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

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    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.
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A Sunday afternoon, the perfect family day.

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.

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"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.

"I have the impression that the president hasn't been able to differentiate between the Israeli state and the Jewish religion, and in that lack of semantic differentiation of not making it clear what is a state and what is a religion, he creates confusion in the people as well as confrontation in fundamentalists," says Mr. Benshimol.

Chávez has been a fierce critic of Israeli foreign policy. In January, he expelled Israel's ambassador and called Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza a "holocaust." And Chávez's friendship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a professed Holocaust-denier who famously said Israel would collapse, has also made Venezuela's Jewish community uncomfortable.

The rhetoric reverberates as far as Argentina, says Mr. Widder, turning on a video documenting Chavez's most recent statements condemning Israeli action in the Middle East.

Argentina has Latin America's biggest Jewish population with 230,000 residents, and even though a 1994 bomb attack at the Israelite Mutual Association that killed 85 is etched in the public memory, many say it is a tolerant society – much more than in decades past.

Venezuela, too, which has had less influence than its neighbors from the Roman Catholic Church, has historically been tolerant of religious groups. Julio Schlosser, secretary-general of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, says that most of the recent attacks here are coming from fringe radical groups, mostly on the left.

Anti-Zionism turns to anti-Semitism

Yet anti-Zionism has given anti-Semitism a new voice in Latin America. "It is politically incorrect to be anti-Semitic," says Mr. Elbaum, "but it is politically correct to be anti-Zionist."

Jewish leaders agree that the right to express views on the Israeli conflict is guaranteed, but say that political expressions have turned more personal. In January, protesters congregated outside a hotel owned by Eduardo Elsztain, a prominent Jewish businessman, claiming he is financing movements in the Middle East.

"We have always had protests against the Israeli Embassy but this was against an Argentinian citizen," Widder says. "What we do not know is if this was an isolated case or a precedent."

It was followed by the attacks at the anniversary celebration in May. At least five people, from a group identified as the Front for Revolutionary Action, a leftist radical group, were arrested on charges including violation of antidiscrimination laws. Their supporters, who have protested their arrest, say that the case criminalizes criticism of Israel.

Marches throughout the region have used incendiary rhetoric and symbolism, in some cases superimposing the Star of David with a swastika.

"It is not criticism of Israel," says Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "It is pure and simple anti-Semitism."

Charlie Devereux contributed from Caracas, Venezuela.

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