[News] Playing the ‘Anti-Semitism’ Card Against Venezuela

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Sep 4 12:29:17 EDT 2009

Playing the ‘Anti-Semitism’ Card Against Venezuela

Sep 3 2009
Eric Wingerter and Justin Delacour

In the early morning hours of January 31, vandals 
broke into Tiferet Israel, a Sephardic synagogue 
in Caracas. They strewed sacred scrolls on the 
floor and scribbled “Death to the Jews” and other 
anti-Semitic epithets on the walls, before making 
off with computer equipment and historical 
artifacts. Understandably, the incident 
frightened and upset many in the Venezuelan 
Jewish community. Right away, U.S. news outlets, 
including The New York Times and The Miami 
Herald, linked the incident to Venezuela’s 
increasingly strained relations with Israel, 
after the two countries suspended diplomatic 
relations two weeks earlier over Israel’s bombing 
of Gaza, then still under way.

A Herald editorial went so far as to describe an 
“official policy of anti-Semitism” in Venezuela 
and implied that Chávez’s foreign policy had 
unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence in the 
country, culminating in the assault on the 
synagogue.1 Some international NGOs were no more 
nuanced. Just hours after the break-in, the 
U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was 
already implicitly comparing the Chávez 
government to the Nazis, calling the synagogue 
attack “a modern-day Kristallnacht.”2

But the Caracas police investigation bore out a 
different story. Authorities quickly realized 
that the synagogue’s security fence had been cut 
from the inside, prompting detectives to 
investigate the break-in as an inside job. Within 
the week it became clear that the attack had in 
fact been a robbery disguised as anti-Semitic 
vandalism, carried out by the synagogue’s 
privately contracted security team. Eleven men 
were arrested for their role in the plot, and 
their statements to the police indicated that the 
graffiti and desecration were intended to throw off investigators.3

Although the arrests helped ease the anxieties of 
Venezuela’s Jewish community, the international 
media pressed on with the storyline of a 
politically motivated attack. The very week that 
the Venezuelan Israelite Association issued a 
statement praising the swift and successful 
investigation, The Washington Post ran an 
editorial titled “Mr. Chavez vs. the Jews,” which 
again blamed the robbery on the government, or, 
more specifically, on an ugly comment left on a 
“pro-government Web site,” demanding “that 
citizens ‘publicly challenge every Jew that you 
find in the street, shopping center or park’ and 
called for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, 
seizures of Jewish-owned property and a 
demonstration at Caracas’s largest synagogue.”4 
The editorial concluded that the synagogue was 
then “duly attacked.”5 The idea that the sacking 
of the Caracas synagogue was based purely on 
anti-Semitism has persisted, even showing up in a 
recent piece authored by two academics in the 
high-brow Boston Review. The authors claim the 
attack is a sign of “state-directed anti-Semitism.”6

Such hyperbolic media coverage exemplifies the 
tendency of the U.S. press to portray 
left-leaning Latin American governments as 
hotbeds of anti-Semitism. In the case of 
Venezuela, where the government has never made 
any overtly anti-Semitic public statements, much 
less enacted policies targeting its Jewish 
citizens, the storyline has been promoted in 
three key ways: (1) attributing anti-Semitic acts 
or statements by private citizens to the 
government, (2) conflating legitimate criticism 
of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, and (3) 
relying on press statements by U.S.-based Jewish 
organizations like the ADL or the Simon 
Wiesenthal Center, often at the expense of 
Venezuelan Jewish organizations, which regularly 
complain that their views are misrepresented, 
even flatly contradicted, by U.S. groups pursuing their own agendas.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this 
disconnect occurred in January 2006, when the New 
York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, and The 
Wall Street Journal all reported that Chávez, 
during a Christmas Eve speech, had invoked an 
age-old anti-Semitic slur, labeling Jews as 
Christ killers.7 The story originated with an 
alert circulated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, 
but on closer inspection it became clear that the 
group had deliberately edited the speech to 
manufacture the slur. The original speech 
contained a long riff in which Chávez decried the 
unequal distribution of global wealth:

