“I can’t conceive of a single Jew in this country who would support Israel’s repressive policies,” Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez announced in Caracas in early June in an incendiary speech about the Turkish “Free Gaza” flotilla incident. As he had done numerous times before, Chávez once again used anti-Israel rhetoric to distract attention from the internal problems affecting his country: incessant poverty in spite of Venezuela’s rich oil reservoir, rampant urban violence, and a fractured electorate in which the concept of civil, peaceful dialogue is quickly evaporating.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the Hispanic world. At its heart is Chávez’s anti-Zionism, which, of course, isn’t new. Nor is the Venezuelan president’s ire directly only at the Israeli state. His anti-Zionism is just one manifestation of his anti-Semitism. Famously, in a Christmas 2005 declaration, Chávez announced that “The world has enough for everybody, but some minorities, the descendants of the same people that crucified Christ, and of those that expelled Bolívar from here and in their own way crucified him… have taken control of the riches of the world.” Like his ally Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran, Chávez portrays Israel as a genocidal state that survives only because a cabal of wealthy Jews in the United States, through the media, controls the world’s public opinion.
Before Chávez came to power, Venezuela had a Jewish community of approximately 20,000, mostly in Caracas, but that number has dwindled dramatically as a result of Chávez’ rhetoric. Under Chávez’ watch, anti-Semitic incidents against the Venezuelan Jewish community of Caracas have increased. One of the most serious of these was an armed raid in 2004 by security forces against the [Hebráica, the Jewish social, athletic, and educational center] (http://www.tau.ac.il/Anti-Semitism/asw2004/venezuela.htm). In January 30, 2009, a break-in at the Tiferet Israel synagogue in Caracas was tied to Chávez’ political supporters, forcing Chávez to defend himself publicly against accusations of anti-Semitism.
To understand the roots of Chávez’ animosity toward both Israel and the Jewish people, it is essential to follow the path of one of his close allies and confidants, Norberto Rafael Ceresole. Creosole’s potent mix of nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism has provided the Venezuelan president with a convenient way to unite the disenfranchised poor under a common enemy.
Who is Norberto Ceresole?
Norberto Rafael Creosole was a nationalist ideologue and a warmonger—he described himself as “a sociologist and political scientist who vindicated the capacity to make war, based on a positive relationship between the military and society–that spent his life zigzagging through important right- and left-wing groups in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and Spain. Born in Buenos Aires in 1943, he died there from heart failure in 2003.
Ceresole is best known outside South America as a Holocaust denier. While his anti-Semitism was clear-cut, his political loyalties aren’t always easy to sort out, nor is the timeline of his career: he embraced the far right and the far left, identifying, for example, with anti-Soviet causes, but also spending time in Moscow, where he taught and became a member of the Academy of Science.
Ceresole opposed the terminology that came from Marxism, Communism, and even the postcolonial theories of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said as ineffective in describing the contradictions at the heart of the Spanish-speaking world, embracing a racialist and religion-filled approach that established a tension between oppressors and oppressed based on ethnic background and theological belief.
Rather than a Cold-War ideologue supporting, depending on the occasion, the extreme left and the ultra-right, Ceresole may best be defined as a populist inspired by Juan Domingo Perón, Ceresole’s all-time hero (he spent time with the deposed Perón in Madrid). One of his central thesis, if one is to be distilled from his almost three dozen books, is that the only redeeming institution in Latin America capable of bringing the region out of its “somnambulist status” is the army.
Ceresole went so far as to say, in his book Subversión, contrasubversión y disolución del poder: Guerra y sociedad en la argentina contemporánea (Subversion, Counter-Subversion, and the Dissolution of Power: War and Society in Contemporary Argentina), that in the proper setting, war is a positive nation-building effort that might be orchestrated by a country’s leaders to bring clarity to the collective self.
Ceresole saw Latin America as a landscape of missed opportunities. He believed that elites, whose tentacles are the pseudo-democratic political parties, falsify the region’s history, trapping people in a blissful state of forgetfulness. In his work, utopian philosophies like Marxism are suspect both because they are foreign and because they simply substitute a set of lies for another. What Latin America needs in order to awake from its slumber, Ceresole believed, is charismatic military personalities in touch with authentic nationalist feelings. During his long career, Ceresole worked tirelessly to shore up the military and to install charismatic military leaders in three different countries: his native Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela.
Power, not Principle
Ceresole supported strong men no matter what their ideology. He began his career on the left, in Argentina, as a Peronista. Peronism was associated with both a left-wing populism and with right-wing fascist groups, including an offshoot of the Tacuara Nationalist Movement. Ceresole had been educated in Europe in the mid-Sixties.
In 1969, Ceresole became an adviser to Juan Velasco Alvarado, Peru’s left-leaning military dictator whose mandate involved nationalizing large portions of the nation’s economy, coordinate programs of bilingual education to empower the Quechua-speaking aboriginal population, and opposing the United States as an invading presence in local affairs. During this time, Ceresole became close to the Soviets, negotiating the acquisition of weapons by Peru from the Russians. His interest in war as a method of popular coalescence brought him to the USSR, where he joined the academic environment, teaching subjects such as war in the modern world. Several of his books were translated into Russian.
