By Juan Forero and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 8, 2009
CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 7 -- Jewish leaders said it had never before happened in Venezuela: a break-in with anti-Jewish intent at one of the city's most prominent synagogues. A dozen armed men overpowered guards, spray-painted office walls with anti-Semitic insults, desecrated historic Torah scrolls and made off with computers containing personal information on congregants.
President Hugo Chávez condemned the Jan. 30 attack, which has shaken the country's political establishment. But Jewish leaders, supported by Israeli and U.S. officials, have said the populist government's often incendiary rhetoric toward the Jewish state, coupled with rising anti-Semitic diatribes in pro-government media, has helped foster a climate of intolerance that might have prompted assailants to target the Tiferet Israel synagogue.
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.
But Jews in these countries are concerned about the growing anti-Semitic tone of the protesters, who frequently equate Israel with Nazi Germany, a theme increasingly evident on placards that juxtapose the Star of David with the swastika and in some public pronouncements.
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.
"I think it is the worst that we have seen it in all the years," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, adding that outside of the Middle East, anti-Semitism has been most intense in Latin America. "There is no longer even an effort to differentiate between criticism of Israel and criticism of the Jewish people."
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.
"We are blaming the incendiary rhetoric of government officials and media," Truzman said. "The language used by the president and high government officials and different personalities in the media has provoked a campaign that has led to hate against a minority community."
After breaking relations with Israel over Gaza and expelling the ambassador and six other Israeli diplomats, Chávez gave a series of speeches in which he called Israel's government "the assassin arm of the United States" that is carrying out "a genocidal policy." Chávez urged Venezuela's Jewish community to "speak out" against the Gaza strikes. "Don't you the Jews reject the Holocaust?" he said. "Isn't that what we're seeing?"
Even more troubling to Jewish leaders has been commentary in the state press and on such Web sites as Aporrea, which is closely linked to the government. Pro-government pundits have waxed on about Jewish control of U.S. foreign policy and banks and offered conspiracy theories about the Holocaust ("Hitler's associates were Jewish," one commentator said last year on state television).
One commentator on Aporrea called on Venezuelans to boycott companies owned by Jews and "publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street."
At first, the Venezuelan government suggested that opposition figures might have carried out the attack on the synagogue to cast blame on the government ahead of a referendum next Sunday. In that election, the government is asking residents to vote for a constitutional amendment that would allow Chávez to run for office an indefinite number of times.
"All this is part of a great lie that is trying to be built against Venezuela," Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said in the past week. Five days after the attack, Maduro and Communications Minister Jesse Chacón met with Jewish leaders and promised an investigation.
"Why do they have to blame me for everything?" Chávez said Friday. "They attacked the synagogue, and we condemned the act and we're investigating."
On Thursday in Caracas, Jews gathered outside the synagogue for a solemn ceremony of speeches and prayer.
Suddenly, as Rabbi Isaac Cohen was to speak, a bus carrying the president's supporters, in their trademark red T-shirts, passed. The message, amplified by loudspeakers, was simple: "The United States and Israel, it is they who are spreading terror in Arab countries and in the world."
The crowd quickly responded by holding up their Venezuelan identity cards and singing the national anthem.
Minutes later, Andres Gordan, a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust, said he felt "sad, very sad." Venezuela had been a refuge for him, he said, a country tolerant of his religion.
"It's disappointing that this can happen in 2009, when the whole world knows the history," he said. "Here, we found a paradise -- until now."
Partlow reported from Buenos Aires. Special correspondent Andres Schipani in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.