30 July 2009

Fanning the Embers of Anti-Semitism in Venezuela

President Hugo Chávez is not responsible for the embers of anti-Semitism in Venezuelan society. He is, however, responsible for fanning them. Whatever allowances are made for past political leaders and their association with anti-Semitism, none should be made for President Chávez in our post-Holocaust world. Some conduct is so odious that its doer must be denied credit for all else he might do that would otherwise be accounted worthwhile. President Chávez’s use of anti-Semitism is so odious.

So that there is no mistaking my meaning, I do not automatically equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Certainly, some criticisms of Israel are mere variations on the larger anti-Semitic theme. But not all are. I also accept that there are grey areas open to disagreement among reasonable people. But not everything labeled “anti-Semitism” is a shade of grey. Nor do the innocent linger in the shade.

Reading President Chávez’s self-appointed apologists is a wearying task, increasingly so in the past several weeks. In a recent article in the Boston Review, “United by Hate: The Uses of Anti-Semitism in Chávez’s Venezuela,” Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez provided a brief but rigorous critique – “from,” as they say, “the left” - of President Chavez’s political uses of anti-Semitism. The ensuing online discussion split evenly between those who found the article illuminating or at least confirmatory of their own views and those who saw it as, say, “a horrendous slur on Chavez and Venezuela in general” or, more darkly, a piece of “liberal imperialism”. Much of the criticism consisted of ad hominem abuse, non-sequiturs, irrelevancies/misdirection and other offences against principles of respectful/reasoned engagement.

Somewhat surprisingly, then, rather than dismiss their critics by ignoring them, Professors Lomnitz and Sánchez penned a patient and methodical response (“A Necessary Critique”). They prefaced their detailed point-by-point response with the following general observation regarding the implications of their critics’ approach to their article:

Our most vehement critics discard our argument, accusing us of distorting the facts, and, in some cases, even of outright lying. They bridle at our decision to retrieve the political logic of Chavismo, and they try (unsuccessfully in every case) to argue away this or that piece of evidence, in the hope of discrediting the overall argument. Seemingly, for these critics, the usual standards and procedures of social analysis need to be suspended in the name of “the people,” the “revolution,” or, most poignantly, the “hero.” None of our critics engages our basic argument: that anti-Semitism and homophobia sporadically but consistently emerge as symptoms and instruments of a bigger project, namely, to render any opponent of Hugo Chávez vulnerable to the accusation of being a pawn of devious international interests. By ignoring this logic, our critics leave the door open for Chávez and Chavista spokespersons to make as many slanderous or injurious utterances as they wish, without compromising the purity of the regime [emphasis added].

To their critics’ charge that they are deliberately misinterpreting his rhetoric and associated actions as anti-Semitic, to their claim that the Venezuelan President’s intended target is the oligarchy, Lomnitz and Sánchez invoke the basic principle that language is social. Despite his apologists’ efforts to persuade the world that President Chávez means something other than anti-Semitism, they no more than he control what his words mean in fact. Pointedly, then, Lomnitz and Sánchez placed at the head of their reply this famous passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone [to Alice], ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Thus, Professors Lomnitz and Sánchez concluded their reply:

Apparently our critics find no anti-Semitic connotations when Chavez mentions Jews, Christ killers, the abject Venezuelan oligarchy, and the riches of the world in the same breath, or when he blames the Jewish State of Israel for perpetrating atrocities against “half the world.” Nor are they bothered when the Chavista TV anchor par excellence, Mario Silva, claims that the Venezuelan student movement is financed by Jewish businessmen. To us, all of this smacks more of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion than of a progressive critique of Israeli policies.

In a Humpty Dumpty world, when Christ killers and Jews are mentioned in the same breath, the referent is merely the oligarchy; in any other world, expressions have histories, and denotation cannot shake off ideological connotation. Not even Commander Hugo Chávez can make words mean only what he opportunistically wants them to mean.

Let me return, then, to my initial assertion that President Chávez’s use of anti-Semitism is conduct so odious that he must denied credit for all else he might do that would otherwise be accounted worthwhile. Among the things for which he has been praised in Canada and elsewhere are his efforts to build a new relationship with the indigenous peoples of Venezuela. While a new relationship between the state and indigenous peoples based on their human rights in international law is long overdue in Venezuela as it is elsewhere in the Americas, including Canada, President Chávez’s use of anti-Semitism – internationally as well as domestically - disentitles him to praise on that or any other score. Those of us living in the shadow of the Shoah, indigenous and non-indigenous, should bristle at the thought of permitting ourselves to admire and, doing so, praise President Chávez for his efforts to deal justly with indigenous peoples despite his use of anti-Semitism.

History does teach. Ethically and therefore practically speaking, we cannot afford to wave off his or any other political leader’s flirtations with anti-Semitism for the sake of some worthwhile goal. The world should, one would like to hope, be growing tired of promises of “higher” and “greater” goods built on the hatred and destruction of others.

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