Venezuela's Government-Sponsored Anti-Semitism

Recently, the following graffito appeared near a Caracas Metro station: "Be patriotic, kill a Jew." Elsewhere in the city, another reads: "Jewish pigs, another 6 million." (See photo above.)

It's not altogether unusual for public indignation toward current Israeli policies to spillover into aggression against domestic Jewish populations, as we have recently seen in Europe. Yet what makes Venezuela different is the distinct role that the government takes in promoting such hostility, and the way the Middle Eastern conflict has been deeply woven into political fabric of the predominantly Catholic, South American nation.  

Recently, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro organized a rally labeled the "March Against Israeli Genocide." There, the Venezuelan president called upon "the Jews that live in our lands" to "stop the massacre, and the murder of those innocent boys and girls."

It's a tall order. In the words of one community member: "When the president himself calls out Venezuelan Jews to rein in the 'Zionist' government and stop the Gazan genocide -- as if we could even do that -- you think to yourself, 'How is it that the country I grew up in feels the need to single me out? When did the open society I used to live in turn into this?'"

Venezuela's Jewish history is in some ways quite unique. The oldest Jewish community in the Americas is a Sephardic congregation on nearby Curaçao that dates back to 1651, and which has maintained crucial trading networks with Venezuela since it was founded. For generations, an offshoot of this community even prospered on the mainland Venezuelan town of Coro until it was destroyed in a rare New World pogrom in 1855. The survivors were evacuated by Dutch warships back to the Antilles, but even today, many of Venezuela's most common last names have roots within the Curaçaoan Sephardic community, including that of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, and even Nicolás Maduro himself (although neither are themselves Jewish).

The current Jewish community is primarily orthodox, and comprised of only 10,000-15,000 individuals (down from more than twice that fifteen years ago). Most are the children or grandchildren of immigrants: At various times during the 20th century, Venezuelan governments actively cultivated immigration from Europe, and European Jews quickly integrated into general society, and, culturally, anti-Semitism was never much of a problem. Among these newcomers was my grandfather, Iván Lansberg Henríquez, a Dutch Jew, with Curaçaoan roots, who fled the Wehrmacht across the Atlantic in 1939, and eventually made an excellent life for himself in Caracas -- becoming an avid optimist about his adopted homeland in the process, up until his death in 2006. But 2006 was the year that the Venezuelan government first unveiled "anti-Zionism" as a major part of its public platform.

As the relationship between Venezuela and the United States continued to sour following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, and a failed coup against him in 2002, Venezuela sought to replace its conventional allies with more likeminded states opposed to U.S. influence -- among them, fellow OPEC nations like Libya and Iran. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, the government -- acting in solidarity with its friends -- aggressively denounced the actions of the Jewish state. Chávez publically deemed the conflict with Lebanon a "New Holocaust" against the Palestinians and Lebanese, and government billboards sprang up around Caracas showing Israeli soldiers brutalizing children and Chávez and Ahmadinejad holding hands to denounce Israeli imperialism. "We were caught off guard by the vehemence," one community elder confided in me.

Ever since, whenever Israel has come into conflict with a neighbor, the Venezuelan government's media apparatus kicked into gear: Foreign Minister Elias Jaua recently traveled to Egypt where he took photos with wounded Palestinian children whom he claimed were actually Hugo Chávez fans. President Maduro himself recently said on national television: "Israel doesn't kill in error. It kills with horror." (Later, he proclaimed: "[Israel] carefully calculates its attacks, and has by now destroyed over 50 synagogues!" The mix-up was just one of those gaffes for which Maduro is fast becoming famous, although both ignorance and poor verbiage exacerbate the problem.)

In Venezuela's pro-government rhetoric, both regime officials and state media often group together loaded terms that, in effect, become synonymous: "Imperialists," "International Elites," "Ultra-rightists," "Fascists," and "Zionists" can be used interchangeably, or paired together, to denote any enemy that criticizes or meddles in Venezuelan government affairs. The indistinctness of these terms can make them difficult to keep straight in practice. When an anchor on Venezuelan state television recently derided former Venezuelan Trade Minister (and former Foreign Policy editor) Moisés Naím for signing a letter condemning certain Venezuelan regime practices, he dismissed Naím's perspective as that of "a believing Jew." He probably meant to say "Zionist," but no retraction or clarification was forthcoming.

At present, most Venezuelan Jews do not face open discrimination from their neighbors. Even so, a sense of dread and isolation is pervasive among much of the community, and some worry that, with diplomatic relations severed between the government and Israel, there may be nobody to protect them in a pinch. While researching this story, absolutely nobody I spoke with who still resides in Venezuela was willing to let me use their names. "Despite the rhetoric, we maintain workable relations with certain individuals within the government," one community leader explained, "and we cannot risk losing that." He's right. At present, Venezuelan national guardsmen posted outside Caracas synagogues and Hebrew schools provide some protection against the physical dangers posed by unruly groups that might take the political rhetoric to heart -- and this defense is something that could just as easily be taken away.

Recent attacks on protesters and students during the prolonged period of nationwide urban unrest earlier this year loom large. The pro-government militias known as "colectivos" targeted Venezuelan enemies of the state far more aggressively than did the state authorities themselves.  "Under Chávez, you at least felt that he could control his crazies," one community member told me; under Maduro, they felt that all bets were off.

Then again, Chávez couldn't always control them either. In 2009, fifteen armed men broke into a Caracas synagogue and desecrated it with swastikas, scrawling threats on the walls. During the raid, the men also stole computers and other records containing a veritable who's who of local Jewish families and Jewish descendants, including home addresses. The loss of this private information, and its potential for resurfacing, remains a major cause of concern among the community. 

And yet one person I spoke with, saw the community's faith as their best shield: "We are survivors, and we will also survive this." Referencing a passage in Genesis, the community member continued: "Long ago, God promised Abraham that he would bless those that bless us, and curse those that curse us. Remember that Chávez cursed us and we're still here."  Indeed, in May 2010, during the tense aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla Raid, Chávez did damn the state of Israel on national television, bellowing: "Damn you state of Israel. Terrorists! Murderers! I Curse you!" For the moment, though, Venezuela's Jewish community perseveres.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches Latin American Business at the Kellogg School of Management and is a columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional.

Photo: Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela

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The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at

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