Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
Following the attack, Ostfeld presided over a ceremony, attended by representatives of the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and others, in which he spoke in English of his childhood nightmares about Germans, of wanting to jump from windows and race to the U.S. Marines. “But lately,” he told the crowd, “I wake up in the middle of the night and see in Caracas graffiti about the Jewish. ‘Death to the Jewish.’ Something has happened in the last couple of years. I’m not going to talk against the government, nor in favor of the government, but something has changed. As we say at Pesach, ma nishta na? Something has changed here.” His wife, Klara, also a Holocaust survivor, then came to the podium and read something she’d written titled “Job,” which began, “Jewish presence in Venezuela has been felt since the dawn of Independence, through the support given to the Venezuelan people in their fight to obtain self-determination.” She ended with a poem of her own, titled “Emigrant,” which she read while Ostfeld stood by her side:
It hurts in
the adoptive fatherland
of the feeling
my soul cries
suck the sap
the sap of my life.
Talk of the attack still leaves people visibly shaken. “It was a terrible shock when I saw what was written on the walls,” Trudy Spira told me. “I’m sure the ones who wrote it didn’t even know what they were writing. Because when they write ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘Jews go to hell’—they don’t know what it means. They have a leader, he tells them and they do it. It’s automatic. That’s how the Hitler Youth was.”
The profanation of the Mariperez synagogue occurred barely a month after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s winter incursion into Gaza, which Chávez would soon snatch up as a cudgel in his effort to terrorize the Jews of Venezuela as part of his campaign against the disfavored rich. On Nov. 3, 2009, Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador and six other diplomats, and in June 2010, he said during a visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: “Israel has become the assassin arm of the United States. The Israelis are not acting alone. They are an executing arm of a genocidal policy.” Raids on Jewish establishments coincided with the demands of Iranian diplomacy or the local campaign calendar. Earlier that month, after the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that included the Mavi Marmara, Chávez, seated in front of a backdrop of stacks of cooking oil, margarine, and other food staples, and wearing a bright red T-shirt under green army fatigues, began an extraordinary, passionate, televised tirade:
You saw the Yankee Empire. You saw the massacre that the genocidal state of Israel committed against a group of pacifists. … You saw it, yes? They massacred people. Look at what the United States said. They said they are “worried.” They are worried. Imagine it. God help us if this had happened in Venezuelan waters. We would have been invaded. Rest assured that they would already have invaded us. But no, because it’s Israel, they are allowed to do anything. That’s an example of a double standard. The government of Obama condemns terrorism—as long as it isn’t committed by themselves. By them, the United States, or their ally, Israel. They accuse us, they accuse me, of supporting terrorism. They are the ones who support terrorism. And I take this opportunity to condemn once again, from the depth of my soul and from my guts, the state of Israel. Damn the state of Israel! Maldito sea! Terrorists and assassins!
“Viva!” shouted the audience of red-shirted supporters, including the foreign minister Nicolás Maduro, all breaking into applause.
“And viva the Palestinian people!” Chávez replied, visibly pleased by the strength of his condemnation, before saying that Israel “finances the counter-revolution” and that Israel has dispatched Mossad agents to hunt and kill him. “Where is justice in this world, by God?” he asks. “Where is justice?”
A pall fell over the Jewish community. Two weeks after the speech, Paulina Gamus, the only Venezuelan Jew to serve in the National Assembly, wrote in a newspaper column that when Chávez damned the State of Israel, he had done something that none of the fiercest Islamist enemies of the Jews had done—not Nasser, not Assad, not Qaddafi, not Ahmadinejad. Damning Israel, she wrote, “means government, men, children, youths, women, old people, scientists, partisans, opposition, houses, hospitals, schools, universities—all damned.” It wouldn’t have been as bad, she said, if Chávez had merely damned the Israeli government. “I will risk 30 years of prison to hazard a guess about the kind of curse that might return upon the president for life of Iranzuela, but to others and since time immemorial, very ugly things have befallen others,” Gamus wrote. “By warning you we’re doing you a favor.”
Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic