Despite objections by major Jewish organizations in Venezuela and the United States, some influential U.S. neoconservatives are charging President Hugo Chavez with anti-Semitism, which they say is consistent with the country’s friendly relations with Iran.
In what appears to be a new line of attack against the populist leader, two of the White House’s favorite publications this week ran articles denouncing remarks made by Chavez in a televised address to the nation Christmas Eve as anti-Semitic.
Quoting Chavez as declaring that "minorities, the descendants of those who crucified Christ, have taken over the riches of the world," the Wall Street Journal‘s "Americas" columnist, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, charged that his words constituted an "ugly anti-Semitic swipe that was of a piece with an insidious assault over the past several years on the country’s Jewish community."
Her column, entitled "The New Tehran-Caracas Axis," came in the wake of another article published Thursday in the neoconservative Weekly Standard that also focused on Chavez’ Christmas Eve broadcast as evidence, along with his "alliance" with Iran, of anti-Jewish animus.
"On Christmas Eve, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez’s Christian-Socialist cant drifted into anti-Semitism," began the article, titled "Blast From the Past: Hugo Chavez veers into anti-Semitism while explaining how to create a workers’ paradise," by Aaron Mannes, author of the "TerrorBlog" and a book on Middle East terrorism published by the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs.
To his credit, Mannes’ rendition of Chavez’ remarks included a phrase in the middle of the sentence that was omitted by O’Grady, which identified "the descendants" not only as those "that crucified Christ," but also "the descendants of the same ones that kicked [South American liberator Simon] Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia."
As additional evidence of Chavez’ anti-Semitism, Mannes cited his past association with "Holocaust-denying Argentine social scientist Norberto Ceresole," his praise of imprisoned terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as the retired terrorist "Carlos the Jackal," and his meetings with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. Mannes also cited Chavez’ "alliance" with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel’s destruction.
Nor was this the first time that the Weekly Standard, which, along with the Journal, has depicted Chavez as a dangerous demagogue inimical to U.S. interests in South America and beyond, has charged the Venezuelan leader with anti-Semitism.
In another article last August, for example, it wrote that "[h]ostility to Jews has become one of the hallmarks of the Venezuelan government" under Chavez "and of Chavismo, the neo-fascist ideology named for him."
The article pointed in particular to a raid carried out on the Hebraica Jewish elementary school in Caracas in November 2004 by police commandos who were allegedly searching for weapons linked to the bombing that killed a local prosecutor, amid rumors that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad may have equipped the perpetrators.
"The Hebraica raid was not an isolated or random act of state-sponsored anti-Jewish violence," wrote the Standard‘s Thor Halvorssen, president of a New York-based group called the Human Rights Foundation, who noted that the raid coincided with Chavez’ visit to Teheran. As O’Grady wrote Friday, the raid was "a way to show Tehran that Venezuela is on board."
What is remarkable, however, is that the charge of anti-Semitism, which recalls remarkably similar accusations by the Reagan administration, neoconservatives, and the Wall Street Journal against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government 20 years ago, does not appear to be shared either by close observers of Venezuelan politics here, nor by some prominent U.S. Jewish organizations, nor even by the leadership of the Jewish community in Venezuela.
"Chavez has a lot of rage," noted Michael Shifter, an influential and oft-quoted Andean specialist and vice-president of the Inter-American Dialogue, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Venezuelan leadership, "but it hasn’t been driven toward Jews in particular."
The Hebraica raid was ordered by a local judge acting on his own initiative without the approval or direction of the central government, according to Shifter.
As to the anti-Semitic interpretation of Chavez’ Christmas Eve remarks by O’Grady and Mannes, who in fact were echoing a formal protest to Caracas last week by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, it was explicitly rejected by Fred Pressner, president of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV), as well as two major U.S. Jewish groups.
"You have interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community," according to a draft letter from the CIAV to the Wiesenthal Center obtained by The Forward, the largest-circulation Jewish newspaper in the United States. "You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don’t know or understand."
"We believe the president was not talking about Jews and that the Jewish world must learn to work together," according to the draft letter, which noted that the latest protest was the third time that the Wiesenthal Center had publicly criticized Chavez without first consulting the local community.
The two U.S. groups the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, both of which have Latin America divisions echoed Pressner’s contention that Chavez’ comments, when considered in their full context, including sentences that both preceded and followed the (already abridged) sentence quoted by O’Grady and Mannes, were not aimed at Jews.
Rather, they believe the target was the white oligarchy that has dominated Venezuela’s and South America’s economy since colonial times a theme that has dominated much of Chavez’ political rhetoric for the past seven years.
Whether that will make any difference in the public or internal administration debate over U.S. policy towards Chavez is doubtful, however, as both the Journal and the Standard reach a much wider audience than The Forward and are particularly influential in key administration offices, notably that of Vice President Dick Cheney. The New York Times has reported that the White House receives 50 copies of the Standard, which is edited by William Kristol.
Ironically, Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, and the Journal‘s editorial page to which he contributed, led a public campaign to discredit Argentine publisher Jacobo Timerman when he emerged in 1980 from two-and-a-half years of imprisonment in secret prisons in Argentina claiming that Jews like himself had been systematically singled out for the worst treatment and torture by a military regime whose ideology was as close to Nazism as any since World War II.
Unlike Venezuela today, Argentina was then seen by the incoming Ronald Reagan administration (1981-1989) and its neoconservative backers as a vital Cold War ally.
(Inter Press Service)