Playing the ‘Anti-Semitism’ Card Against Venezuela

The U.S. press tends to portray left-leaning Latin American governments as hotbeds of anti-Semitism. In the case of Venezuela, this storyline has been promoted in three key ways: (1) attributing anti-Semitic acts or statements by private citizens to the government, (2) conflating legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, and (3) relying on press statements by U.S.-based Jewish organizations at the expense of Venezuelan Jewish organizations.

In the
early morning hours of January 31, vandals broke into Tiferet Israel, a
Sephardic synagogue in Caracas. They strewed sacred scrolls on the floor and
scribbled "Death to the Jews" and other anti-Semitic epithets on the walls,
before making off with computer equipment and historical artifacts.
Understandably, the incident frightened and upset many in the Venezuelan Jewish
community. Right away, U.S. news outlets, including The New York Times and The
Miami Herald, linked the incident to Venezuela's increasingly strained
relations with Israel, after the two countries suspended diplomatic relations
two weeks earlier over Israel's bombing of Gaza, then still under way.

A Herald
editorial went so far as to describe an "official policy of anti-Semitism" in
Venezuela and implied that Chávez's foreign policy had unleashed a wave of
anti-Semitic violence in the country, culminating in the assault on the
synagogue.[1] Some international NGOs were no more nuanced. Just hours after
the break-in, the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was already
implicitly comparing the Chávez government to the Nazis, calling the synagogue
attack "a modern-day Kristallnacht."[2]

But the
Caracas police investigation bore out a different story. Authorities quickly
realized that the synagogue's security fence had been cut from the inside,
prompting detectives to investigate the break-in as an inside job. Within the
week it became clear that the attack had in fact been a robbery disguised as
anti-Semitic vandalism, carried out by the synagogue's privately contracted
security team. Eleven men were arrested for their role in the plot, and their
statements to the police indicated that the graffiti and desecration were
intended to throw off investigators.[3]

the arrests helped ease the anxieties of Venezuela's Jewish community, the
international media pressed on with the storyline of a politically motivated
attack. The very week that the Venezuelan Israelite Association issued a
statement praising the swift and successful investigation, The Washington Post
ran an editorial titled "Mr. Chavez vs. the Jews," which again blamed the
robbery on the government, or, more specifically, on an ugly comment left on a
"pro-government Web site," demanding "that citizens ‘publicly challenge every
Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park' and called for a
boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, seizures of Jewish-owned property and a
demonstration at Caracas's largest synagogue."[4] The editorial concluded that
the synagogue was then "duly attacked."[5] The idea that the sacking of the
Caracas synagogue was based purely on anti-Semitism has persisted, even showing
up in a recent piece authored by two academics in the high-brow Boston Review.
The authors claim the attack is a sign of "state-directed anti-Semitism."[6]

hyperbolic media coverage exemplifies the tendency of the U.S. press to portray
left-leaning Latin American governments as hotbeds of anti-Semitism. In the
case of Venezuela, where the government has never made any overtly anti-Semitic
public statements, much less enacted policies targeting its Jewish citizens,
the storyline has been promoted in three key ways: (1) attributing anti-Semitic
acts or statements by private citizens to the government, (2) conflating
legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, and (3) relying on
press statements by U.S.-based Jewish organizations like the ADL or the Simon
Wiesenthal Center, often at the expense of Venezuelan Jewish organizations,
which regularly complain that their views are misrepresented, even flatly
contradicted, by U.S. groups pursuing their own agendas.

the most egregious example of this disconnect occurred in January 2006, when
the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal all
reported that Chávez, during a Christmas Eve speech, had invoked an age-old
anti-Semitic slur, labeling Jews as Christ killers.[7] The story originated
with an alert circulated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but on closer
inspection it became clear that the group had deliberately edited the speech to
manufacture the slur. The original speech contained a long riff in which Chávez
decried the unequal distribution of global wealth:

The world
has enough for everybody, but it turned out that a few minorities-the descendants
of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who expelled Bolívar
from here, and also those who in a certain way crucified him in Santa Marta,
there in Colombia-a minority took possession of the planet's gold, silver,
minerals, water, good lands, oil, and they have concentrated all the riches in
the hands of a few: Less than 10% of the world population owns more than half
of the riches of the world.[8]

reference to the betrayal of Latin American liberation hero Simón Bolívar by
some leaders after the War of Independence indicates that Chávez was speaking
metaphorically about wealthy elites in general, rather than any group in
particular. But the translation published by the Wiesenthal Center shortened
the statement significantly and altered its meaning as follows: " . . . the
world has wealth for all, but some minorities, the descendants of the same
people that crucified Christ, have taken over all the wealth of the world."[9]

center's editing job included quotation marks, implying that it was a direct
quote, but failed to include ellipses, which would have signaled to readers
that words had been removed. The Confederation of Jewish Associations of
Venezuela (CAIV), the nation's largest Jewish organization, was swift and
severe in condemning the Wiesenthal Center, issuing a public letter complaining
that the U.S. organization had "interfered in the political status, in the
security, and in the well-being of our community." The group added: "You have
acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don't know or

