Is Venezuela's President Anti-Semitic?

Dear Friends,

This message raises some serious doubts about a claim put forward by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela spoke an anti-Semitic slur this past Christmas Eve in a speech to a Venezuelan rehab center.

My own analysis of the full text of the talk, together with correspondence I have now had with North Americans who are in Venezuela, cast great doubt on the charge.

I am not absolutely certain the charge is wrong, but I think it probably is, and should be further investigated before being propagated. Already, however, some other Jewish organizations have leaped on this JTA article to attack President Chavez.

I think the charge itself may, if incorrect, bring about great and unnecessary hostility between North American Jews and Chavez and his supporters throughout the Americas.

I wrote privately to urge JTA to explore the issues further through good journalism; my urgings were utterly rejected. So I am more publicly sharing this concern and my own effort at serious investigation (in what I see as the best version of Jewish journalism).

Shalom, Arthur
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center

Here is the story:

This past Friday (December 30), JTA sent out the following bulletin:

Chavez makes anti-Semitic slur

Venezuela's president said in his Christmas speech that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ" own the riches of the world.

"The world offers riches to all. However, minorities such as the descendants of those who crucified Christ" have become "the owners of the riches of the world," Chavez said Dec. 24 on a visit to a rehabilitation center in the Venezuelan countryside.

When I first read the bulletin, I was both surprised and angry.

Surprised because never has anyone, through all the years of attacks by the US government against Chavez, suggested he was anti-Semitic.

Angry because if he actually said and meant what he is quoted as having said and meant, this is disgusting.

I was angry enough to write the listserves of United for Peace and Justice that I was very concerned, thought maybe there was a way to understand the talk that did not bring the Jews into it at all, but that this needed to be clarified. I quoted the teaching that "Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools," and added that I had never thought Chavez was in any way a fool.

Now -- suppose you knew that the quote actually read as follows --

The world has enough for all, but for, it turns out that some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ, descendants of the same ones who threw Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way at Santa Marta there in Colombia.

What is Bolivar doing there?

That is the point. But at the moment I read the JTA bulletin, I did not know that Bolivar was in fact there. Read on, and you'll see why this matters.

So I sent the JTA bulletin (accurately cited and sourced) to people whom I
thought might have some contacts in Venezuela. I got back a comment from an
American in Venezuela expressing great surprise, since, she said, no
in-country press has quoted President Chavez' Christmas speech to any
anti-Semitic effect. She said he usually teaches his views to the public by
repeating a theme over and over again, but this has not appeared at all that
she knows of.

At that point I did not have a source for the text of the speech in full, since the JTA bulletin did not give one; but I was able to find it at --

The remarks about those who crucified Jesus are on page 18. They are as follows:

Presidente Chávez: Primero, primero hay que reconocer, todos tenemos que
reconocer, yo el primero, el gran esfuerzo de ustedes, de los pioneros, de Fabiola, de Juan el Alcalde, de la Dirección de Atención al Ciudadano, al Soberano de la Alcaldía Mayor de Caracas, fíjense ustedes lo importante que es la consolidación política de la Revolución y el avance de la Revolución. Ya lo decía Fabiola, ya lo decía Leida: Un buen día se llevaron de aquí a los ancianos ¿por qué?, le pregunté yo, porque no había dinero, decían, en la Gobernación de Miranda ni en la Gobernación de Caracas seguramente. No había dinero ¿y dónde estaba el dinero? El dinero en Venezuela se concentró... así como en el mundo, porque esto es un fenómeno mundial ¿saben? Acabo de leer esta madrugada el último informe de la Organización de Naciones Unidas sobre la situación del mundo y es alarmante por eso es que digo que hoy más que nunca antes jamás en 2005 años nos hace falta Jesús el Cristo, porque el mundo, el mundo, se está acabando el mundo cada día, cada día, la riqueza del mundo, porque Dios, la naturaleza es sabia, el mundo tiene agua suficiente para que todos tuviéramos agua, el mundo tiene riquezas suficientes, tierras suficientes para producir alimentos para toda la población mundial, el mundo tiene suficientes piedras y minerales para las construcciones, para que no hubiera nadie sin vivienda. El mundo tiene para todos, pues, pero resulta que unas minorías, los descendientes de los mismos que crucificaron a Cristo, los descendientes de los mismos que echaron a Bolívar de aquí y también lo crucificaron a su manera en Santa Marta, allá en Colombia. Una minoría se adueñó de las riquezas del mundo, una minoría se adueñó del oro del planeta, de la plata, de los minerales, de las aguas, de las tierras buenas, del petróleo, de las riquezas, pues, y han concentrado las riquezas en pocas manos: menos del diez por ciento de la población del mundo es dueña de más de la mitad de la riqueza de todo el mundo y a la... más de la mitad de los pobladores del planeta son pobres y cada día hay más pobres en el mundo entero. Nosotros aquí estamos decididos, decididos a cambiar la historia y cada día nos acompaña y nos acompañará mayor cantidad de jefes de Estado, de presidentes y de líderes; vean ustedes cómo el pueblo boliviano... Bolivia, que es el país más pobre de Suramérica y uno de los más pobres del mundo, esa República fundada por Bolívar y por Sucre, esa que lleva el nombre de nuestro Bolívar, esa Bolivia, muy rica es Bolivia: minerales, oro, plata, estaño, petróleo y gas, y tierra muy fértil, y grandes montañas. Sin embargo, es uno de los pueblos más pobres de este planeta, Bolivia, pero los pobres están resucitando y acaban de elegir a un indio, por primera vez en la historia, Presidente de Bolivia.

