Anti-Semitism or Anti-Imperialism in Venezuela?
By James Suggett
February 12th 2008
“We have to be very careful about what is going on in Venezuela, especially what is going on in the private universities,” Mario Silva asserts on his pro-Chávez television talk show La Hojilla (“The Razor Blade”) in late November 2007. The provocative host points out that in television news footage of a recent student march against proposed changes to the Venezuelan constitution, which were voted down December 2, a leader of the marchers crosses a police barricade and signals for the others to follow. Silva identifies this person as the brother of prominent Rabbi Jacobo Benzaquen.
“I repeat, so as not to be called anti-Semite, those Jewish businessmen not involved in the conspiracy should say so,” Silva premises. He then draws the connection between the Benzaquens and another well-known Rabbi, Pinchas Brenner, who participated in the April 2002 coup d’état and appears in video footage with coup leader Pedro Carmona in the presidential palace where Carmona was declared the new (illegitimate) president. “These persons are actively participating in the conspiracy… and a lot of the student movement now in activity is related to that group,” Silva declares.
La Hojilla and the government television channel that broadcasts it are implicated in the latest round of accusations of anti-Semitism published in the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, The Forward, the Moderate Voice, and the Jewish World Review and across the blogsphere by Jewish organizations in the United States and Venezuela. The “increasingly repressive” Venezuelan government’s anti-Semitism creates an “environment of permissiveness” for the “rising wave of anti-Semitism in Venezuela” by harassing Jewish organizations, permitting anti-Semitism in government media, opposing Israeli policies, and aligning itself with Iran, Syria, and “radical Islamic movements”. All of this could be interpreted by “xenophobes and anti-Semites” as “justification to commit violence against Jews,” according to a February 5th, 2008 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report published as an op-ed in the Washington Post.
When the recent accusations of government-sponsored anti-Semitism are thoroughly investigated, shedding light on the full context and content of the acts under scrutiny, it is revealed that in the majority of cases, the strongly anti-imperialist political sentiments of Venezuelan social movements, however problematically they may be expressed within a precarious political climate, are erroneously conflated with anti-Semitism.
Police Search Jewish School and Community Center
What “conspiracy” was Silva lambasting in his November talk show? Critics imply that he was perpetuating baseless anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish aspirations for world domination. But real events and testimonies suggest Silva was instead targeting the alleged international conspiracy to overthrow President Chávez. Suspicion about this is based not only on the long history of such activity led by the United States government in Latin America and other parts of the world, but by specific evidence cited by Silva and the Venezuelan government which implicates leaders of this subversive activity, some of whom are members of the Venezuelan Jewish community.
In 2004 federal police searched, critics say “raided,” a Jewish school in Caracas. Recent critics allege that they conducted a similar search on December 1, 2007 in Hebraica, a sprawling private Jewish community center related to the school. Neither search discovered anything, nor was anybody repressed or hurt.
Both searches were denounced as “inexplicable,” “anti-Jewish,” “harassment theatre,” and “intimidation” by various critics, including Abraham Levy Benshimol, president of the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela (CAIV), who acknowledges that no acts of anti-Semitic violence have been committed against the Venezuelan Jewish community. Those leading the outcry make abundantly clear that the searches were conducted when kids were present and there was a wedding taking place, but they ignore the broader context and further facts.
For instance, the search warrant for the 2004 search was granted based on evidence that the notorious Israeli intelligence organization Mossad may be connected to the assassination of a Venezuelan Federal Prosecutor Danilo Anderson, who was investigating the authors of the 2002 coup – including allies of Rabbi Pinchas Brenner – when he was murdered in a car bombing in an allegedly Mossad-like manner. The search was part of an investigation of Anderson’s murder, seeking information regarding the murder and possible future destabilization plans in facilities where suspects were known to operate.
