It began with a bulletin from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (1/4/06) accusing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of invoking an old anti-Semitic slur. In a Christmas Eve speech, the Center said, Chavez declared that "the world has wealth for all, but some minorities, the descendants of the same people that crucified Christ, have taken over all the wealth of the world."
The Voice of America (1/5/06) covered the charge immediately. Then opinion journals on the right took up the issue. "On Christmas Eve, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez's Christian-socialist cant drifted into anti-Semitism," wrote the Daily Standard (1/12/06), the Weekly Standard's Web-only edition. The American Spectator (1/6/06) was so excited about the quote, which it called "the standard populist hatemongering of Latin America's new left leaders," that it presented it as coming from two different speeches:
Then more mainstream outlets began to pick up the story. "Chavez lambasted Jews (in a televised Christmas Eve speech, no less) as 'descendants of those who crucified Christ' and 'a minority [who] took the world's riches for themselves,'" the New York Daily News' Lloyd Grove reported (1/13/06). A column in the Los Angeles Times (1/14/06) used the quote to label Chavez "a jerk and a friend of tyranny." The Wall Street Journal's "Americas" columnist, Mary Anastasia O'Grady (1/16/06), called Chavez’s words "an ugly anti-Semitic swipe.”
One can see why the words attributed to Chavez provoked outrage. After all, descriptions of the Jews as a wealthy minority that "crucified Christ" have been an anti-Semitic stock in trade for centuries. But the criticisms of Chavez almost uniformly used selective, even deceptive editing to remove material that put his words in a different context.
Here's a translation of the full passage from Chavez's speech (VoltaireNet, 1/18/06):
The biggest problem with depicting Chavez's speech as an anti-Semitic attack is that Chavez clearly suggested that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ" are the same people as "the descendants of those who expelled Bolivar from here." As American Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who questioned the charge, told the Associated Press (1/5/06), "I know of no one who accuses the Jews of fighting against Bolivar." Bolivar, in fact, fought against the government of King Ferdinand VII of Spain, who reinstituted the anti-Semitic Spanish Inquisition when he took power in 1813. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, a Jewish sympathizer in Curacao provided refuge to Bolivar and his family when he fled from Venezuela.
Most of the accounts attacking Chavez (the Daily Standard was an exception) left the reference to Bolivar out entirely; the Wiesenthal Center deleted that clause from the speech without even offering an ellipsis, which is tantamount to fabrication.
As Waskow further pointed out, in the Gospel accounts, "it was the Roman Empire, and Roman soldiers, who crucified Jesus." While it's true that anti-Semites often accuse Jews of killing Jesus, it's not fair to assert that anyone who refers to the crucifixion of Jesus is attacking the Jewish people.
That Chavez's comments were part of some anti-Semitic campaign is directly contradicted by a letter sent by the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela to the Wiesenthal Center (AP, 1/14/06). "We believe the president was not talking about Jews," the letter stated, complaining that "you have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don't know or understand." The American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress agreed with the Venezuelan group's view that Chavez was not referring to Jews in his speech (Inter Press Service, 1/13/06).
In context, the Chavez speech seems to be an attempt by Chavez to link the attacks on his populist government to the attacks on his two oft-cited heroes, Jesus and Bolivar; the "minority" that would link the two would be the rich and powerful minority of society. The reference to "less than 10 percent of the world population" owning half the wealth also makes the idea that Chavez was talking about Jews far-fetched; 10 percent of 6 billion would be 600 million people. (According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, there are approximately 15 million Jewish people in the world.)
Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service (1/13/06) pointed out the irony of conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Standard, edited by William Kristol, promoting dubious accusations of anti-Semitism in Latin America:
Lobe pointed out the difference between Chavez's Venezuela and Argentina under military dictatorship: "Unlike Venezuela today, Argentina was then seen by the incoming Ronald Reagan administration (1981-1989) and its neo-conservative backers as a vital Cold-War ally." Surely anti-Semitism is a problem that deserves to be treated seriously, and not used as a pretense to bash official enemies.
Note: Some readers pointed out that before the Weisenthal Center, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency led the attack on Chavez's speech (12/30/05).