The world has enough for everybody, but it turned 
out that a few minorities­the descendants of 
those who crucified Christ, the descendants of 
those who expelled Bolívar from here, and also 
those who in a certain way crucified him in Santa 
Marta, there in Colombia­a minority took 
possession of the planet’s gold, silver, 
minerals, water, good lands, oil, and they have 
concentrated all the riches in the hands of a 
few: Less than 10% of the world population owns 
more than half of the riches of the world.8

The reference to the betrayal of Latin American 
liberation hero Simón Bolívar by some leaders 
after the War of Independence indicates that 
Chávez was speaking metaphorically about wealthy 
elites in general, rather than any group in 
particular. But the translation published by the 
Wiesenthal Center shortened the statement 
significantly and altered its meaning as follows: 
“ . . . 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.”9

The center’s editing job included quotation 
marks, implying that it was a direct quote, but 
failed to include ellipses, which would have 
signaled to readers that words had been removed. 
The Confederation of Jewish Associations of 
Venezuela (CAIV), the nation’s largest Jewish 
organization, was swift and severe in condemning 
the Wiesenthal Center, issuing a public letter 
complaining that the U.S. organization had 
“interfered in the political status, in the 
security, and in the well-being of our 
community.” The group added: “You have acted on 
your own, without consulting us, on issues that 
you don’t know or understand.”10

But in the three years since the “Christ killer” 
incident, some U.S. NGOs, media, and politicians 
have continued to neglect Venezuelan Jewish 
organizations while persisting in their attempts 
to demonize the Chávez government. In May, 
Representative Connie Mack (R-Fla.) introduced a 
House resolution condemning the Venezuelan 
government as anti-Semitic in response to the 
synagogue break-in.11 Once again, Venezuelan 
Jewish organizations were forced to mobilize. As 
CAIV explained to the Pittsburgh-based Jewish 
Chronicle, the resolution may have derailed an 
ongoing dialogue that had been initiated between 
the Venezuelan government and the Jewish 
community in the months since the break-in. Fred 
Pressner, former president of CAIV, pointed out 
that Venezuela’s government had reacted well to 
the earlier attacks, noting that “all of our 
institutions are protected by the police­we cannot complain about that.”12

Pressner and the CAIV worked with House Democrats 
to block Mack’s resolution. In the end, the 
conservative congressman pulled the language from 
consideration, but he has indicated that he will 
seek to reintroduce it again soon, whether or not 
it is opposed by Venezuela’s Jewish leadership.13


This is not the first time that U.S.-based 
propagandists have sought to portray a 
left-leaning Latin American government as 
anti-Semitic. In May 1983, the ADL issued a 
meagerly sourced report claiming that Nicaragua’s 
Sandinista government systematically repressed 
and forced into exile the country’s tiny Jewish 
community.14 Eager to garner U.S. congressional 
funding for a brutal mercenary campaign to topple 
Nicaragua’s government, President Ronald Reagan 
promptly added the charge of anti-Semitism to his 
propaganda offensive against the Sandinistas.

However, subsequent investigations by U.S. Jewish 
leaders found that, among the estimated 50 
practicing Jews who lived in Nicaragua at the 
time of the Sandinista revolution, most had ties 
to the toppled dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza 
and left the country of their own accord.15 Rabbi 
Gerald Serotta, a Jewish chaplain at George 
Washington University who traveled with a 
delegation to Nicaragua in 1984, told The 
Washington Post that “there wasn’t one person in 
the country with whom we met who believes there 
was special discrimination against the Jewish 
community.”16 Serotta added that “we are 
convinced that whatever lack of due process there 
was during the revolutionary period . . . was not 
especially discriminatory to Jews.”

