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Latin American Jews contend with spike in anti-Semitism

Derogatory political statements and attacks on synagogues have increased since Israel's January war in Gaza.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2009

Caracas: Members of the Jewish community pass by graffiti at a synagogue in Venezuela’s capital. Some have charged President Hugo Chávez with tolerating anti-Semitic sentiment.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/ Reuters

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Buenos Aires

A Sunday afternoon, the perfect family day.

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Hordes of Jewish families in Buenos Aires headed downtown to celebrate the 61st anniversary of the state of Israel, an event sponsored by the city.

But the afternoon, in May, was interrupted when about 30 young men and women began wielding sticks amid the dancing and singing, leaving 10 wounded and the Jewish community shocked.

"If it happened once, it can happen again," says Jorge Elbaum, the executive director of the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, which includes schools, synagogues, and social clubs. He has called off all public events until further notice.

Across Latin America, Jewish leaders say they are contending with a new level of anti-Semitism that heated up after Israel's military operation in Gaza in December.

From La Paz, Bolivia, to Panama City, political expressions have turned increasingly derogatory, with graffiti and banners equating the Israel conflict with Nazism. There have been bomb threats in synagogues throughout the region.

Venezuela saw the worst attack: A synagogue was desecrated Jan. 31 and Jewish leaders there have even condemned President Hugo Chávez of tolerating, and even fomenting, anti-Semitic sentiment.

"There is a new current of anti-Semitism in Latin America, connected to a discourse of anti-Zionism," says Sergio Widder, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Latin America in Buenos Aires.

Onslaught in Venezuela

Nowhere does the Jewish community in Latin America feel more under attack than in Venezuela, as the country's leader, his cabinet, and pro-government media have launched a steady barrage of condemnation toward Israel. That rhetoric sometimes seeps over into anti-Semitic behavior, say Jewish leaders.

An article on the pro-government media site Aporrea in January, for example, wrote that society should publicly demand "that any Jew on any street, commercial center, or public square take a position shouting slogans in support of Palestine and against the abortion-like state of Israel." It was later taken off the site.

In late January, the Mariperez synagogue in Caracas was broken into – an act seen by many in the Jewish community as the greatest anti-Semitic attack in Venezuelan history.

Fifteen people, including several policemen, were arrested after they broke into the synagogue, taking off with money and scrawling anti-Jewish graffiti such as "Damn the Jews," "Jews out of here," and "Israel assassins" on the walls.

They also took out the Torah from its storage place and threw sacred cups on the floor. The government claims the incident was a robbery masquerading as an anti-Semitic attack.

Levi Benshimol, a communications consultant and former president of the National College of Journalism in Caracas, says Mr. Chávez has encouraged fundamentalist factions within his movement for "21st-century socialism" by failing to distinguish sufficiently between Israel's policies and the practice of the Jewish faith, despite several statements issued by Chávez's government condemning the desecration.

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