Call Out the Instigators

An article in yesterday's Washington Post, Jews in S. America Increasingly Uneasy, seemed to be an admirable attempt to expose a growing problem in South America. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the article is a major disappointment.

In Argentina -- which has the largest Jewish population in Latin America, about 250,000-strong -- Jewish leaders describe a tense climate in which swastikas have been painted on Jewish schools, and graffiti demanding that Jews leave the country have been scrawled on walls. Protests have taken place at the Israeli Embassy, and demonstrators have also gathered in front of the InterContinental Hotel, which is owned by a prominent Argentine Jewish businessman, Eduardo Elsztain. "It has created a climate of worry, a climate of terror," said Julio Schlosser, secretary general of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, whose building was destroyed by a bombing in 1994 that killed 85 people. Prosecutors have accused the Iranian government and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in the attack. In Bolivia, where President Evo Morales expelled the Israeli ambassador over the Gaza war, residents have held peaceful protests in several cities. But with the demonstrations have also come troubling signs of anti-Semitism. In the Plaza Israel in the capital of La Paz, for instance, vandals removed a large Star of David from a monument and spray-painted "plaza palestina" on it.

And, of course, the reason the story is making news is the continued assault on Venezuela's Jewish community by President Hugo Chavez and his surrogates.

In Venezuela, Jewish leaders say they have felt harassed under the Chávez government and anxious about Venezuela's tightening alliance with Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for Israel's destruction.

In December 2007, authorities in Caracas raided the Jewish community's social club, searching for guns, which were not found. Then last month, tear gas was tossed inside Tiferet Israel's compound, and anti-Semitic messages were spray-painted on the outer walls.

A prominent rabbi reported being threatened by men who addressed him as "Jew." He was whisked away to safety by a cabdriver who witnessed the confrontation, said Michael Truzman, a lawyer for the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela, a group representing the Jewish community. He and other leaders put the blame squarely on the president, who aside from controlling all levers of official power in the country also directs Venezuela's formidable state media apparatus.

Unfortunately the plight of Venezuela's Jews is presented as a "they said - they said" narrative. Yes, Michael Truzman is quoted, but so are Chavez and one of his ministers. Chavez's history of fomenting antisemitism is ignored.

Writing in Commentary last year, Travis Pantin reported:

Since Chávez took the oath of office at the beginning of 1999, there has been an unprecedented surge in anti-Semitism throughout Venezuela. Government-owned media outlets have published anti-Semitic tracts with increasing frequency. Pro-Chávez groups have publicly disseminated copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century czarist forgery outlining an alleged worldwide Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world. Prominent Jewish figures have been publicly denounced for supposed disloyalty to the “Bolívarian” cause, and “Semitic banks” have been accused of plotting against the regime. Citing suspicions of such plots, Chávez’s government has gone so far as to stage raids on Jewish elementary schools and other places of meeting. The anti-Zionism expressed by the government is steadily spilling over into street-level anti-Semitism, in which synagogues are vandalized with a frequency and viciousness never before seen in the country.

Pantin goes on to describe the particulars of Chavez's attacks against the Jewish citizenry of his country. From the Washington Post would be easy to get the impression that persecution is of recent vintage. The third paragraph Washington Post's article even suggests a specific trigger.

Anger at Israel's recent military strikes in the Gaza Strip against the Islamist group Hamas have sparked demonstrations here and in two countries closely allied with Venezuela: Bolivia and Argentina. 

Given that Chavez's history is ignored, this leaves the reader under the impression that Israel's war against Hamas is the main trigger of the antisemitic surge. Other aspects of the story that are ignored by the Washington Post are the alliance between Bolivia's Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez as well as Hezbollah's growing influence in South America.

It's easy to come away with the impression that South America's growing antisemitism is a reaction to Israel's actions, when, in fact, it is orchestrated by Venezuela's dictator and his friends. Instead of accurately telling the story, the Washington Post has let the instigators off the hook.  

Foreign Policy Israel/Palestine Venezuela Judaism Latin America Washington Post Evo Morales