Other sources corroborated Serotta’s 
observations. For example, the University of 
Central America’s Historical Institute noted that 
Nicaraguans with strong ties to Somoza left the 
country during the revolution, and that “the 
Jewish people who left in 1979 were part of a 
larger exodus from Nicaragua of those who felt 
their future would be uncertain with changes by 
the revolutionary government.”17 At no point was 
credible evidence presented that religious 
intolerance and/or ethnic persecution caused the 
departure of Jews from Nicaragua. In fact, not 
even Anthony Quainton, the U.S. ambassador to 
Nicaragua, could produce evidence to support the 
charges of anti-Semitism. In a confidential cable 
from Quainton to Secretary of State George Shultz 
in 1983, the ambassador noted that “the evidence 
fails to demonstrate that the Sandinistas have 
followed a policy of anti-Semitism or have 
persecuted Jews solely because of their religion.”18

There are a number of parallels between Reagan’s 
charges against the Sandinistas and the more 
recent claims against Venezuela’s government. In 
both cases, the claims are rooted not in facts 
but in the desire of interested parties to 
publicly censure Latin American governments they 
dislike. In the case of Nicaragua, the Reagan 
administration methodically tailored its 
narrative to appeal to various religious 
constituencies within the United States.19

Because a factual storyline would have had little 
propaganda value, the administration favored wild 
tales about “Marxist-Leninist” Sandinistas 
suppressing not only Jews but also Christians. 
However, leading Evangelicals and Jesuit 
scholars, like the Jewish delegation that found 
the charges of anti-Semitism unsubstantiated, 
rejected Reagan’s assertions that the Sandinistas 
persecuted Protestants and Catholics for their religious beliefs.20

Yet given that large segments of the U.S. public 
have always been poorly informed about Latin 
America, it was not such a stretch for the Reagan 
administration to spread outlandish tales of 
religious persecution as a means of rallying 
conservative constituencies behind its wars in 
Central America. In the political culture of the 
United States during the Reagan years, the 
Marxist-Leninist label served as an epithet whose 
purpose was to project an image of a society 
where all forms of “freedom”­including religious 
freedom­were under attack. Naturally, Reagan’s 
propaganda offensive got an important boost from 
his allies in the media and the foreign-policy 
establishment. Conservative media fed the 
hysteria about the Sandinistas’ alleged 
persecution of Jews and Christians, while the ADL 
continued promoting its storyline in letters to The New York Times.21

In this regard, the confluence of interests 
between the ADL and right-wing U.S. politicians 
has become a marriage of convenience. The ADL and 
other groups often use charges of anti-Semitism 
as a form of subterfuge designed to sully the 
image of governments and intellectuals who 
criticize the policies of the Israeli government. 
Meanwhile, right-wing U.S. politicians can use 
the anti-Semitism claims as a means of attacking the left more generally.

As its treatment of Venezuela and Nicaragua 
suggests, the ADL and likeminded groups tend to 
make accusations that are not supported by facts, 
indicating that their motives have less to do 
with confronting anti-Semitism than with 
attacking those who do not share their enthusiasm 
for Israeli policies. Both the Sandinistas and 
the Chávez government have been sympathetic to 
the plight of Palestinians and critical of 
Israeli policy in the occupied territories, but 
their differences with Israel­like their 
differences with the United States­have deeper 
roots in U.S.-Israeli complicity in the 
repression of Latin American social movements and the left.

As the NACLA Report made clear in its March/April 
1987 issue, Israel provided military assistance 
to the Somoza dictatorship from the 1950s right 
up to the Sandinistas’ overthrow of Somoza in 
1979.22 The journalist Christopher Dickey once 
noted that, even as Somoza’s defeated National 
Guardsmen scurried to leave Nicaragua in July 
1979, they “looked nothing so much as Israeli 
soldiers, with their Israeli Galil rifles, and 
for those who had not thrown them away, their 
Israeli paratrooper helmets.”23 Then, in the 
mid-1980s, Israeli arms dealers funneled weapons 
to right-wing Nicaraguan mercenaries­mostly 
Somoza’s former National Guardsmen­who fought to overthrow the Sandinistas.24

