our time has unwittingly revealed Jewish emasculation instead. Jews do not control the discourse; rather, the discourse controls them.

By which he means to say that, unlike for virtually any other minority group, Jews are denied a major say in what constitutes antisemitism by large sectors of Western opinion:

Anti-Semites are being given additional power to define anti-Semitism by stating that it is something other than what they themselves represent—before rising in moral outrage to denounce anyone who might say different. Their views are not offensive, not anti-Semitic; no, it is the opinions of those who object to their views that should be considered beyond the pale.

This is more than a change in the dynamics of anti-Semitism; it is an inversion of the accepted logic of minorities and bigots altogether. Unlike blacks, Muslims, Hispanics, or any other religious or ethnic group, Jews alone are now to be told by their enemies who does and who does not hate them.

Further, he notes it is now being seriously argued that:

Those who truly suffer from anti-Semitism today are not Jews, but those who are accused of being anti-Semitic. Those mere speakers of truth, so the thinking goes, are being made to pay for centuries of hateful prejudice.

Cohen concludes that while those involved are not themselves violent, they do play a role in legitimising such violence, as in Venezuela:

The anti-Semite who avoids violence has no reservations about enabling, excusing, and rationalizing it. Israel, the supreme embodiment of Jewishness, would ultimately be held culpable for a pogrom in Istanbul, or, for that matter, in Tehran or Caracas, in which the protagonists carried signs and chanted slogans about the suffering of the Palestinians. By the same token, should the Holocaust-deniers and conspiracy theorists massed along Israel’s borders launch a war of extermination against it, we can be assured that this same theory of culpability would be articulated even more brazenly.

Since the Holocaust, Jewish communities have mistakenly concluded that the relative absence of anti-Semitism reflects a greater awareness that anti-Semitism, as understood and experienced by Jews themselves, is a grave social ill. There is no basis to think that anymore. As long as the adversaries and enemies of the Jews control the meaning of the term anti-Semitism, Jews will remain vulnerable to that most sacred of anti-Semitic calumnies: that they alone are the authors of their own misfortune.

Allon Lee



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