Precarious Future of Jews in Venezuela
By Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman
Simon Wiesenthal Center
For some, Hugo Chavez looks like a comic opera despot, but the storm clouds enveloping Venezuela's small Jewish community on his watch are deadly serious. Threats of boycotts, synagogue takeovers, desecration of Torah scrolls, and pipe bombs at a community center, have world Jewry asking if there is any future for Jews -- who have contributed to that proud society since Simon Bolivar -- in Chavez's Venezuela. The answer may be found in a troubling, little-noticed incident, involving -- not threats of aggressive violence -- but the cowardice of an orchestra leader and the humanity of strangers.
It seems that the state-sponsored Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho Orchestra abruptly withdrew its participation a few days before the scheduled Caracas premier of that perennial international favorite, Fiddler on the Roof. In a statement more reminiscent of a Soviet cultural commissar or Hitler's Germany in the 1930s, the Orchestra's cynical conductor put it bluntly, "we receive financial aid from the government, and given the current situation we prefer not to participate in a play that has Jewish content." Chavez's Venezuela proudly hosts Russian bombers and battle cruisers and gives Iranian secret agents cart Blanche, but its weltanschauung no longer extends to those whom his country's aspiring el presidente for life has called "descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ." Nazi Field Marshal Herman Goering said that--when he heard the word "culture"--"I reach for my gun." Chavez's cultural foot soldiers have, so far, only kicked the Fiddler.
The original play was a smash hit on Broadway and moved audiences as far away as Tokyo, while the screen version of the musical has been enjoyed in dubbed versions by French, Dutch, Norwegian, and Finnish movie goers -- but for people in Venezuela, it may soon be verboten. Venezuelan Jewry, numbering a dwindling 15,000, has -- like Tevya the Dairyman -- suffered from unsettled times since Chavez's rise to power in the late 1990s. Chavez has long been associated with extreme leftist Venezuelan anti-Semites as well as extreme rightist anti-Semites from Argentina such as Holocaust Denier Norberto Ceresole.
Venezuela's government-controlled media incessantly equated "Hitler and Sharon" and then blamed Israel for the Iraq War as well as the Jewish State's more recent struggles against Hezbollah and Hamas. In 2004, while Chavez was landing in Tehran for a state visit, his police mounted a 6:30 A.M. raid on Caracas' Club Hebraica including its Jewish day school attended by 1500 children who were, literally, held hostage while uniformed thugs ostensibly looked for contraband Israeli weapons. During the 2006 UN memorial to Auschwitz victims, only Venezuela tried to convert the commemoration into a propaganda forum for the Palestinians. Later at Christmastime, Chavez blamed latter-day Christ killers for all South America's ills.
The war on Venezuela's Jews escalated with the attack in early February on a Caracas synagogue. Then the Sinaan Mordejay Community Center was pipe bombed in the early dawn hours this February 26th. Even before the arrest of 7 policemen for the first attack, nobody believed the government's protestations that it was "shocked, just shocked" by the violence.
In 2006, an ominous, Venezuela-based group--"Hezbollah in Latin America"--took credit for planting bombs outside the U.S. embassy. This was about the same time Caracas became rife with rumors that Chavez's secret police might be teaming up with Iran's Revolutionary Guards and international agents of Lebanon's Hezbollah to kidnap for blackmail and ransom Jewish travelers transiting the international airport.
Until the recent drop in oil prices crimped his style, Chavez was emerging as the "sugar daddy" of the region. Bolivia's President Morales is essentially a Chavez clone. Chavez has also attempted to subvert neighboring Colombia's democratic government. All these countries are susceptible to infection by Chavez-style populist anti-Americanism and "anti-Zionism" which, all too often smacks of classic Jew-hatred.
Despite the anti-Semitic writing on the wall -- and the roof -- in Chavez's Venezuela, Caracas' Jewish community, with the help of Venezuelans untainted by the hate, went ahead and staged its production of Fiddler. We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center applauded the community's courage. But if they are to have any future, it's time to publicly stand in solidarity with Venezuela's Jews. Prominent Americans, along with leaders in regional trend-setters, Brazil and Argentina, and the Organization of American States (OAS), must send an explicit signal that in the 2lst century there's no place in the Americas for history's oldest hate.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Wiesenthal Center.
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