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Chavez's Alleged Anti-Semitism

Right-wing pundits and conservative hawks are calling Hugo Chavez an anti-Semite. Venezuela's Jewish community says they don't know bupkus.
 
 
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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has likened him to Hitler and Pat Robertson has called for his assassination -- twice now. Sean Hannity, the moderate of the group, conceded that while Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is, "not up to the level of Hitler," he is, nevertheless, "a threat."

Adding to this downright loony rhetoric from the right wing is the flap over Hugo Chavez's alleged anti-Semitic remarks.

During his Christmas Eve address to the nation, Chavez touched off a controversy when he said (in translation):

"The world is for all of us, then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia -- a minority has taken possession of all the wealth of the world, a minority has taken ownership of all of the gold of the planet, of the silver, of the minerals, the waters, the good lands, oil, of the wealth, and have concentrated the wealth in a few hands: Less than 10 percent of the population of the world owns more than half of the wealth of the world and … more than the population of the planet is poor, and each day there are more poor people in the whole world."

A few days after the speech, on Dec. 30, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency ran a " breaking news" item, cherry-picking "'the descendants of those who crucified Christ' own the riches of the world" from the address.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the famous Austrian Jewish Nazi hunter, hopped on board less than a week later. The Center echoed the anti-Semitism charge, demanding an apology and urging other Latin American states to "freeze the process of incorporation of Venezuela" into Mercosur, a South American trade agreement.

A week after that, the charge was scooped up by right-wing media outlets like the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal , both of which took the opportunity to tar and feather the democratically elected leader and to associate his left-leaning policies with his alleged anti-Semitism.

Witness the teaser to Aaron Mannes' Weekly Standard piece for this guilt-by-association rap: "Hugo Chavez veers into anti-Semitism while explaining how to create a workers' paradise."

Calling Chavez a "tyrant," the Wall Street Journal 's Mary Anastasia O'Grady wrote that Chavez "has made it clear that it backs Iran's nuclear ambitions and embraces the mullahs' hateful anti-Semitism."

Pundits and rabbis

Even before Chavez's Christmas remarks, the American-born "Grand Rabbi" of Sao Paulo, Henri Sobel, who has enough influence to pull on Bush's ear, told the president about the "'precarious' situation of the Jews in Venezuela, accusing Hugo Chavez of being an 'anti-Semite'," according to the Agence France-Presse. He later conceded to AFP that "even though there is no discrimination in Venezuela officially, Hugo Chavez does everything he can to spread hatred against the minorities."

Venezuela's Jewish community doesn't agree. The Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) responded to the Wiesenthal accusations with a letter from CAIV president Fred Pressner that said, "You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don't know or understand," and that, "We believe the president was not talking about Jews and that the Jewish world must learn to work together …"

This was not the first Chavez criticism to come from the Wiesenthal Center. In the spring of 2005, the Center demanded an apology from Chavez for attempting to " banalize the Holocaust" by comparing former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to Hitler. This is, of course, a ridiculous comparison, but there were no similar demands for apologies from Rick Santorum, Robert Byrd, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, John Glenn or any other of the dozens of high-profile Hitler comparers from the past couple of years.

In its 29-year history, the Center, while establishing powerful allies everywhere, has often been at odds with much of the world's Jewish community. Called out by Norman Finklestein in his controversial work, "The Holocaust Industry," the Center has a reputation among Jewish groups for exacerbating and exploiting Jewish existential fears.

Canadian backer Samuel Belzberg told the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1990: "It's a sad fact that Israel and Jewish education and all the other familiar buzzwords no longer serve to rally Jews behind the community. The Holocaust, though, works every time."

There's even an old saying among the more cynical elements of the Jewish community: "There's no business like Shoah business. [ Shoah is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust]."

Fortunately, most of the American Jewish community is not on board this train. Bogus charges of anti-Semitism are extremely dangerous for Jews the world over as they dull the edge of the real thing. The American Jewish Congress' David Twersky commented, "I don't think we should raise the flag of anti-Semitism when it doesn't belong."

The Wiesenthal Center's charges may also, at least in part, be politically motivated. In addition to its considerable connections to D.C. politics (having met with every president since Carter), the group provided a rare Jewish imprimatur for the war on Iraq.

Back in September 2004, just prior to Bush's reelection, the Center's Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman published an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee that was praised by ultraconservative pundit Michelle Malkin for backing Bush's controversial post-9/11 security measures. Of Malkin's book defending the Japanese internment camps, they write: "Malkin makes a compelling case for the Patriot Act and profiling as legitimate tools in the current war against terror." With deep ties to Israel's right-wing Likud party, the Center supports the president, who in turn supports the right-wing Israeli perspective.

The mother of all cynicism

On the face of it, there is much in Chavez's comments to be wary of. The charge of deicide (that the Jews killed Christ) is at the heart of historical anti-Semitism. The charge remained in the liturgy of the Catholic Church until relatively recently, when the Vatican II reforms took effect.