Please note the following section:

<< El mundo tiene para todos, pues, pero resulta que unas minorías, los descendientes de los mismos que crucificaron a Cristo, los descendientes de los mismos que echaron a Bolívar de aquí y también lo crucificaron a su manera en Santa Marta, allá en Colombia.>>

In English --

The world has enough for all, but for, it turns out that some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ, descendants of the same ones who threw Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way at Santa Marta there in Colombia.

Please note the parallel between those who crucified Jesus and those who fought against Bolivar.

I know of no one who accuses the Jews of fighting against Bolivar.

And certainly I -- and most Jews -- teach that it was the Roman Empire, and Roman soldiers, who crucified Jesus.

So knowing the presence of the Bolivar piece of the passage, which did not appear in the JTA bulletin, poses at minimum an important doubt to the interpretation of the speech embodied in the JTA headline -- that it was an anti-Semitic slur.

At that point I wrote JTA to raise my concerns.

Meanwhile, my contacts in Venezuela then translated the longer passage, as follows:

<< On Christmas Eve, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited the "Nucleo de Desarrollo Endgeno Manantial de los Sueños," a drug rehab center in the state of Miranda, about an hour and a half from Caracas. Residents and outpatients there get detox if they need it, medical and psychological attention, and vocational training. After talking with the director, staff and participants of the program and celebrating its accomplishments, Chavez started talking about the availability of resources for such efforts. Not long ago, he said, neither the state government of Miranda nor the government in Caracas had any money.

<<"Where was the money?" Chavez asked. He continued, "Venezuela's money is concentrated, as the world's money is concentrated, because this is a worldwide phenomenon...

<< Early this morning I just read the latest report from the U.N. on the world situation and it is alarming. Because of it I say that today more than ever before in 2005 years we need Jesus Christ, because the world is ending every day. Because God, nature, is wise, the world has enough water that all could have water. The world has wealth enough, land enough to produce food for everyone, the world has enough rocks and minerals for construction that no one should be without housing. The world has enough for all, but for, it turns out that some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ, descendants of the same ones who threw Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way at Santa Marta there in Colombia. A minority takes over the wealth of the
world, a minority takes over the gold of the planet, the silver, the minerals, the waters, the good land, the oil, the wealth and has concentrated the wealth in a few hands. Less than 10 percent of the world's population owns more than half the world's wealth. More than half the population of the planet is poor and every day there are more poor people.

<< We are determined to change history and every day more heads of state, presidents and leaders join us, and every day more will join us. You see how the Bolivian people... Bolivia, the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the world, this republic founded by Bolivar and Sucre, this republic that carries the name of our Bolivar, this Bolivia is very rich: minerals, gold, silver, tin, oil and gas, very fertile land and tall mountains. Without a doubt it has one of the poorest populations of the planet, Bolivia, but the poor have revived and have just elected an Indian president for the first time in history."

This is what I wrote JTA:

To me this sounds more likely to have been an attack on what in English we might call the "heirs," not the "descendants," of those who killed Jesus and fought against Bolivar -- that is, the heirs of the Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire.

For Chavez, as he has said again and again, that means the American Empire.

Whether one agrees with his hostility to the present US government or not, it is not anti-Semitism.

Now even IF that is the correct understanding of the speech, the phrasing is both careless and dangerous. It is hardly surprising, given the history of the Jewish people, that a reporter reading the speech without knowing much about Chavez would take it as anti-Semitic. And it certainly behooves us to find out -- I would say, neither assuming it is nor assuming it is not.

I asked for and received comments from my contacts in Venezuela – from people who know Venezuela and the Chavezian rhetoric well, who are independent-minded – open to disagreement with Chavez but not members of the intense opposition to Chavez that attempted to overthrow his elected government.

They said –- even before I had tried out my hunch or hypothesis about the "crucifiers" as the empires, not the Jews -- that after studying the speech they had come to much the same thought.

I still do not view this as a settled question. If the speech was intended as anti-Semitic, we must not only denounce it but try to reeducate Chavez. If it was not so intended, then we need to correct whatever misimpression of it that North American Jews might have given or taken, and he needs to understand what dangerous language he is flirting with.

But surely until we on further examination become convinced that the "anti-Semitic" interpretation of the speech is correct, we need not go running to recruit a new and powerful person into the bands of anti-Semites. There are already more than enough without our recruiting for them!

I suggest that until more is learned, serious Jews and responsible citizens of all communities should take this assumption as not yet substantiated, and hold in abeyance either believing it or not believing it.

How do we learn more?

In the meantime, I urge that JTA say publicly that serious doubts have been raised concerning the interpretation of the speech as anti-Semitic, and that JTA asks readers to suspend judgment on this question.

Since both Western folk wisdom and Jewish teaching remind us that false accusations run far more swiftly than the truth to correct them, I urge JTA to issue such a statement right away.


Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center


The managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency utterly rejected this line of thought. He utterly rejected the possibility that anyone at all had ever or would ever talk about "Christ-killers" without meaning the Jews. He refused to examine the matter further by any investigations in Venezuela, and shrugged off the Bolivar reference as irrelevant (though Bolivar is in fact the central hero of Chavez' life and politics).

Already the Simon Wiesenthal Center has accepted the JTA's premise without thinking further. Other Jewish organizations will probably do the same.

This is incredibly dangerous. If my hypothesis is correct, this behavior by leading organizations in the North American Jewish community can turn Chavez and his supporters into enemies for no reason. If my hunch is incorrect, we can find out by checking the facts in Venezuela.

Only two interests are served by jumping off this cliff: those of the Bush Administration, which is intensely hostile to Chavez, and those of Jewish organizations that gain politically or financially from such alarms.

I repeat: I am by no means claiming that for sure Chavez' comments had nothing to do with the Jews. But I am claiming that decent Jewish ethics, prudent Jewish self-protection, and honest journalism all require further investigation.

Shalom, Arthur

Since this exchange, several things have happened.

1) My contacts in Venezuela have sent my letters about this matter to President Chavez. They have asked him to clarify the issue, publicly.

They sent him both my letters. The first was the one I sent to North American antiwar, Left, and religious leaders -- expressing both my upset at what Chavez seemed to have said and expressing my hunch that he may have been maligned by the early reports that the speech was an anti-Semitic slur.

The second i wrote after I had seen the full speech, including a passage that JTA dropped -- mentioning Bolivar and, I thought, making it much more likely (not totally certain) that Chavez was aiming at empoires, not at the Jews.

2) The FORWARD published an article reporting that many national Jewish organuizations like the American Jewish Committee, the AJCongress, and the leadership of the Venezuelan Jewish community all thought the facts are that Chevez was not being anti-Semitic. (The Forward article is appended below.)

I still do not think the issue fully resolved, but the likelihood is much greater that the JTA made a deep and serious mistake, and an even deeper one by refusing to corrrect it.

