Don’t mourn Hugo the wicked

Two years ago I caused a certain amount of controversy with my reaction to the death of a Palestinian activist. I was told it was not the done thing for a Jew to express pleasure at the death of another human. Well, we have just celebrated Purim, on which we are expected to make merry at the deaths of hundreds of Jew-baiters in ancient Persia. We shall shortly celebrate Pesach, on which we are enjoined to rejoice at the deaths of Egyptian soldiers pursuing the fleeing Israelites. It is true that the Almighty berated those angels who wanted to celebrate, in song, their drowning. But this was because they - the angels - had not suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. He did not berate the Israelites, who were understandably overjoyed at their deliverance. May I also point out that according to rabbinic tradition the Judean king Hezekiah was reproached for refusing to celebrate the deaths of thousands of Assyrian soldiers who were intent on destroying Jerusalem (circa 701 BCE)?

With that point settled, I invite you to join me in welcoming news of the death of Venezuelan president and Jew-hater Hugo Chavez.

On the "progressive" blog site Left Foo Forward, the Labour MP Grahame Morris (chair of the Labour Friends of Venezuela and my MP) wrote of Chavez as a true democrat whose economic policies had transformed the country and "dramatically" improved "the lives of the overwhelming majority".

The facts of the matter are that Chavez enthusiastically presided over a corrupt, repressive military dictatorship: in violation of Venezuela's constitution, the country is virtually run by army generals. He ruthlessly trampled on freedom of expression, suppressed those sections of the trade-union movement that declined to offer him uncritical support, and led his oil-rich country to the brink of economic disaster, with inflation currently around 22 per cent. But on this, and on Chavez's friendship with the Jew-hating head of the Iranian state, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Morris was strangely silent.

The truth also is that Chavez built his populist power-base, in part, on the foundations of an explicit anti-Jewish (not merely anti-Israeli) discourse. He likened Jews to pigs. He claimed Jews controlled the largest businesses in Venezuela and were intent on stealing its national wealth. In one Christmas speech he declared that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ control the world's wealth." Jews and Jewish buildings suffered from a campaign of public vilification and physical harassment carried out by the police and the army at the behest of Chavez and his government. In one attack, on a Caracas synagogue in 2009, police officers were numbered among those who took part, in which religious artefacts were desecrated and antisemitic slogans were daubed on the walls. Little wonder that since Chavez came to power much of Venezuela's Jewish population has fled.

I can well understand that to the poor and dispossessed, brought up on a diet of unadulterated antisemitism served up by the Catholic church all this was (if you will forgive the metaphor) manna from heaven. But it was manna garnished with a visceral rhetoric aimed at the Jewish state. Having broken off diplomatic relations with Israel following Operation Cast Lead, Chavez increasingly identified himself and his regime with the anti-Zionist racism of Iran. He castigated Israel as a "genocidal state". He claimed there was an Israeli plot to kill him, that Israel was financing the Venezuelan opposition. In 2011 he excoriated Israel for having (in his view) caused the deaths of nine Turkish nationals in the Mavi Marmara incident. In a televised diatribe, Chavez referred to these nine Islamist terrorists as "pacifists," and claimed that their humanitarian mission was to provide Gazans with the necessities that Israel was depriving them, including water. "Damn you, State of Israel!" was his broadcast response.

I am glad that Chavez is dead. I rejoice at his passing. And as for Jack Terpins, head of the Latin America section of the World Jewish Congress, who conveyed his condolences to the Chavez family on learning (no doubt with great sadness) of the passing of Hugo, I can only wish him (Terpins, that is) a Refuah Shlema. Get well soon!

    Last updated: 11:45am, March 19 2013