Castro, Chavez and the Jews: two weeks in September

A redemptive chapter in the careers of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez passed without public notoriety.  In September 2010, Atlantic magazine published an article by American foreign policy writer Jeffrey Goldberg about the growing possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli airstrike on Iran, followed by a catastrophic nuclear war between Iran and Israel, with the U.S. caught in the middle.  A few days after it was published, Fidel Castro, having read the article, invited Goldberg to Havana.  He wanted to talk.  Goldberg was intrigued, wondering whether Castro’s experience, caught as he was in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, had informed his views.  Goldberg’s hunch was correct.  When Goldberg returned to the US, he wrote a second piece in Atlantic recounting his remarkable conversation with Castro. Castro invited Goldberg to Havana to ask him for a favor: to deliver a public message in writing to Prime Minister Ahmadinejad.  While Castro had been a critic of Israel’s nuclear ambitions in the past, this time his message to Ahmadinejad was simple and clear: “stop slandering the Jews”.  He repeatedly returned to this during their conversation, telling Goldberg that anti-Semitism was an unacceptable evil, stating, “the Iranian government should understand the consequences of theological anti-Semitism.” Castro said, “The Jews have lived an existence for 2000 years that is much harder than ours.  There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust”.  He noted that historically, no one blamed Moslems for anything, yet he recalled being taught as a child in Cuba that the Jews killed God, asking Goldberg incredulously, “do you realize this?”  For the piece, see the below link: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/castro-no-one-has-been-slandered-more-than-the-jews/62566/ Latin American policy expert Julia Sweig, who was also present in Havana, talks about the meeting at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129858475   Castro apparently had reflected on his experience in the most terrifying crucible of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, that rational leaders are capable of irrational actions.

A few days after the interview was published, President Hugo Chavez abruptly announced, after years of his own threatening rhetoric aimed at Venezuelan Jews, that he would meet with Venezuelan Jewish leaders.  They had long requested a meeting  to talk about acts of citizen vandalism against Jewish institutions and frank anti-Semitic statements by Venezuelan officials.  Chavez said, “It will be a good meeting.  We love and respect the Jews”. Goldberg later said that, according to his sources, Chavez’s new rhetoric and willingness to meet with Jewish leaders was “a direct result of Fidel’s statement (to Goldberg).” The meeting between Chavez and Jewish leaders took place just a week later. Chavez later said on his Twitter account that it was “extraordinary”, and that he and Jewish leaders closed the meeting “embracing and praying for peace.”

I wish I could say the story ended there, but it doesn’t. In June 2012, Venezuela’s Jewish community published a report on continuing anti-semitism in Venezuela which describes “systematic and sustained prejudice”.   The report reviews a frightening series of events: vandalism, defacement of synogogues, demonstrations outside Jewish schools and cultural centers, insults directed at individuals on the streets of Caracas, anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli slogans, and slander against rabbis and other leaders.  There is more – the report tallies the rising number of 2011 attacks in public media, government controlled radio, television, academic conferences, and the web.  It ranges from a State run university posting direct threats against Jewish schools, to menacing memos from government officials (totaling 1,541).  This report was reviewed in “El Nacional” by reporter Milagros Soccoro in mid-2012, shortly after it was released. President Chavez, in a speech during his fall 2012 re-election campaign, said of his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, “my mission is to take off your mask, because underneath, you have the tail of a pig, the ears of a pig, you snort like a pig, you are a pig.”  Journalists covering the campaign said this was an allusion to Capriles’ Jewish origins, and the historical label placed on Jews in Spain marranos (pigs).  Was that what he meant? In 2011, HDNet cable TV news channel did a 30 minute reportage called “Chavez’s War Against the Jews”, which dramatizes the charged atmosphere inside Venezuela’s eroding Jewish community.  It is at the below link:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nora-zimmett/chavez-war-against-the-je_b_560450.html

Chavez it appears, may have gone to his grave without learning the lesson his aging mentor, doing what he could to right an historical wrong, tried to teach.

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