Shalom, AW

Venezuela's Jews Defend Leftist President in Flap Over Remarks
The Forward, January 13, 2006

The Venezuelan Jewish community leadership and several major American Jewish groups are accusing the Simon Wiesenthal Center of rushing to judgment by charging Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, with making antisemitic remarks.
Officials of the leading organization of Venezuelan Jewry were preparing a letter this week to the center, complaining that it had misinterpreted Chavez's words and had failed to consult with them before attacking the Venezuelan president.
"You have interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community. You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don't know or understand," states a draft of the letter obtained by the Forward. Copies of the letter are also to be sent to the heads of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, among other Jewish groups.
"We believe the president was not talking about Jews and that the Jewish world must learn to work together," said Fred Pressner, president of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela. The confederation is known by its Spanish acronym, CAIV. He added that this was the third time in recent years that the Wiesenthal center had publicly criticized Chavez without first consulting the local community.
Last week the Wiesenthal Center wrote to Chavez, demanding that he apologize for what the center said was a negative reference to Jews during a Christmas Eve speech. The center also asked the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to "freeze the process" of incorporating Venezuela into Mercosur, a regional trade bloc, unless the Venezuelan president publicly apologizes.
In his speech, Chavez lamented that while the world had enough resources for all, "some minorities, the descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones who threw out [South American liberator Simon] Bolivar from here and also crucified him in a way in Santa Marta, over there in Colombia — a minority took possession of all the planet's gold, of the silver, the minerals, the waters, the good land, the oil, the riches, and they have concentrated the riches in a few hands. Less than 10% of the world's population possesses over half of the world's riches, and more than half of the planet's population is poor, and every day there are more poor in the world."
Both the AJCommittee and the American Jewish Congress seconded the Venezuelan community's view that Chavez's comments were not aimed at Jews. All three groups said he was aiming his barbs at the white oligarchy that has dominated the region since the colonial era, pointing to his reference to Bolivar as the clearest evidence of his intent.
One official noted that Latin America's so-called Liberation Theology has long depicted Jesus as a socialist and consequently speaks of gentile business elites as "Christ-killers."
Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal center's representative in Latin America, countered that Chavez's mention of Christ-killers and wealth was ambiguous at best and in need of clarification. He said that the decision to criticize Chavez had been taken after careful consideration.
The Venezuelan government did not react publicly, and its embassy in Washington declined to comment. However, senior government officials met with Israeli diplomats in Caracas this week and said that the president's remarks had no antisemitic intent or meaning, according to Livia Link, deputy chief of the Israeli Embassy. She declined to be more specific or to provide the embassy's views on the affair, saying that it was a Venezuelan issue.
Complaints of American Jewish high-handedness have been aired by Jewish organizations in other countries, most notably in France. French Jews complained in 2003 that American groups were too vocal in criticizing the French government for not responding aggressively to incidents of antisemitism. Such frictions illustrate the difficulty of finding a balance between American-style aggressive advocacy and the built-in cautiousness of local Jewish communities.
Pressner said that the Venezuelan Jewish confederation was not caving in to the government. He cited several protests by the confederation against antisemitic remarks broadcast on radio and television in recent months. "We are not afraid, but we need to be fair," he said.
In the Venezuelan situation, American Jewish groups might be reflecting the Bush administration's displeasure with Chavez's anti-American pronouncements. But while Chavez's politics may not appeal to mainstream American Jewish groups, several spokesmen warned that labeling him antisemitic for no obvious reason is likely to prove self-fulfilling by provoking a backlash against Jews.
"It appears to us that Chavez did not intentionally speak about Jews," said David Twersky, director of the AJCongress's Council on World Jewry. "I don't think we should raise the flag of antisemitism when it doesn't belong."
The Wiesenthal center previously criticized Chavez publicly and urged his exclusion from Mercosur after he compared Spain's then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to Hitler and again when he quipped that his political opposition resembled the wandering Jew.
The Wiesenthal center is not the only international Jewish group entangled in Venezuela. Speaking to the media two months ago, Rabbi Henri Sobel of Brazil, a longtime World Jewish Congress leader, accused Chavez of antisemitism.
Pressner said that the CAIV sent letters both to Sobel and to the Wiesenthal center urging prior consultation but failed to get a response.
The Wiesenthal center's Widder confirmed that the center was making its decisions on its own and did not consult with the CAIV. "We don't speak on behalf of the Jewish community there," he said.
By contrast, other American Jewish groups that spoke out on the latest incident asked the CAIV for guidance.
"Having served in a Jewish community in Latin America that always welcomed cooperation with international and American Jewish organizations, I understand the urge to help a community," said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJCommittee's Institute on Latino and Latin American Affairs and a former political adviser to the Mexican Jewish community leadership. "But it has to be tempered by the realization that many times, those organizations do not have the full picture of the local dynamics. And the basic courtesy is to call the local Jewish community and ask what they can do to help."

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