Denunciations of last December’s search leave out the fact that it occurred the day before the controversial constitutional reform referendum. The run up to the referendum was intensified by a steep increase in acts of false propaganda and violent protest committed by people and organizations opposed to the reform in various regions of the country, which seemed part of a coordinated destabilization effort among large national and transnational businesses, student groups, and opposition political leaders. In the Andean city of Mérida, in the weeks before the referendum, groups of up to 40 masked student protestors from the extremely violent March 13th Movement (M13) on multiple occasions blocked off major avenues with metal wire, burned hundreds of tires in the street, and threw glass bottles and Molotov cocktails at police officers who remained vigilant but never repressed the demonstrators.
These types of protests, known as “guarimbas,” are nothing new; they were employed multiple times in the past during major political events so as to create an atmosphere of chaos, non-governability, and a basis for claims of police repression and illegitimacy of the political order, paving the way for a coup. On one occasion related to student government elections at the University of the Andes and an OPEP meeting in the Spring of 2006, masked M13 members armed with shotguns and pistols assaulted police officers, leaving 26 injured and one officer nearly raped.
According to sources within the government, the search warrant for last December’s search was issued on evidence that the owner of major opposition television station Globovisión, Federico Alberto Ravel, was collaborating with a plan to assassinate President Chávez with the help of a particular member of Hebraica, a businessman who will remain unnamed, and that weapons or information regarding this were in the club’s complex.
Police searches preceding, during, and following important political events must be considered in this precarious historical and political context. Some critics may look at the entire picture and conclude that the facilities of these Jewish organizations were singled out merely because they were Jewish, leading to accusations of anti-Semitic harassment.
But claiming that the searches were “inexplicable” and leaving out the facts is revisionist and inaccurate. So are the manipulative conclusions published by the pro-government newspaper Diario Vea at that time, which claimed that the searches had “proven” that the Mossad had been involved in Anderson’s murder, for which no conclusive evidence was found in those particular searches. But even Diario Vea’s dishonest coverage does not amount to anti-Semitism, as prominent Venezuelan journalist and critic of anti-Semitism Sammy Eppel claims, just biased journalism.
In an apparent attempt to prove that the searches were conducted illegally, a January 20, 2008 article in The Forward cites Hebraica president Simon Sultan suggesting that the searches were initiated by Tarek El-Aissami, the Vice President of Citizen Security in the Venezuelan Ministry of the Interior. No actual irregularities in the searches is cited as evidence, just the fact that El-Aissami is of Arab descent, is the son a former Baath party representative in Venezuela, and works in the government. An article in The Jewish World Review on January 28th, 2008 does not bother to imply that Tarek El-Aissami may be connected to the searches, but rather presents the simple fact of his appointment to a position within the government as troubling and suspicious to the Venezuelan Jewish community.
El-Aissami is well-known in Mérida because he is a former president of the student association at Mérida’s prestigious University of the Andes. Extensive connections to student and government organizations provide El-Aissami with plenty of information about the activities of the M13, especially their spring 2006 assault referred to above, during which El-Aissami was a representative of the Youth Caucus of the National Assembly. In a May 2006 press conference at the National Assembly, he issued a report qualifying the M13’s actions as the “epicenter” of a national destabilization campaign that had a markedly “terrorist” character due to the “paramilitary” style of their execution and local reports of M13 paramilitary training camps in the surrounding Andes Mountains. El-Aissami’s report cited evidence that many of those involved in M13 actions are not students at all, but paramilitaries posing as members of the student group.
El-Aissami informed the press that some of the information provided in his report came from investigations carried out in 2004 in Mérida by late Federal Prosecutor Danilo Anderson. Anderson was investigating violence perpetrated against the Mérida state government by M13 members including the group’s leader, Nixon Moreno, during the April 2002 coup.
