Yes, Hugo Chavez is Scapegoating Jews

A lot of people are quick to excuse Hugo Chavez’s stance on the widespread attacks on Jewish Venezuelans – his citizens may be writing “Jews get out” on synagogues, but he’s just protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza, and that’s kosher. Leaving aside the question of whether he would have expelled Israel’s ambassador if said ambassador wasn’t representing a Jewish country (I support the action in the abstract, but you can’t tell me that there’s no chance anti-Semitism played a role in it), I think it’s fair to ask why, if his beef is with Israelis and not Venezuelan Jews, he’s been so curiously lenient on all the attackers.

Anna sent me the Washington Post’s very salient take on it:

VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chávez, who says he intends to remain in office for decades to come, lost a referendum 14 months ago that would have removed the constitutional limit on his tenure. When he announced another referendum in December, the first polls showed him losing again by a wide margin. Yet, as Sunday’s vote approaches, his government is predicting victory — and some polls show him with a narrow advantage.

How did Latin America’s self-styled “Bolivarian revolutionary” turn his fortunes around? Not through rational argument, it is fair to say…. [T]here is the assault on Venezuela’s Jewish community — which seems to have replaced George W. Bush as Mr. Chávez’s favorite foil. After Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, the caudillo expelled Israel’s ambassador and described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide.” Then Mr. Chávez turned on Venezuela’s Jews. “Let’s hope that the Venezuelan Jewish community will declare itself against this barbarity,” Mr. Chávez bellowed on a government-controlled television channel. “Don’t Jews repudiate the Holocaust? And this is precisely what we’re witnessing.”

Government media quickly took up the chorus. One television host close to Mr. Chávez blamed opposition demonstrations on two students he said had Jewish last names. On a pro-government Web site, another commentator demanded 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.

Emphasis mine.

Hold the phone – a government official is using hatred of Jews to distract people from other, more pressing problems? Gee, we’ve never seen that before.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why the quote in bold is offensive, but just in case you’re new at this: demanding that each and every Jew in a country make some sort of public statement condemning the actions of a far-off government that most likely doesn’t represent them, in a country that they may not even have any emotional or familial ties to, is just an updated version of the loyalty oaths that Jews have been forced to take throughout history. Notice that he’s not willing to give Jews the benefit of the doubt here? How, if he comes across a Jew, his assumption will be that the Jew supports the attack on Gaza until that Jew says otherwise? Hey, sort of reminds me how non-Arab, non-Muslim Americans assume that every Muslim or Arab we meet is a terrorist – and how, no matter how far that Muslim or Arab goes to prove otherwise, the suspicion never really goes away. See why this isn’t okay?

Also, what if a Jewish person does support the attack? What if he or she is ambivalent? Does he or she deserve to be harassed and attacked?

I could go on – there are plenty of tropes in Chavez’s actions and remarks that are worth unpacking. I think the writer of the editorial is exactly right; he’s using his country’s Jewish population as a smokescreen for issues that actually, you know, affect them. If he cares about Gaza so much, then what is he doing to help Gazans?

See also Brown Shoes’s post on the situation.

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7 Responses

  1. This is what I found most chilling: “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.”

  2. This is terrifying.

  3. More specifically, it’s terrifying precisely because Venezuela does not have a major history of anti-Semitism. It’s gone from 0 to 60 in the space of just a few years. It definitely reinforces that belief amongst many Jews that “it can always come back:” — no matter how good you think you have it, the right demagogue always has the option of flipping that switch and stirring up hatred against Jews.

  4. Gaza and the West Bank certainly help. Without that, antisemitism would have stayed the province of rabid Christians, rather than being exported around the world. The indigenous people of South America don’t even have an antisemite switch, unless the State of Israel offers them one. The government of Israel is a millstone around Jewish necks.

    Also,”‘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.” is the Internet talking, not Chavez. At least, not yet.

  5. Jamaal, if you’re saying that anti-Semitism was a purely religious ideology before the creation of the state of Israel, then I ask you to research the topic more thoroughly. Also, I didn’t claim that Chavez said the line you quoted.

  6. I would add, Jamaal, that most people in South America aren’t “indigenous” and are not products of a “pure” indigenous culture. Columbus arrived in the Americas on behalf of the Spanish Crown in 1492, the same year Spain expelled its Jews. The Inquisition hunted down conversos throughout the Americas, and the very first Jews to arrive in what would become the United States were fleeing just such persecution in Brazil. European immigrants brought modern anti-Semitism with them in the late 19th century, and in the 20th century, there was a fair amount of ideological cross-pollination between European fascism and authoritarian regimes in Latin America. The “switch” was installed long before Israel was founded.

  7. […] Yes, Hugo Chavez is Scapegoating Jews << Modern Mitzvot I’m sure I don’t need to explain why the quote in bold is offensive, but just in case you’re new at this: demanding that each and every Jew in a country make some sort of public statement condemning the actions of a far-off government that most likely doesn’t represent them, in a country that they may not even have any emotional or familial ties to, is just an updated version of the loyalty oaths that Jews have been forced to take throughout history. (tags: israel antisemitism southamerica) […]

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