Israel’s complicity in Latin American human 
rights abuses was most glaring in Guatemala, 
where more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayans, 
were killed over the course of the country’s 
36-year civil war.25 At the height of the 
Guatemalan military’s atrocities in the early 
1980s, the country’s military government was 
largely isolated internationally, relying 
exclusively on Israel for military training and 
assistance.26 In February 1983, CBS anchorman Dan 
Rather pointedly observed that “Israel has helped 
[Guatemala] wage a war with no questions asked.”27

Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish American political 
scientist and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian 
conflict, has documented how certain zealous 
supporters of the Israeli state seek to 
“discredit all criticism of Israeli policy as 
motivated by an irrational loathing of Jews.”28 
But clearly many Central Americans have 
historical grievances with the Israeli state, 
grievances that cannot be dismissed as 
anti-Semitism. Given the legacy of U.S.-Israeli 
complicity in the repression of the Latin 
American left, it is hardly surprising that 
left-leaning governments in the region would tend 
to empathize with others who have suffered Israeli-sponsored repression.

As Finkelstein notes, “Whenever Israel comes 
under international pressure to resolve its 
conflicts with the Palestinians diplomatically or 
faces a public relations debacle, its apologists 
mount a campaign alleging that the world is awash 
in a new anti-Semitism.”29 Finkelstein makes a 
strong case that to conflate empathy for the 
victims of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism is 
itself a form of defamation, one that helps 
sustain Israeli repression in the occupied territories.

Of course, to point out that some groups misuse 
charges of anti-Semitism is not to deny the 
existence of retrograde attitudes toward Jews in 
Latin America. Indeed, anti-Semitic attitudes and 
stereotypes are not uncommon in the region. The 
Chávez government, for its part, has consistently 
drawn a distinction between its criticisms of 
Israeli policy and the anti-Jewish bigotry that 
some of the government’s supporters sometimes 
display. For example, after Venezuela suspended 
diplomatic relations with Israel over the bombing 
of Gaza, the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign 
Affairs was careful to point out that Chávez “has 
always opposed anti-Semitism and all forms of 
discrimination and racism.”30 Just three weeks 
before the diplomatic break with Israel, the 
World Jewish Congress issued a press release 
congratulating Chávez for “supporting a clear 
condemnation of anti-Semitism” in a joint 
declaration with the presidents of Argentina and Brazil.31

The sad irony is that unsubstantiated charges of 
anti-Semitism serve very few interests. Certainly 
the cheap comparison of the Caracas synagogue 
burglary with the Kristallnacht only trivializes 
one of the most horrific events of the last 
century. And by refusing to consult local Jewish 
leaders­or worse, by directly contradicting 
them­groups like the ADL and the Wiesenthal 
Center risk exacerbating the struggles of the 
communities they ostensibly represent. Moreover, 
accusing anyone of anti-Semitism without 
bothering to provide plausible evidence does more 
harm than good to the cause of fighting anti-Semitism.

On the policy front, the problem goes far beyond 
a simple distortion of history. The deliberate 
misrepresentation of events in Latin America has 
had disastrous consequences for the region and 
its people. In their haste to demonize the 
Sandinistas in the 1980s, some U.S. media and 
public figures helped lay the ideological 
groundwork for a U.S.-sponsored Nicaraguan war, 
whose legacy of violence and impoverishment 
persists. To continue making unsubstantiated 
accusations of anti-Semitism against left-leaning 
Latin American governments will only generate further misunderstanding today.

Eric Wingerter is a freelance writer living in 
Washington. His blog, BoRev.net, focuses on 
Venezuela and U.S. media coverage of Latin 
America. Justin Delacour is a doctoral candidate 
in the Political Science Department at the University of New Mexico.

1. “Commentary: Venezuela Sees Rise in 
Anti-Semitism,” The Miami Herald, February 9, 2009.