The training of counter-revolutionary paramilitary groups in Latin American countries by the CIA is widely documented by historians and other researchers. Less documented is the history of Israeli soldiers contracted by the Columbian government in the 1980s to train military personnel through the Security Administration Department (DAS), planting the seeds of the paramilitary group United Self-defense of Colombia (AUC), which uses terrorist tactics to combat insurgent forces such as the FARC and ELN in the countryside of both Colombia and Venezuela. A recent issue of the pro-government publication Temas, a weekly journal accused of anti-Semitism by the ADL, made the connection between an Israeli soldier and Colombia when it ran a report on Yair Klein, a veteran of the first Lebanese war and paramilitary trainer in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and of the AUC in Colombia. Last week, President Chávez denounced the open secret about paramilitary activity in the western region of Venezuela as well. This gave visibility to the 190 cases of alleged homicide committed by paramilitaries working for big landowners against farming communities organizing for land reform in the western border region of Venezuela since 2001, according to the Frente Campesino Ezequiel Zamora, which defends the rights of rural farmer communities.
The possibility that El-Aissami initiated the Hebraica search should be considered in the context of El-Aissami’s political activity and the plethora of such investigations informing the Ministry of the Interior. El-Aissami’s Arab background and the Jewish identity of Hebraica seem unrelated to the fact that the searches were carried out, while the real political situation in Venezuela and the activities of a few participants in the community center seem much related. Second, the searches were not illegal nor were they carried out improperly. Claiming El-Aissami initiated the searches is to accuse him of doing his job, as Danilo Anderson was doing when he was murdered.
A Plena Voz and Other pro-Government Media
Considering the role of foreign intelligence organizations in Latin American history, Venezuelans’ consciousness of imperialist intervention in their country, and the details presented above help us see Silva’s program La Hojilla in a different light. Rather than demonize Jews in general, it reflects the preoccupation many Venezuelans have that opposition groups may be planning more violent anti-democratic activity with support from foreign intelligence organizations such as the CIA and the Mossad. A thorough examination of other pro-government media recently accused of anti-Semitism should be interrogated with this mentality and approach.
“Once upon a time there was an ‘American Dream'” is the headline of an article published in the same edition of Temas as the Yair Klein investigation. A quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. follows: “We have learned to fly like birds, to swim like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living like brothers.” The article lays out a critique of the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S., the extreme individualism, the fear-mongering, racist police repression and prison industrial complex, the rampant consumerism, and the inefficient and costly health care system. Displayed in the center of the article is a large black and white image of President George W. Bush robed and crowned like the Statue of Liberty, Hitler mustache under his nose, the globe tucked under his left arm and his right arm stiffly extended in a Nazi salute, standing (or perhaps floating) upon a Star of David.
Such an amalgam of images and concepts is not a rare occurrence in the pro-Chávez media. Those who decry this material as ragingly anti-Semitic refer principally to the images presented, and frequently omit the content, which is crucial in order to understand what is being said.
Every recent accusation of anti-Semitism in the government media outlets denounces the monthly magazine of the Venezuelan Culture Ministry, A Plena Voz, particularly referring to an article titled “The Jewish Question” and an image of the Star of David with a Swastika. It is presented as though this magazine was advocating the Holocaust, but a look at the actual articles tells another story.
The article titled “The Jewish Question” is accompanied by an image of a menorah with an Israeli tank on either side. Another A Plena Voz article titled “A Disgusting War” is accompanied by an Israeli flag with a Swastika in the middle rather than the Star of David. Another article in the same edition of the magazine is titled “Zionism, Colonialism, and Imperialism” accompanied by a Star of David with a Swastika in the middle. The clear target of criticism in these three articles is the military action conducted by the state of Israel, which is portrayed as similar or equal to the genocide committed by the Nazis. While Amherst Professor Ilan Stevens, in his February 7th, 2008 article “The Twisted Roots of Hispanic Anti-Semitism,” states that “comparing Israel’s attitude with Hitler’s approach is ridiculous,” we should not be so quick to conclude that historical comparisons which imply that genocide may be occurring in the Middle East are anti-Semitic.
The article titled “The Jewish Question,” written by Germán Pinto Saavedra, opens:
“The massacre of Caná, committed by the Israeli army, in which 57 civilian died, the majority children, is hardly the gravest in recent weeks. A few days ago, Fox and CNN celebrated the bombing attack on a building in Beirut, which directly killed two terrorists, although ‘unfortunately, 100 other civilians found in the building also lost their lives.”
