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
Although 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
Such 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.
Perhaps 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
The 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
The 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 understand.”10
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
Pressner 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.
However, 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.”
Other 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
Israel’s 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 asked.”27
Norman 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.
As 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 territories.
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 anti-Semitism.
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.
6. Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez, “United by Hate: The Uses of Anti-Semitism in Chávez’s Venezuela,” Boston Review, July/August 2009.
7. “Editing Chavez to Manufacture a Slur,” media advisory, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, January 23, 2006.
8. 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.
14. 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.
15. “Rabbi Disputes Reagan Point About the Jews in Nicaragua,” The New York Times, March 19, 1986.
16. 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.”
18. Michael McDowell, “Jesuit Says Sandinistas Backed,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 29, 1983.
19. Cody, “Managua’s Jews Reject Anti-Semitism Charge.”
20. Marjorie Hyer, “Nicaraguan Minister Opposes Aid to Contras,” The Washington Post, March 15, 1986; McDowell, “Jesuit Says Sandanistas Backed.”
21. 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.
22. Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez, “Getting Down to Business,” NACLA Report on the Americas 21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 25–38.
23. 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.
25. 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.
26. Milton Jamail and Margo Gutierrez, “Guatemala: The Paragon,” NACLA Report on the Americas 21, no. 2 (March/April 1987): 31–36.
28. Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), xxxiii.
30. Tamara Pearson, “Venezuela Expels Israeli Ambassador in Solidarity With Palestinian People,” Venezuelanalysis.com, January 7, 2009.
31. “World Jewish Congress Welcomes Clear Commitment by Latin American Leaders,” press release, World Jewish Congress, December 18, 2008.