By Jeremy Morgan & Russ Dallen
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Reaction from around the world to the attack Friday by a group of 15 armed men who commandeered and vandalized a synagogue in Caracas at gunpoint for 4 hours -- including attacking, overpowering and tieing up the guards -- continued Wednesday with critics squarely pointing the finger at increasingly vitriolic statements by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
In the meantime, even after 5 days, eyewitnesses and video, criticism began to mount on government authorities who have not yet identified the perpetrators of the attack and 4 hour long occupation.
While the government publicly denied that investigations had yet to support claims that its supporters were involved in the attack, a source close to the investigation in the government security services confirmed to the Latin American Herald Tribune that a group of Palestinian and Arab supporters in Venezuela were responsible.
Chavez for his part, in a live interview on CNN on Monday continued a government strategy that sought to put responsibility for the attack on the Opposition in Venezuela. "Here what we have is a tremendous blackmail of some media that are owned by the bourgeoisie. What happens is that there is is a laboratory that creates these incidence of violence and then points the finger at the government."
Other officials in and out of the government had chimed in, echoing this strategy of blaming the opposition or even the victims themselves. For example, Susana Kalil, a member of the Organization for the Relief of the Palestinian People, pointed the finger at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. She claimed that Mossad had done it in order to damage the image of Chavez' revolutionary process. She went on to claim that the attack on the Jewish house of worship is typical of Mossad and the Zionist movement worldwide, "putting bombs in their own synagogues and then accusing the rest of anti-Semitism."
But the Venezuelan president, who is seeking an amendment to allow for his indefinite re-election in a referendum to be held on the 15th of February, did condemn the attacks. "The case of the synagogue is condemned," said Chavez. "We condemn it and have a team investigating all the details."
A spokesman for the Jewish community said that they were not convinced and placed the blame squarely on the president and his violent rhetoric.
In 2005, Chavez began what many onlookers believe to be a campaign against Jews by saying "The world is for all of us, then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendents of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendents of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia. A minority has taken possesion all of the wealth of the world, a minority has taken ownership of all of the gold of the planet, of the silver, of the minerals, the waters, the good lands, oil, of the wealth then and have concentrated the wealth in a few hands."
Since then he has twice raided Jewish schools and community centers -- always close to or on the eve of a visit by the Iranian President -- in a continuing campaign that analysts trace back to one of his mentors, the un-repentant anti-semite and Holocaust-denier Norberto Ceresole.
Natan Zaidman said that when the president made such statements, incidents such as the attack on the Maripérez synagogue naturally followed. Such attacks affected not only the Jewish community, but Venezuelan society as a whole, he warned – and could spread to other countries in the region, where no synagogue had been profaned since the arrival of Columbus.
Requests that the authorities would guarantee the protection of Jewish citizens had been sent to the government, but no reply had been received, Zaidman added.
Fedecámaras, Venezuela's largest business organization, added its voice to the chorus of complaint. Fedecámaras President José Manuel González called for a debate on violence in Venezuela.
González also condemned the "discourse of violence" in the country, in apparently another reference to Chávez' speeches. "Words that give incentive to things like this must disappear from daily life," he said.
Student leaders rejected the attack. "These things have never been seen in our democratic history," said Ángel Medina. People were seeing things that were the "product of threats and attempts to divide by the government," he added.
Medina lambasted the government as "indolent and of a fascist character" – much the same sort of epithet Chávez and senior officials such as Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami have used in describing leaders of student marches against the president's intended removal of constitutional limits on elected terms of office.
The attack came just one day after Chávez claimed last Thursday that it had been an "honor" for his "socialist government" that Venezuelan diplomats had been expelled by Israel.
Last week, Israel expelled the two Venezuelan diplomats - Roland Betancourt, accredited to Israel, and Jonathan Velasquez, to the Palestinian National Authority.
His remarks were reported from Belem in north Brazil, where he was attending a World Social Forum.
Once again, he accused Israel of committing "genocide" during its military offensive in the Gaza Strip. After waiting in the hopes that things would get better, Israel had finally last week declared Venezuela's highest ranking diplomat in Tel Aviv -- the commercial attaché -- as "persona non grata" after Chávez expelled Israeli Ambassador to Venezuela Schlomo Cohen on January 6.
That was in protest against Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip. This time there was talk of Caracas breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel entirely.
In 2006, Chávez lambasted Israel as being "worse than Adolf Hitler" when Venezuela withdrew its charge d'Affaires from Tel Aviv.
Chávez claimed that "we've been waiting for this to happen," referring to the expulsion of diplomats led by the commercial attaché, who had been Venezuela's highest diplomatic representative in the Israeli capital. "We'll receive them with jubilation," he declared. They were duly met with ceremony on their return.
Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro dismissed the Israeli expulsion order as "weak and late."
Maduro claimed that Israel's actions had violated the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1993 by kicking out their diplomat accredited to the Palestine National Authority. "It's a demonstration that for Israel there is no Palestinian state," he said.
In the meantime, worldwide condemnation continued to pour scorn onto Venezuela. US Congressman Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere that covers Venezuela, wrote to Chavez condemning the attack on a synagogue. The letter, which was cosigned by Subcommittee Chairman Engel, Ranking Member Connie Mack, and 14 other members, described the attack as the result of a climate of fear and intimidation inspired by the Venezuelan government.
“The time has come to speak out strongly and clearly against the climate of fear and intimidation against the Venezuelan Jewish community which President Chavez has created,” Chairman Engel said.
“We urge you in the strongest possible terms to end the bullying and harassment of the Jewish community of your country, to extend the community the robust protection it deserves in light of the threats it faces, and to tone down your harsh rhetoric against the state of Israel to a level appropriate for diplomatic dialogue,” the letter states.
“The total disrespect of a Jewish house of worship reflects the escalating climate of hostility towards Jews in Venezuela and Congressman Engel’s letter responds strongly and appropriately to the worsening situation. The American Jewish Committee stands with Congressman Engel in condemning the harassment of the Venezuelan Jewish community and looks forward to continuing to work with him to protect this community in the future,” said Tom Kahn, Chairman of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee.
The Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on Venezuela on July 17, 2008 at which Chairman Engel voiced concern about the situation of the Jewish community. On January 21, 2009, he wrote to all Presidents or Prime Ministers of countries in the Western Hemisphere to raise the issue of the harsh anti-Israel tone in Venezuela and other countries in the region.
The cosigners of the letter were Reps. Eliot L. Engel, Connie Mack, Gary Ackerman, Shelley Berkley, Dan Burton, Gerry Connolly, Joe Crowley, Gene Green, Bob Inglis, Ron Klein, Donald Manzullo, Michael McMahon, Michael McCaul, Dana Rohrabacher, David Scott, Robert Wexler.
The story does have some sort of happy ending -- or calmng midpoint, given that it is not yet over -- in that neighbors got together on Monday after Chavez declared a sudden holiday to celebrate his 10 years in power and in old fashioned barn-building community spirit, repainted over the offending graffiti.Click here to see and hear Chavez talk about the synagogue attack on CNN (translation provided).
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