To anyone who may doubt the appalling nature of the late Hugo Chavez's mistreatment of his nation's Jewish community, it's worth noting that communist dictators are generally a pretty vile bunch. As such, it should go without saying that when one Marxist authoritarian feels compelled to call out another one on a humanitarian flaw, decent people everywhere should take notice.
Such was the case when, in an interview with The Atlantic back in 2010, Fidel Castro drew attention to the anti-Semitism plaguing Chavez's rhetoric and policies as the leader of Venezuela. Of course, sensitive as always to Chavez's notoriously delicate ego, Castro was careful not to name Chavez directly in his criticism. Instead he focused on the notorious Holocaust denial and Jew-baiting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who had developed close ties with Chavez), declaring, "I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews" and reviewing in great detail how Jews have been persecuted for millennia and "blamed and slandered for everything."
When the question inevitably arose as to why Castro didn't simply relay these views to Ahmadinejad himself, the erstwhile Cuban president offered a characteristically cryptic answer: "I am saying this so you can communicate it." Within 24 hours, the real reason for Castro's approach to the situation became clear, as Chavez came forward with a shrill denunciation of what he ambiguously referred to as the "people" who were "saying that I am anti-Jewish and an enemy of the Jews." Being the two most prominent Latin American leftists in the world, Castro and Chavez frequently professed admiration for each other and closely followed the other one's public utterance. As such, even though Chavez was as indirect in attacking Castro as Castro had been in criticizing him, geopolitical observers agreed that the world had just witnessed a genuine butting of the heads between the two men on the issue of Jewish rights.
Castro had good reason to chide the Venezuelan leader, a point that deserves more focus as the world tries to process his legacy after his recent death. Although the first half-decade of his reign (1999-2004) was relatively free of anti-Semitic incidents, Chavez's growing closeness with Iran was soon coupled with a systematic program of vilification and social marginalization against the 35,000 Jews in his country (Venezuela's total population: 29.3 million). First there was a police raid on a Jewish school in an unsuccessful and transparently spurious attempt to prove that it was involved in an Israel-orchestrated plot to assassinate a federal prosecutor. By 2005, Chavez was decrying "the descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ" for having "taken possession of all the wealth of the world." One year later, a Jewish legislator was publicly attacked by the President of the Chamber of the State of Miranda (a member of Chavez's inner circle) with the claim that Jews had killed Jesus Christ and thus deserved to be slaughtered by Hitler. Shortly after that, the monthly newsletter for Docencia Participativa, a government-affiliated educational institute, began publishing cartoons with grotesquely stereotypical caricatures of Jews, most of them charging the world Jewish community with an agenda of global domination.
Over time, strings of anti-Semitic occurrences against Jewish institutions would repeatedly break out. A short list includes: Four separate instances of vandalism taking place against the Israelite Association of Venezuela and the Hebraica Community Center in the summer of 2006; synagogues being ransacked and vandalized (and in one case even bombed) in the early winter of 2009; members of the state police being caught painting "We don't want Jews here!" on the nation's largest synagogue in March 2009; state-controlled street corner newsstands selling copies of the debunked anti-Semitic conspiracy theory document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 2010; the Jewish ancestry of Chavez's opponent in last year's presidential election being widely cited during the campaign against him. As one Jewish journalist in Caracas summed it up at the time, although "the Venezuelan people aren't anti-Semitic," there was little doubt that the state was implementing a policy of "officially sanctioned anti-Semitism."
It is telling that, amid all this, Chavez repeatedly insisted that he was only being accused of anti-Semitism because Zionists wished to discredit his opposition to alleged Israeli human rights abuses. While it is indeed true that many Jewish groups have a habit of labeling any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic (more on that in a moment), much of what Chavez said and did was directed against Jews as a general group rather than limited to the State of Israel (including all of the examples cited in the previous two paragraphs). Not only did this render it impossible for him to convincingly assert that he was merely being an anti-Zionist, but it undermined his credibility on the numerous occasions when he used strong language to condemn Israeli policies. Whether it was because he harbored genuine animus against Jews or merely wished to cozy up to a Jew-baiting despot halfway across the globe, the end result was that his brand of anti-Semitism became inextricably linked to the arguments he made against Israel, regardless of whether the latter were actually anti-Semitic in their own right.
The irony of all this is that when anti-Semitism unrelated to Israel is linked to anti-Zionist arguments, the anti-Zionists themselves also pay a price. It's obvious enough that supporters of Israel who want to silence debate about their country are quick to cite the anti-Semitism of people like Chavez as erroneous proof that only bigots disapprove of that nation's actions. What's more, Jews who are open to hearing thoughtful criticism of Israel are quickly turned off to it due to the fear that, as has happened so often in the past, they will wind up enabling ideological forces bent on destroying them. Likewise, non-Jews who are interested in learning more about the Arab-Israeli conflict are frequently turned off to criticisms of Israel when they see them associated with bigotry. Needless to say, the growth of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism throughout the world — the Hungarian politicians who declared Jews to be a national security risk, the gunman who murdered three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in France, the advertisement in Greece that intertwines a swastika with a Jewish star — only makes matters worse.
This perhaps explains why Castro, despite being "a severe critic of Israel" who severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973 and permitted Palestinian militants to train in his country, had little difficulty skewering Israel in one breath and anti-Semitism in another. Although Castro's own record on Jewish rights is far from pristine, he was still able to distinguish between non-prejudiced political opinion and flat-out hatred of Jews. While the world may never know what motivated him to speak out against Chavez vis-a-vis Ahmadinejad, his observations speak to the exact nature of the late totalitarian's place in Jewish history — i.e., that of furthering the abuse of a legitimate point of view in the name of advancing an ancient prejudice. To paraphrase one of Marxism's earliest leaders, who wrote that "anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools," it may be said that Hugo Chavez helped illustrate the maxim that "anti-Semitism is the anti-Zionism of fools."