Another age-old canard, that the world's riches are owned by the Jews, most likely stems from the ironic confluence of proscriptions in Christian cultures that prevented Christians from lending money and Jews from doing almost anything but. Link the two charges, as Chavez appears to have done, and you get rhetoric that's ripe for rebuke.

Nobody knows what's in Hugo Chavez's heart, yet with closer examination of his statement, the charges of anti-Semitism begin to weaken. Chavez didn't simply claim that the world's riches were in the hands of the descendants of Christ-killers, but that they were "the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here."

As Rabbi Arthur Waskow pointed out, "I know of no one who accuses the Jews of fighting against Bolivar."

Venezuelan Jewish groups say the Center's claims take Chavez's remarks out of the context of Venezuelan culture. One of the prevailing strains of Catholicism in Latin America, of which Chavez is an exponent, is liberation theology. That belief system, seldom if ever linked to anti-Semitism, holds that the spiritual heirs of those who killed Christ (the Christ consciousness, not necessarily the man) are responsible for the world's injustices.

It's also worth pointing out that both the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress agree with CAIV's assertion that the remarks are not anti-Semitic. Even the spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in Caracas refused to comment, noting that this is an internal affair -- a judicious way of disagreeing with the powerful Wiesenthal Center.

But the right-wing opinion machine has latched on to this opening like a wino to a bottle of ripple. Ignoring the U.S. State Department's characterization of Venezuela as "[A] historically open society without significant anti-Semitism," the anti-Chavez right wing has taken to lumping any and every tangentially related episode and event onto the pile in an effort to make the charge stick.

The two most common facts cited to bolster the charge are the raid of a Jewish school and Chavez's meeting with Iran's President Ahmadinejad. In the former case, the decision appears to have been an isolated incident carried out by a local authority without orders from the president. As for the latter, it's important to recall that the two nations didn't just meet in a bar last weekend -- they've been fellow members of OPEC for nearly 50 years now. In addition, if dealing with terrorism-supporting or anti-Semitic, anti-Democratic regimes equals political illegitimacy then many of the world's leaders are on thin ice.

Tradeoffs

So why would the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its fellow travelers want to bolster criticism of Hugo Chavez?

In a word: trade. Chavez has been a vocal critic of the FTAA, an agreement designed to benefit transnational corporations whose increased wealth will, the theory goes, "trickle down" and benefit the impoverished. In response Chavez introduced a competing trade agreement, called ALBA, which, according to Teresa Arreaza, "advocates a socially oriented trade block rather than one strictly based on the logic of deregulated profit maximization. ALBA appeals to the egalitarian principles of justice and equality that are innate in human beings, the well-being of the most dispossessed sectors of society, and a reinvigorated sense of solidarity toward the underdeveloped countries of the Western Hemisphere."

It should be obvious why a trade agreement that emphasizes solidarity with poor countries over building the wealth of corporations would be threatening to Bush and his financial backers.

The rising cost of oil has afforded Venezuela the opportunity to be, as Marc Weisbrot put it recently in the L.A. Times , "the lender of last resort." Venezuela loaned Argentina $2.4 billion, enabling it to kick out the IMF; it also purchased bonds from Equador and provides low-cost financing for oil to Caribbean nations.

By rejecting the FTAA and its principles, Venezuela has dealt a potentially lethal blow to the concept and mechanics of corporate-centric "free trade" agreements. That's a lot of arepas on the line for Bush and his financial backers.

Venezuela's recent acceptance into Mercosaur, described by Noam Chomsky as "an alternative to the so-called Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, backed by the United States," provided still more evidence of the popularity of the Venezuelan trade model and of Venezuela's influence in the region.

Oiling the machine

Then there's oil. Venezuela accounts for roughly 15 percent of all the oil imported into the United States. As Chavez has successfully renegotiated contracts with foreign oil companies, he's not only consolidated still more power and wealth but thrown a wrench into the works of the neocons' best laid plans for softcore world domination, as well as set a precedent for dismissal of U.S. authority. For Hugo Chavez's chronic refusal to toe the Bush administration line, the United States supported an ultimately unsuccessful military coup in 2002.

Into this potent political stew stepped the Wiesenthal Center, all too eager to see the anti-Semitism bogeyman in every corner of the globe. At the bottom of the Center's initial press release on the topic was this curious passage: "The Center will call on governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as on the Presidency of Mercosaur (South American Common Market), to freeze the process of incorporation of Venezuela to this bloc until Chavez makes a public apology for his anti-Semitic statements."

It could be coincidence, but to see this organization targeting international agreements totally unrelated to Chavez's alleged anti-Semitism raises doubts about the purity of the Wiesenthal Center's motives. Donald Rumsfeld and Pat Robertson, two figures who can be counted on to spout the Bush line, have their anti-Chavez rhetoric coiled and ready when the president needs a surrogate voice. It looks suspiciously like the Wiesenthal Center is doing the same by crying wolf.

Evan Derkacz is AlterNet's associate editor and writer of Peek, the blog of blogs.