Is antisemitism big in Venezuela?

Letter From Venezuela


At first, I tried convincing myself that the episodes were coincidences.

Days after arriving for a month-long stay in Caracas, Venezuela, I spotted a stylish young woman in a snug, red cotton T-shirt emblazoned with… a swastika. Underneath the image was a moustached "Hello, Kitty" figure and the words "Hello, Hitler".

A week later, at a government-owned, downtown bookstore, I spotted a Spanish-language copy of the notorious literary hoax Protocols of the Elders of Zion next to the cash register.

It turned out the dog-eared Los Protocolos de los Sabios de Sion belonged to the bookstore clerk, a bearded, bespectacled, 40-something guy in a baseball cap. When my Venezuelan partner asked him about it, the clerk insisted the book was his personal copy, and not for sale. Just to see the reaction, my partner - a lapsed Catholic - told the salesman that we were Jewish.

In scarily measured tones, the clerk shared his thoughts on the Holocaust (six million is an exaggeration; one million is closer to the truth), media (Jews control it), Hollywood (we control that too), and Israel (he was fervently anti-Zionist, but that didn't make him an antisemite). As we backed away towards the door, the cashier continued ranting about the need for "truth through dialogue", an offer we politely declined.

The Shoah is exaggerated, said the man selling Protocols

That same week, in the museum-dense Bellas Artes neighbourhood, I spotted a familiar face caricatured on the blood-red cover of a paperback among bestsellers for sale on a street vendor's blanket. It was "Adolfo" Hitler, and the book was Mi Lucha, the Spanish-language version of Mein Kampf. The book lay next to John Green's young-adult top-seller The Fault In Our Stars and Adultery by the hugely successful Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho.

I wondered if the bookseller was clueless about the book's dark historical significance, or whether Mein Kampf had become so popular that the vendor thought it actually belonged next to those mainstream hits.

In the same neighbourhood, days later, I had a fourth encounter that made me just as uncomfortable. A giant, keffiyeh-clad head stared at me from a vibrant mural outside a metro station. The smiling visage of Hugo Chavez - Venezuela's late "eternal commander" - had been placed at the opposite end. The background was the Palestinian flag. And the tagline was "Viva Palestina Libre".

Nothing about a simply pro-Palestinian mural, of course, makes it inherently antisemitic. But in the context of everything else I'd encountered, it gave me chills.

Does everything I saw add up to a virulent new strain of antisemitism in Caracas, the capital of a country where anti-Jewish rhetoric fuelled the 2013 presidential election?

I'm not so sure. On my previous visits to Caracas, I've never encountered overt antisemitism. Rather, Venezuelans seem to regard Jews as alien, despite a long-standing Jewish presence in the country. For some Caraquenos - especially those less travelled - I was the first Jew they'd met. Instead of a focused antipathy, I'd say a mythology has sprung up around us.

A comment I got from Joel Hernandez, founder of "Hello, Hitler" T-shirt maker Fuera de la Caja, seemed to encapsulate the general attitude.

"There are many reactions from people who criticise us very strongly and even insult us. People who comprehend the mix of good and bad with both characters and people who definitely don't understand the message and just see a kitty. The interpretation of the design depends on the cultural and educational level of the spectator."

In other words, some people in Venezuela might not even recognise a swastika, or Hitler, as antisemitic symbols. They're the ones we really need to worry about, because they're the ones most easily manipulated once a ruler decides to make antisemitism overt and official. We've seen it happen elsewhere; I am hoping it doesn't happen here.

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