Son of Shoah survivors to challenge Chavez

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, will challenge President Hugo Chavez in upcoming elections.

Capriles, 39, governor of the Miranda state, won a primary Sunday with 61 percent of the vote to become the unity candidate against Chavez, who has been in office for 13 years. Some 3 million voters participated in the country’s first-ever primary ahead of the Oct. 7 election.

Though Capriles’ maternal grandmother is Jewish, he was raised Catholic and he describes himself as a fervent Catholic.

“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” Capriles told JTA last year in an interview.

Capriles has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. In 2009, pro-government supporters dressed in red surrounded the Governor’s House and painted swastikas on the yellow outer walls. During the governor’s race in 2008, government-aligned media described Capriles as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie” and “genetically fascist.”

Venezuelan Jews protest broadcast of ‘Protocols’

Venezuela’s largest Jewish advocacy group has protested to the government a state-run radio broadcast that positively referenced the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In a formal complaint filed this week with the Public Ministry, the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations denounced the broadcast in which journalist Cristina Gonzalez read the infamous text and suggested that listeners also should read it.

“Venezuelan Jews know that promoting this anti-Semitic document only sows hate and discrimination, violating the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” the confederation said in a statement.

During the broadcast, Gonzalez expressed her admiration for the Jewish community and “non-Zionist” Israelis before plucking what she called “little pearls” from the book to explain to listeners why Zionists have been able to amass a concentration of power and wealth.

“I do not have an anti-Semitic stance, I’m not anti-anything, I read everything that falls my way,” she said.

“The Protocols,” written at about the turn of the 20th century, purportedly describes a Jewish plan for achieving global domination. It has been proven to be a fraud.

Confederation President Salomon Cohen has requested a formal investigation into the matter and a meeting with government officials.

Last year, President Hugo Chavez met with Jewish community representatives to discuss what they described as an incessant barrage of anti-Semitic commentaries on state-affiliated media. Chavez took to the airwaves and formally denounced anti-Semitism, saying it had no place in a revolutionary society.

Subsequently, the confederation said, there was a noticeable decrease in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Additional diplomatic signals from the Chavez government suggested that relations between the community and the state were improving.

However, anti-Semitism seems to be percolating again among the most radical elements of government supporters as Chavez gears up for what is expected to be a hard-fought campaign for re-election next year.

Israeli Official Describes Venezuelan Embassy Ouster

On Feb. 6, Shlomo Cohen, Israel’s ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, received an unwelcome and distressing phone call. The government of Venezuela was expelling all Israeli diplomats and staff — they had 72 hours to leave the country.

In a country whose government had become increasingly hostile to Israel, the call hardly came as a surprise. President Hugo Chávez was organizing an anti-Israel demonstration the very next day to denounce what he called Israel’s “Nazi-like atrocities” in Gaza. Pro-Arab sentiment in Caracas, also on the rise, was manifest everywhere, with TV images of Parliament members wearing kaffiyehs, Palestinian flags ubiquitously waved in the streets and Muslims praying in mosques. 

Danny Biran, Israel’s Head of Administration for North and South America, flew to Caracas to help close the Israeli Embassy. He provided The Jewish Journal with this account during a briefing in Los Angeles this week.

Venezuelan government rhetoric is not just anti-Israel. It often crosses the line into anti-Semitism, with frequent calls to demonstrate against Israel and its allies — the Jews. Additionally, Chávez is calling on Jews themselves to demonstrate against Israel and its offensive in Gaza. 

Against this backdrop, the local Jewish community has been struggling to understand the depth and breadth of this new anti-Semitic posture in a country that — until Chávez — had been nothing but welcoming. Temples recently have been subjected to violent anti-Semitic attacks, leaving ominous messages in their wake: “Damn Jews,” “Assassin Jews,” “Out of here, Jews.” Now, after the embassy’s inauguration 60 years ago, there will be no Israeli embassy, leaving Jews feeling powerless and stranded.

Closing an embassy is no minor task, Biran said, and proved a formidable one for diplomats more accustomed to building than dismantling them. All kinds of equipment had to be moved, classified materials handled, cars sold, kids pulled out of schools, relationships suspended. Yet the message was sharp and clear. And the clock was ticking.

Embassy staff embarked on closing the embassy at breakneck pace, simultaneously balancing a dizzying array of complicated logistics and the handling of frantic calls from the dismayed community. Careful not to create panic, yet understanding the need for straightforwardness, the message from the embassy was clear: “We will not leave you alone.” 

Amid the frenzy, another piece of bad news was delivered: Chávez now announced that he was cutting off all relations with Israel. Diplomats were now stripped of all immunity, thus deemed illegal aliens, with no protection whatsoever.

Rapidly assessing the gravity of the situation, Consul Biran called his colleagues in Buenos Aires, Panama, New York and Miami, urging them to come immediately to Caracas to help. As diplomats arrived within hours, Venezuelan authorities intercepted them at the airport. The government refused them entry. Officials escorted the Israelis to a room, where they were held for the next nine hours. No one in government returned phone calls. 

After nine hours, the diplomats were released from the airport. Venezuelan army commandos and three civilians escorted them to the embassy. They were allowed only three days in the country and would be followed everywhere they went, at their hotels, in their conversations, in all their movements. 

The sense of precariousness intensified. Without immunity or legal status, Venezuela was an increasingly insecure place. Commandos assigned to the diplomats were everywhere, taking pictures, interrogating all who entered the embassy. Numerous calls to government dignitaries went unreturned. And, atypically, this Jewish community had no connections in the government. Contingency plans began to take shape for the worst-case scenario. If necessary, Biran stated, “Everyone would be taken out of the country.”

On Feb. 22, amid tears and sorrow, the flag and sign of the Israeli Embassy in Caracas came down; the embassy was closed.

The situation in Caracas remains volatile. Consul Biran ascertained that the commandos assigned to oversee the closure of the embassy were receiving direct orders from Chávez and two high ranking officers, one of whom reportedly has close ties to Hezbollah. In addition, Chávez has been cultivating relationships with the Iranian government for years. There are now numerous weekly direct flights from Caracas to Tehran. Additionally, many reports solidly point to a strong Hezbollah presence. 

Expressing dismay and concern at the present state of affairs, Biran adds, “As a Jew, as an Israeli, as a civil servant [traveling the world for years], it is unbelievable to see a community in such an environment — harder than I had seen.” There is general concern that the combination of Chávez’s pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian, pro-Arab support and his anti-Israel propaganda, are creating a propitious environment for terrorist attacks. 

Nonetheless, the Jewish community is not in a state of panic. Amid his anti-Israel propaganda, President Chávez sends frequent messages of support to the Jewish community, assuaging fears. Underscoring the unpredictable nature of his posture toward the community, he issued an order that matzah and kosher wine would not be available for Passover. Under pressure, he reversed the order.

“No one knows where this situation will lead,” Biran said. “The Jewish community would welcome outside shows of support, be it through missions or through connections with governments around the world.”