The article proceeds to criticize the anti-humanitarian partiality of these international media outlets, and makes note of the fact that the French government condemned the Israeli attacks. The author laments that the attacks momentarily took the international spotlight off U.S. military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article questions why Israeli aggression, which has been compared to that of the Nazis, seems to be revenge against a people that had nothing to do with the “Hitlerian infamy.” Referring exclusively to the Israeli state, the article critiques the “repugnant” use of Nazi atrocities to justify further atrocities, arguably committed to support the interests not only of Israel but of its U.S. and British allies in the region.
Without a doubt, historical analogies, however inaccurate or controversial, relating Nazi genocide to Israeli oppression of Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims abound in pro-government media. So does propaganda expressing solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian people, speculations that Israeli death squads will assassinate President Chávez, and cartoons asking whether it is true that the Israel is chosen by God, concluding that Israel is chosen by the United States, which is sort of the same thing. But in most articles written on such themes, there is an explicit differentiation between the Israeli government and the Israeli people, between militant Zionists allied with the U.S. government and the Jewish community worldwide. The themes are explicitly anti-imperialist and anti-war, not against Jews in general.
The pro-government weekly paper Diario Vea, however, in many instances refers to Jews and Israeli soldiers interchangeably, in which cases it seems Jews in general are being stereotyped as oppressors or conspirators. Likewise, an anti-Semitic article by Tarek Muci Nasir published in El Diario de Caracas on September 2, 2006, includes the phrase:
“Possibly, we’ll have to expel them from the country, as other nations have done, which is the reason that Jews remain in a continuous state of stateless exodus, and it is why in 1948 they invaded Palestine, guided by Albion.”
The article also claims that the Jewish race is condemned to disappear either through degenerative intra-breeding or mixture with non-Jews. It continues to assert that they are not the chosen people of God, but instead marked for having sacrificed Jesus (apparently because of the wars they wage), and that they are conspiring to take over the country’s finances. While the conclusion of the article declares that if the Jews get rid of their Zionist leadership, they will be embraced like brothers, this hardly veils the seething hatred for Jews as a whole espoused by the article.
Venezuelan columnist Sammy Eppel posted on his blog a collection of graffiti sprayed on the walls of Jewish facilities in Caracas during Palestine and Lebanon solidarity marches, most of which are obviously anti-imperialist, but some of which may be anti-Semitic as Eppel claims.
Graffiti that is more explicitly anti-imperialist reads: “Long live the Palestinian People,” “NO to Israeli snipers, NO to Mossad, NO to the CIA,” “Bush + Sharon = Murderers,” “Bush-Israel Murderers,” “Israel murderer,” “Genocidal Zionists,” and “Zionists Kill Children.” The fact that these messages were sprayed on the walls of organizations that included Jews of different political beliefs, classes, organizations, and not Israeli citizens could mean that the graffiti was associating all Jews with murder, the CIA, Mossad, Bush and Sharon. However, it seems that the clear target of these acts is the perpetrators of atrocities and imperialism rather than Jews in general.
Other graffiti reads: “Jews = Murderers,” and “Jews go home.” The former targets the entire population Jews, and the latter suggests an expulsion of Jews, both of which should be denounced as anti-Semitic.
The association of the Star of David with the Swastika, and of the state of Israel with genocide, is indeed more complex than it seems and in the majority of cases is not anti-Semitic; in the cases that it is, it should by all means be called out. The fact that Diario Vea and El Diario de Caracas have not been denounced formally by the government gives some merit to the criticism raised by Abraham Foxman of the ADL recently that the Venezuelan government is turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in the country. However, categorizing all anti-imperialist sentiment in Venezuela as a government-sponsored “rising wave” of anti-Semitism is manipulative propaganda.
President Chávez’s Declarations and Alliances with Iran and Syria
The day Abraham Foxman´s ADL report was published by the Washington Post in the first week of February, Venezuelan Popular Economy Minister, Pedro Morejón, was in Tehran signing economic accords with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intended to alleviate the “difficulties that the imperialists impose” on “the two revolutionary and brotherly nations” which share a “unified stand in dealing with global hegemony,” the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. Venezuela`s bilateral cooperation agreements with Iran in the areas of food, medicine, oil, services, and engineering have been consistently criticized by the ADL along with President Chávez´s staunch defense of what he says is Iran`s right to enrich uranium.
The question raised is whether relationships among the heads of state of different nations signify full mutual endorsement of each other’s policies. ADL critics, the Venezuelan Jewish Community, and many others, supported by President Kirchner of Argentina on her recent visit to the CAIV national conference in Venezuela, express deep concern over the fact that Chávez ever wrapped his arms around Ahmadinejad or allowed him to cross Venezuelan borders.
Chávez’s defenders assert that signing economic agreements is a humanitarian act which will alleviate poverty in Venezuela, and should be considered separate from the regional foreign policy or the religious orientation of the Iranian government. But Chávez’s words were clear; Ahmadinejad is a “brother revolutionary,” not just a source of investment that comes on less imperialist terms than that offered by the United States or other economic powers. Whether Chávez was referring exclusively to the economic portion of revolution is unknown, but his pronouncements should rightly cause alarm at least for queer rights groups and feminist groups across the globe that are aware of the immense sexuality and gender-based oppression in Iran.
Nonetheless, it seems that Iran’s opposition to the policies of the Israeli government are the main objection of Foxman and other recent critics, and their conflation of anti-imperialism with anti-Semitism is incredibly damaging to honest discourse. For example, an ADL report from 2006 attempts to condemn President Chávez’s “fostering anti-Semitism” by quoting Chávez in an interview with Al Jazeera: “Israel is right in criticizing Hitler and the hostility against Jews, we do to, but they are doing the same thing that Hitler did to the Jews. They are killing innocent children, entire families.”
Foxman also expresses concern about Chávez`s relationship with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who he claims is a “verifiable threat to Israel and world Jewry.” An example of supposedly troublesome Syrian-Venezuelan relations is the accord of solidarity with Lebanon presented by representatives of the Venezuelan National Assembly to Syrian officials in August 2006. Clauses of the accord condemn Israel’s “savage and terrorist aggression” against Lebanon, demand that Israel comply with United Nations resolutions to withdraw immediately from Lebanon and other Arab occupied territories, and request that the U.N. accelerate the process of humanitarian aid to the victims of the conflict in Lebanon and Palestine.
The ADL president suggests that the “attacks” upon Jews in Venezuela are “part and parcel” of Chávez`s efforts to “harass and intimidate” other groups such as the Catholic Church, the media, and multinational companies. Chávez’s complicity with anti-Semitism is a symptom of the general “breakdown of democratic ideals and institutions” in Venezuela, Foxman said, claiming “Chávez has turned public institutions into pawns of his regime.” Other recent articles flippantly label Chávez “proto-authoritarian” and present a false image that the president is inclined to persecute anybody who criticizes him.
These ridiculous claims about the lack of democracy in Venezuela are just as dangerous to global peace and democracy as the assertion that opposing Israeli policies, being anti-war and anti-capitalist, or advocating the perspective of oppressed peoples worldwide are anti-Semitic.
Carlos Escarrá, the Vice-President of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Venezuelan National Assembly, reflected this distinction between anti-semitism and anti-imperialism when he responded to Foxman`s ADL report, assuring that Venezuela “has always respected all ethnicities and cultures of the world… it is a country where there is freedom of worship and freedom of religion.” However, Venezuela also rejects any conduct that could mean the hegemony of one country over another. “We believe in life,” Escarrá explained, reaffirming that the Venezuelan government opposes those sectors of Israeli and U.S. society that serve the interests of United States hegemony in the Middle East by way of “state terrorism.”