On December 1, 2007, two dozen heavily armed police staged a raid on a Jewish community center in Caracas where hundreds of Venezuela’s small Jewish community were celebrating a wedding. The police, the Venezuelan equivalent of the FBI, claimed to be seeking weapons and evidence of “subversive activity.”
They found no weapons. As for subversive activity, well, in a proto-authoritarian state like Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, subversion is a very elastic concept. The mildest skepticism about Chavez’s regime might easily qualify.
This bit of harassment theater was only the latest in a series of worrying moves by the Chavez government against its Jewish citizens. The same community center had been raided in 2004, in the morning hours when children were being bused to school. The regime — which boasts of cozy friendships with Ahmadinejad’s Iran and Castro’s Cuba — has also engaged in steady anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. A little more than a year ago, Chavez declared in a Christmas Eve speech that “the world has wealth for all, but some minorities, the descendants of the same people that crucified Christ, have taken over all the wealth of the world.”
During the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Chavez became increasingly shrill, accusing the Israelis of behaving like Nazis. On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Gustavo Aristegui — the shadow foreign minister in Spain’s opposition party — told a group at the Hudson Institute that Hamas and Hezbollah are now operating freely in Venezuela.
Publications by the government’s ministry of culture have featured titles like “The Jewish Question,” with cover art showing a Star of David superimposed over a swastika. Jews were accused of complicity in the murder of a prosecutor. An article in a leading newspaper, El Diaro de Caracas asked whether it would become necessary “to expel [the Jews] from the country.”
Most recently, as the Forward has reported, Chavez has used the government-run television channel to engage in “lengthy rants about the presence of Mossad agents allegedly in the country working to unseat the Chavez regime with the support of the United States and opposition forces in Venezuela.” The program’s host interrupted to ask about the loyalty of Jews to Venezuela.
At the start of Chavez’s rule, the Jewish community in Venezuela numbered about 30,000. Solid statistics are hard to come by, but most estimates now put the number at between 8 and 15,000 today. About half of Venezuela’s Jewish community emigrated there to escape the Nazis during World War II. Neither they nor their children would require much prodding to sense danger. The raids, the propaganda, and the hostile press might have been enough. But then consider this: The man Chavez placed in charge of internal security is one Tarek al Assaimi, son of Saddam Hussein’s envoy to Venezuela.
You might expect an outcry from other Jews around the world — and there has been some. But within the U.S., many of the leaders of large Jewish organizations are seeking to stifle those — like Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns — who are urging members of Congress to hold hearings on the matter. Weiss reports that Rep. Eliot Engel (D., NY) was willing to call a hearing but was dissuaded by the Conference of Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations.
Dina Siegel Vann, speaking of behalf of the American Jewish Congress, published an op-ed in the Miami Herald scolding those who want to make as public a protest as possible. “Shouting and screaming from the safety of the United States may feel good to some,” she wrote, “but the goal of the exercise is not to satisfy their needs; rather it’s to ensure the safety and well-being of thousands of Venezuelan Jews . . .” Her title: “Let’s Use Diplomacy, Not Public Protests.”
Well, diplomacy has its place, but this isn’t it. When the Soviet Union was denying exit visas to Jews wishing to emigrate and persecuting those who sought to leave, only the loud and persistent protests of Jews in the United States and elsewhere (combined with congressional action) caused the Soviets to relent. Bill Buckley quipped at the time that he hoped the Soviets would release every Jew who wanted to emigrate except one — to keep alive the Jewish pressure that was so helpful in the larger Cold War.
The Venezuelan Jews themselves have asked for such international pressure. They believe Chavez to be extremely sensitive to international opinion. It would be naïve to place faith in diplomacy alone.
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