But in the
three years since the "Christ killer" incident, some U.S. NGOs, media, and
politicians have continued to neglect Venezuelan Jewish organizations while
persisting in their attempts to demonize the Chávez government. In May,
Representative Connie Mack (R-Fla.) introduced a House resolution condemning
the Venezuelan government as anti-Semitic in response to the synagogue
break-in.[11] Once again, Venezuelan Jewish organizations were forced to mobilize.
As CAIV explained to the Pittsburgh-based Jewish Chronicle, the resolution may
have derailed an ongoing dialogue that had been initiated between the
Venezuelan government and the Jewish community in the months since the
break-in. Fred Pressner, former president of CAIV, pointed out that Venezuela's
government had reacted well to the earlier attacks, noting that "all of our
institutions are protected by the police-we cannot complain about that."[12]

and the CAIV worked with House Democrats to block Mack's resolution. In the
end, the conservative congressman pulled the language from consideration, but
he has indicated that he will seek to reintroduce it again soon, whether or not
it is opposed by Venezuela's Jewish leadership.[13]

This is
not the first time that U.S.-based propagandists have sought to portray a
left-leaning Latin American government as anti-Semitic. In May 1983, the ADL
issued a meagerly sourced report claiming that Nicaragua's Sandinista
government systematically repressed and forced into exile the country's tiny
Jewish community.[14]

Eager to
garner U.S. congressional funding for a brutal mercenary campaign to topple
Nicaragua's government, President Ronald Reagan promptly added the charge of
anti-Semitism to his propaganda offensive against the Sandinistas.

subsequent investigations by U.S. Jewish leaders found that, among the
estimated 50 practicing Jews who lived in Nicaragua at the time of the
Sandinista revolution, most had ties to the toppled dictatorship of Anastasio
Somoza and left the country of their own accord.[15] Rabbi Gerald Serotta, a
Jewish chaplain at George Washington University who traveled with a delegation
to Nicaragua in 1984, told The Washington Post that "there wasn't one person in
the country with whom we met who believes there was special discrimination
against the Jewish community."16 Serotta added that "we are convinced that
whatever lack of due process there was during the revolutionary period . . .
was not especially discriminatory to Jews."

sources corroborated Serotta's observations. For example, the University of
Central America's Historical Institute noted that Nicaraguans with strong ties
to Somoza left the country during the revolution, and that "the Jewish people
who left in 1979 were part of a larger exodus from Nicaragua of those who felt
their future would be uncertain with changes by the revolutionary government."[17]
At no point was credible evidence presented that religious intolerance and/or
ethnic persecution caused the departure of Jews from Nicaragua. In fact, not
even Anthony Quainton, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, could produce evidence
to support the charges of anti-Semitism. In a confidential cable from Quainton
to Secretary of State George Shultz in 1983, the ambassador noted that "the
evidence fails to demonstrate that the Sandinistas have followed a policy of
anti-Semitism or have persecuted Jews solely because of their religion."[18]

There are
a number of parallels between Reagan's charges against the Sandinistas and the
more recent claims against Venezuela's government. In both cases, the claims
are rooted not in facts but in the desire of interested parties to publicly
censure Latin American governments they dislike. In the case of Nicaragua, the
Reagan administration methodically tailored its narrative to appeal to various
religious constituencies within the United States.[19]

Because a
factual storyline would have had little propaganda value, the administration
favored wild tales about "Marxist-Leninist" Sandinistas suppressing not only
Jews but also Christians. However, leading Evangelicals and Jesuit scholars,
like the Jewish delegation that found the charges of anti-Semitism
unsubstantiated, rejected Reagan's assertions that the Sandinistas persecuted
Protestants and Catholics for their religious beliefs.[20]

Yet given
that large segments of the U.S. public have always been poorly informed about
Latin America, it was not such a stretch for the Reagan administration to
spread outlandish tales of religious persecution as a means of rallying
conservative constituencies behind its wars in Central America. In the
political culture of the United States during the Reagan years, the
Marxist-Leninist label served as an epithet whose purpose was to project an image
of a society where all forms of "freedom"-including religious freedom-were
under attack. Naturally, Reagan's propaganda offensive got an important boost
from his allies in the media and the foreign-policy establishment. Conservative
media fed the hysteria about the Sandinistas' alleged persecution of Jews and
Christians, while the ADL continued promoting its storyline in letters to The
New York Times.[21]