2. “ADL Condemns Violent Attack on Caracas 
Synagogue,” press release, including statement by 
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the 
Anti-Defamation League, January 31, 2009.

3. James Suggett, “Robbery, Not Anti-Semitism, 
Motive for Attack on Venezuelan Synagogue,” 
Venezuelanalysis.com, February 10, 2009.

4. James Suggett, “Venezuelan Jewish Community 
‘Profoundly Grateful and Moved’ by Government’s 
Efforts,” Venezuelanalysis.com, February 13, 2009.

5. “Mr. Chavez vs. the Jews,” editorial, The 
Washington Post, February 12, 2009.

6. Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez, “United by 
Hate: The Uses of Anti-Semitism in Chávez’s 
Venezuela,” Boston Review, July/August 2009.

7. “Editing Chavez to Manufacture a Slur,” media 
advisory, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, January 23, 2006.

8. Thierry Meyssan and Cyril Capdevielle, “¿Hay 
que quemar a Hugo Chávez?” Voltaire Network, January 18, 2006.

9. For more on this, see Rod Stoneman, Chávez: 
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised­A Case Study 
of Politics and the Media (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 103.

10. Marc Perlman, “Venezuela’s Jews Defend 
Leftist President in Flap Over Remarks,” The Forward, January 12, 2006.

11. “Mack Introduces Resolution Supporting 
Venezuelan Jewish Community,” press release, the 
office of Congressman Connie Mack, May 12, 2009.

12. Eric Fingerhut, “Jewish Reps Oppose House 
Resolution Supporting Venezuelan Jews,” The Jewish Chronicle, June 4, 2009.

13. Ibid.

14. Edward Cody, “Managua’s Jews Reject 
Anti-Semitism Charge; Sandinistas, U.S. Embassy 
Dispute Rabbi’s Widely Circulated Report,” The 
Washington Post, August 29, 1983.

15. “Rabbi Disputes Reagan Point About the Jews 
in Nicaragua,” The New York Times, March 19, 1986.

16. Marjorie Hyer, “Jewish Group Finds No 
Anti-Semitism by Sandinista Regime,” The Washington Post, August 25, 1984.

17. Cody, “Managua’s Jews Reject Anti-Semitism Charge.”

18. Michael McDowell, “Jesuit Says Sandinistas 
Backed,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 29, 1983.

19. Cody, “Managua’s Jews Reject Anti-Semitism Charge.”

20. Marjorie Hyer, “Nicaraguan Minister Opposes 
Aid to Contras,” The Washington Post, March 15, 
1986; McDowell, “Jesuit Says Sandanistas Backed.”

21. Morton Rosenthal, “Nicaragua’s Chance to End 
Anti-Semitism,” letter to the editor, The New 
York Times, September 27, 1983; Nathan 
Perlmutter, “So Are the Sandinistas Anti-Semitic? 
Of Course, They Are,” letter to the editor, The New York Times, April 5, 1986.

22. Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez, “Getting 
Down to Business,” NACLA Report on the Americas 
21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 25–38.

23. Christopher Dickey, With the Contras: A 
Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua (Simon and Schuster, 1985), 41.

24. “The Israeli Connection: Deadly Trade,” NACLA 
Report on the Americas 21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 13.

25. Weekly News Update on the Americas, 
“Rigoberta Menchú Files Genocide Charges in 
Spain,” NACLA Report on the Americas 33, no. 4 (January/February 2000): 2, 4.

26. Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez, 
“Guatemala: The Paragon,” NACLA Report on the 
Americas 21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 31–36.

27. Ibid.

28. Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the 
Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History 
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), xxxiii.

29. Ibid.

30. Tamara Pearson, “Venezuela Expels Israeli 
Ambassador in Solidarity With Palestinian 
People,” Venezuelanalysis.com, January 7, 2009.

31. “World Jewish Congress Welcomes Clear 
Commitment by Latin American Leaders,” press 
release, World Jewish Congress, December 18, 2008.

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