Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?
The superstition had some currency. Ostfeld and his CAIV comrades, who wanted a meeting at the presidential palace to discuss their changing situation, decided to exploit this. “[CAIV President] Salomón Cohen Botbol had someone close to the president bring a message to a friend of the president,” Ostfeld recounted to me. “The message was this: ‘Look, I am Cohen,’ and it explained ‘Cohen,’ the cohanim, priests, and that he who damns Israel gets the damnation returned on him. ‘And so I’m expecting something bad to happen to the president and Venezuela. And since I’m Venezuelan, I’m wondering what it is that can be awaiting me. Because it is shown that he who damns Israel gets the damnation back. It is written.’” According to Ostfeld, the friend told this all to the president, who not long after asked for a meeting with the community, with a specific request that they bring a rabbi—other than Brenner, who for his public political stances was persona non grata in the palace.
In a typically odd bit of Chávezian politics, the minister for foreign affairs, Maduro, had been assigned the Jewish portfolio after having expelled the Israeli ambassador over Operation Cast Lead. Botbol had complained about this arrangement, but Ostfeld decided that it would be best to work in the system, and he invited Maduro to travel with him to Miraflores. Chávez was a gracious host, according to Ostfeld. He offered gifts of honey to each visitor. He heard the three grievances the representatives of the CAIV wanted to bring to him, about anti-Semitism, personal security, and relations with Israel.
“We were there about an hour and a half,” Ostfeld recalled in his office, as he showed me photos from the day: Chávez posed with the elders of Caracas’ Jewish community and wearing his trademark flag-colored warm-up jacket, looking much shorter than Ostfeld and the other Ashkenazi immigrants. “After I presented our case, he thanked us and said, ‘Look, the only thing I ask is that when I broke relations with Israel, I said some damning things, and I regret that.’ He had said his damning words three times, and he knew he’d done something wrong. And so he came up to the rabbi and said, ‘Rabbi, please, give me your blessing.’ ” So then in the ornate 19th-century confines of a room in the seat of power in central Caracas, Rabbi Isaac Cohen, of the Sefardic Asociación Israelita, pronounced a general blessing in Hebrew. “Chávez couldn’t have understood anything,” Ostfeld said, but the leader seemed pleased. “The rabbi hadn’t blessed Chávez by name. He had blessed the Venezuelan people.”
A few months later, Ostfeld noted mischievously, Chávez announced that he had had a baseball-sized tumor removed in Cuba. Then the president declared that Venezuelan socialism’s motto was to be changed, after his surgery, from “Death or Victory” to “Viviremos y Venceremos”—“Life and Victory.”
At the CAIV’s “Information and Analysis Office,” three women spend their work days following the Twitter feeds of declared Venezuelan Hezbollah sympathizers and members of “Yihad Latinoamericano.” Their tasks include culling, highlighting, and translating anti-Semitic blurbs from the Venezuelan press to file weekly reports with the Anti-Defamation League, and thus help defend against further outbreaks of anti-Semitism. One Twitter user they were watching, Hindu Anderi, had called for an anti-Zionist demonstration at the Norwegian embassy in Caracas, following the massacre on Utoya. Anderi organized her activities on a blog with contact information, and so I arranged to meet her at the Lido shopping center below the embassy, to get a better sense of the nature of her complaints against the Jews and Israel. She had also been listed in the Anti-Defamation League’s thick portfolio cataloguing anti-Semitism under Chávez, in this case as a host on a show for state-run Radio Nacionál de Venezuela, in which she had described an “extermination and ethnic cleansing plan undertaken by Israel.”
The day before our meeting, I had wandered in the renovated, vibrant downtown, testing a claim Isaac had made, that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, along with some other lurid Nazi tales such as Mein Kampf, were easily obtainable in cheap Spanish-language editions at the popular book stalls directly across from Miraflores, the presidential palace. Isaac was right. I bought Los Peligros Judío-Masónicos: Los Protocolos de los Sabios de Sion—after some playful bargaining, for less than a third of the asking price of 35 Bolivares. In May, on the Venezuelan National Radio program La Noticia Final, host Cristina González had praised quotes from the book, prompting press releases from the CAIV, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the ADL. Anderi had worked with González, who would not speak to me, so I brought the book to our meeting.
Anderi, whose face was heavily made up in gaudy greens and reds, was of Lebanese descent, born in Venezuela. Her protest against the Norwegian embassy was a bust: Not a soul bothered to show on that Saturday morning. So, we sat in the mall café and I asked her how she’d developed such a passion for politics that seemed ajeno, foreign or remote, to Venezuelan life. Norway? Israel? Palestine? Wasn’t there enough injustice, violence, and inequality here? “This is about humanity,” Anderi said to me. “Justice is justice. I can’t make choices about what to support. If I see assassins”—which is how she viewed Israelis, she said—“I can’t stand by and let them get away with it.” She then said, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” and without waiting for an answer, added, “I thought so.” And then she asked me what I was after, and our conversation broke down, and she was gone.
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