In this
regard, the confluence of interests between the ADL and right-wing U.S.
politicians has become a marriage of convenience. The ADL and other groups
often use charges of anti-Semitism as a form of subterfuge designed to sully
the image of governments and intellectuals who criticize the policies of the
Israeli government. Meanwhile, right-wing U.S. politicians can use the
anti-Semitism claims as a means of attacking the left more generally.

As its
treatment of Venezuela and Nicaragua suggests, the ADL and likeminded groups
tend to make accusations that are not supported by facts, indicating that their
motives have less to do with confronting anti-Semitism than with attacking
those who do not share their enthusiasm for Israeli policies. Both the
Sandinistas and the Chávez government have been sympathetic to the plight of
Palestinians and critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, but
their differences with Israel-like their differences with the United
States-have deeper roots in U.S.-Israeli complicity in the repression of Latin
American social movements and the left.

As the
NACLA Report made clear in its March/April 1987 issue, Israel provided military
assistance to the Somoza dictatorship from the 1950s right up to the
Sandinistas' overthrow of Somoza in 1979.[22] The journalist Christopher Dickey
once noted that, even as Somoza's defeated National Guardsmen scurried to leave
Nicaragua in July 1979, they "looked nothing so much as Israeli soldiers, with
their Israeli Galil rifles, and for those who had not thrown them away, their
Israeli paratrooper helmets."[23] Then, in the mid-1980s, Israeli arms dealers
funneled weapons to right-wing Nicaraguan mercenaries-mostly Somoza's former
National Guardsmen-who fought to overthrow the Sandinistas.[24]

complicity in Latin American human rights abuses was most glaring in Guatemala,
where more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayans, were killed over the course of
the country's 36-year civil war.[25] At the height of the Guatemalan military's
atrocities in the early 1980s, the country's military government was largely
isolated internationally, relying exclusively on Israel for military training
and assistance.[26] In February 1983, CBS anchorman Dan Rather pointedly
observed that "Israel has helped [Guatemala] wage a war with no questions

Finkelstein, a Jewish American political scientist and expert on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has documented how certain zealous supporters of
the Israeli state seek to "discredit all criticism of Israeli policy as
motivated by an irrational loathing of Jews."[28] But clearly many Central
Americans have historical grievances with the Israeli state, grievances that
cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitism. Given the legacy of U.S.-Israeli
complicity in the repression of the Latin American left, it is hardly
surprising that left-leaning governments in the region would tend to empathize
with others who have suffered Israeli-sponsored repression.

Finkelstein notes, "Whenever Israel comes under international pressure to
resolve its conflicts with the Palestinians diplomatically or faces a public
relations debacle, its apologists mount a campaign alleging that the world is
awash in a new anti-Semitism."[29] Finkelstein makes a strong case that to
conflate empathy for the victims of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism is itself
a form of defamation, one that helps sustain Israeli repression in the occupied

Of course,
to point out that some groups misuse charges of anti-Semitism is not to deny
the existence of retrograde attitudes toward Jews in Latin America. Indeed,
anti-Semitic attitudes and stereotypes are not uncommon in the region. The
Chávez government, for its part, has consistently drawn a distinction between
its criticisms of Israeli policy and the anti-Jewish bigotry that some of the
government's supporters sometimes display. For example, after Venezuela
suspended diplomatic relations with Israel over the bombing of Gaza, the
Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs was careful to point out that Chávez
"has always opposed anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and racism."[30]
Just three weeks before the diplomatic break with Israel, the World Jewish
Congress issued a press release congratulating Chávez for "supporting a clear
condemnation of anti-Semitism" in a joint declaration with the presidents of
Argentina and Brazil.[31]

The sad
irony is that unsubstantiated charges of anti-Semitism serve very few
interests. Certainly the cheap comparison of the Caracas synagogue burglary
with the Kristallnacht only trivializes one of the most horrific events of the
last century. And by refusing to consult local Jewish leaders-or worse, by
directly contradicting them-groups like the ADL and the Wiesenthal Center risk
exacerbating the struggles of the communities they ostensibly represent.
Moreover, accusing anyone of anti-Semitism without bothering to provide
plausible evidence does more harm than good to the cause of fighting

On the
policy front, the problem goes far beyond a simple distortion of history. The
deliberate misrepresentation of events in Latin America has had disastrous
consequences for the region and its people. In their haste to demonize the
Sandinistas in the 1980s, some U.S. media and public figures helped lay the
ideological groundwork for a U.S.-sponsored Nicaraguan war, whose legacy of
violence and impoverishment persists. To continue making unsubstantiated
accusations of anti-Semitism against left-leaning Latin American governments
will only generate further misunderstanding today.

Eric Wingerter is a freelance writer living in
Washington. His blog, BoRev.net, focuses on Venezuela and U.S. media coverage
of Latin America. Justin Delacour is a doctoral candidate in the Political
Science Department at the University of New Mexico.


[1] "Commentary:
Venezuela Sees Rise in Anti-Semitism," The Miami Herald, February 9, 2009.

[2] "ADL
Condemns Violent Attack on Caracas Synagogue," press release, including
statement by Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation
League, January 31, 2009.

[3] James
Suggett, "Robbery, Not Anti-Semitism, Motive for Attack on Venezuelan
Synagogue," Venezuelanalysis.com, February 10, 2009.

[4] James
Suggett, "Venezuelan Jewish Community ‘Profoundly Grateful and Moved' by
Government's Efforts," Venezuelanalysis.com, February 13, 2009.

[5] "Mr.
Chavez vs. the Jews," editorial, The Washington Post, February 12, 2009.

Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez, "United by Hate: The Uses of Anti-Semitism
in Chávez's Venezuela," Boston Review, July/August 2009.

"Editing Chavez to Manufacture a Slur," media advisory, Fairness and Accuracy
in Reporting, January 23, 2006.

Thierry Meyssan and Cyril Capdevielle, "¿Hay que quemar a Hugo Chávez?"
Voltaire Network, January 18, 2006.

[9] For
more on this, see Rod Stoneman, Chávez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised-A
Case Study of Politics and the Media (London and New York: Wallflower Press,
2008), 103.

[10] Marc
Perlman, "Venezuela's Jews Defend Leftist President in Flap Over Remarks," The
Forward, January 12, 2006.

[11] "Mack
Introduces Resolution Supporting Venezuelan Jewish Community," press release,
the office of Congressman Connie Mack, May 12, 2009.

[12] Eric
Fingerhut, "Jewish Reps Oppose House Resolution Supporting Venezuelan Jews,"
The Jewish Chronicle, June 4, 2009.

[13] Ibid.

Edward Cody, "Managua's Jews Reject Anti-Semitism Charge; Sandinistas, U.S.
Embassy Dispute Rabbi's Widely Circulated Report," The Washington Post, August
29, 1983.

"Rabbi Disputes Reagan Point About the Jews in Nicaragua," The New York Times,
March 19, 1986.

Marjorie Hyer, "Jewish Group Finds No Anti-Semitism by Sandinista Regime," The
Washington Post, August 25, 1984.

[17] Cody,
"Managua's Jews Reject Anti-Semitism Charge."

Michael McDowell, "Jesuit Says Sandinistas Backed," The Globe and Mail
(Toronto), October 29, 1983.

[19] Cody,
"Managua's Jews Reject Anti-Semitism Charge."

Marjorie Hyer, "Nicaraguan Minister Opposes Aid to Contras," The Washington
Post, March 15, 1986; McDowell, "Jesuit Says Sandanistas Backed."

Morton Rosenthal, "Nicaragua's Chance to End Anti-Semitism," letter to the
editor, The New York Times, September 27, 1983; Nathan Perlmutter, "So Are the
Sandinistas Anti-Semitic? Of Course, They Are," letter to the editor, The New
York Times, April 5, 1986.

Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez, "Getting Down to Business," NACLA Report on
the Americas 21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 25-38.

Christopher Dickey, With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua
(Simon and Schuster, 1985), 41.

[24] "The
Israeli Connection: Deadly Trade," NACLA Report on the Americas 21, no. 2
(March/April 1987): 13.

Weekly News Update on the Americas, "Rigoberta Menchú Files Genocide Charges in
Spain," NACLA Report on the Americas 33, no. 4 (January/February 2000): 2, 4.

Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez, "Guatemala: The Paragon," NACLA Report on
the Americas 21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 31-36.

[27] Ibid.

Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the
Abuse of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), xxxiii.

[29] Ibid.

Tamara Pearson, "Venezuela Expels Israeli Ambassador in Solidarity With
Palestinian People," Venezuelanalysis.com, January 7, 2009.

"World Jewish Congress Welcomes Clear Commitment by Latin American Leaders,"
press release, World Jewish Congress, December 18, 2008.