Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his followers have sought to harass and intimidate the Catholic Church, the media, university students, political opponents and multinational companies doing business in Venezuela, to name just a few targets. Thus it can hardly come as a surprise that Chávez would also attack the Jewish community. Indeed, it's an old, old story.
The point, of course, is to bully and discredit institutions that have existed and thrived for years in Venezuela. Perhaps because of their vitality and independence, Chávez sees them as an intolerable threat.
The Venezuelan president has, of course, already turned public institutions into pawns of his regime. His political party controls the legislature, the vast majority of local governments, the trade unions and the electoral commission. Chávez has undermined the independence of the judiciary, sought enactment of laws to allow the government to dominate the broadcast media, and generally used his power to intimidate opponents and stifle dissent.
The rising wave of anti-Semitism in Venezuela is part and parcel of this effort by Chávez's increasingly repressive regime. The complex housing the Jewish community school and cultural and sports center has been inexplicably raided twice by Venezuelan police since Chávez came to power. It is especially dangerous when law enforcement carries out these kinds of unfounded acts, since some may interpret them as justification to commit violence against Jews. When a community is singled out and bullied in this way, the danger exists for xenophobes and anti-Semites to take license from the government's actions to spread their hate.
Certain government officials and commentators in the official media frequently resort to implicit and explicit anti-Semitic displays, including rehashing the ancient canard about Jewish control, vilifying Jews and Israel as agents of imperialism, and adopting anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish financial influence. Instead of denouncing such hateful speech, Chávez chooses to overlook anti-Jewish rhetoric and often endorses notorious anti-Semites in the media. As dangerous and hurtful as this is for the small Venezuelan Jewish community, it is a symptom of something much deeper and far riskier for all Venezuelans: the breakdown of democratic ideals and institutions.
Chávez has repeatedly compared Israel to Hitler and the Nazis, and he has accused Israel of engaging in genocide against Arabs. These views have been expressed in various Venezuelan government-sponsored media outlets, on radio and TV broadcasts, and in newspaper articles and political cartoons.
Chávez has aligned Venezuela with countries and radical Islamic movements that are a verifiable threat to Israel and world Jewry, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah; and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He has also fostered relationships with convicted guerrilla terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal") and the now-deceased Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole of Argentina.
Leading international human rights organizations have reported on activities by the Venezuelan security forces such as torture, extrajudicial executions and unexplained disappearances. Kidnappings and contract killings, which are common in some parts of the country, go unpunished. There have also been reports of threats and intimidation directed at individuals who seek to vindicate the rights of Venezuelans against the government. Under these conditions, democracy cannot thrive.
Throughout the ages, Jews have been the canary in the coal mine, with any downturn in their treatment or status as equal citizens signaling the decline of democracy within a society. History has taught us that when a government fosters intolerant attitudes and behavior among its people, democracy and civil rights are endangered and the society suffers. The people of Venezuela deserve better.
The writer is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control."