After Perón died, in 1974, Ceresole joined an offshoot of the Trotsky-inspired guerrilla group Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, the People’s Revolutionary Army, from which the Montoneros, an urban guerrilla evolved. At that time, Ceresole made contacts with the Cuban government, although he was already developing an acute anti-Communist allergy. When sentiment in Argentina began to turn strongly against Peronism, Ceresole left for Spain. It was in Spain that he became close to neo-Nazi groups.
Ceresole was also involved with the Carapintadas, a group of displeased army mutineers led by the ultra-right wing Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico. He met Hugo Chávez in Buenos Aires in 1994, ostensibly through a mutual liaison with the Carapintadas. Years later, Ceresole described their initial encounter as enlightening: “When I met Chávez,” he declared, “I felt a revelation, that is, I saw a character that somehow I had imagined… I had imagined [him] as a possibility. I had a negative experience with some Argentine military and when I saw Chávez it was, frankly, like a blow of fresh air. I immediately understood his lefty-wing line, which I didn’t like, and therein emerged the fraternal struggle between Chávez and Ceresole.”
Ceresole went with Chávez to Venezuela. In June of 1995, Ceresole was expelled from Venezuela by the DISIP, Venezuela’s secret police, on the grounds that he had been an instigator in Chávez’s 1992 failed coup against Carlos Andrés Pérez. By 1998, Ceresole was back in Venezuela, as one of Chávez’ key advisors. He was asked in 1999 by Venezuelan vice-president Luis Miquilena to leave the country. Though Ceresole did leave Venezuela, he remained close to Chávez until his death.
Ceresole was often asked in public if he was an anti-Semite, a fact only occasionally he bothered to deny. His idol, Perón, had harbored Nazi refugees in Argentina, which, for Ceresole, is a country that, in geopolitical parlance, “sits in the periphery of Western Civilization.” By his own account in his book La falsificación de la realidad: La Argentina en el espacio geopolítico del terrorismo judío (The Falsification of Reality: Argentina in the Geopolitical Space of Jewish Terrorism, 1998), his anti-Semitic stance found its grounding in Buenos Aires in 1992, with the attack to the Israeli Embassy, and, more prominently, in 1994, when the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina [AMIA], the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, was the target of a terrorist bombing that left dozens of people dead and many more wounded.
The far-reaching effects of that second incident on international politics have never been fully appreciated. It was the first time the Americas were used as an extended stage in the Middle Eastern conflict. While anti-Jewish sentiment has always been a feature in Argentine culture (in 1919, a labor dispute, which some historians describe as a full-fledge pogrom targeting recently-arrived Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, took place in the nation’s capital and came to be known as the Semana Trágica), the reach of the AMIA destruction exceeded anything before.
The event took place under the watch of President Carlos Saúl Menen, an Argentine of Lebanese descent. While government forces made every effort to complicate the search for culprits, the local and international media immediately exposed visible links by the perpetrators to Iran. Ceresole became incensed by the connection. Judging that media reports were building a conspiracy, he began to maintain that a Jewish conclave was behind such suspicions and, pushing further, that the attacks were organized by Jewish groups.
After Argentina, under pressure, considered breaking diplomatic relations with Iran, he published in the periodical Amanecer, May 29, 1998, an “Open Letter to My Iranian Friends,” where he quarreled with the view that Iranian intelligence was behind the attack, suggested that the breaking of Argentine-Iranian relations was desired by the Jewish lobby in the United States, and claimed that “the fight against the Jewish state should not be limited geographically to the Middle East.” Ceresole argued that the Jewish lobby in the United States was in command of el poder norteamericano, a North American power force that controlled the entire world. He also stated that Zionism had undergone a metamorphosis “so radical in the last few years that today it is practically something else: a nationalist-religious messianism. The classic dichotomy between religious Judaism and secular Zionism is an equation that longs to the past.”
Embracing a radical Arab cause, he pointed at the Israeli secret services as the culprits of the AMIA attacks. For Ceresole the “Jewish problem” today, not only in Argentina in particular but in the world at large, corresponded, as he argues in La falsificación de la realidad, “with an internal crisis of the State of Israel.” Argentine Jews, among whom he had nurtured strong relationships, became in his imagination a menacing agent. “I suddenly discovered them not as I had known them until then,” he wrote, “that is, as individuals distinct from one another, but rather as elements for whom individuation is impossible, a group united by hatred, and, to use a term that they like, by ire.” He stated that he received death threats from “the internal Jewish-fundamentalist connection” and, as a result, was prompted by his lawyer to leave Argentina.
In quick succession, Ceresole transformed himself into a spokesperson for anti-Jewish causes. His attention wasn’t focused in the Middle Eastern conflict per se, although the topic certainly concerned him, as much as it was on the Jewish influence on the world at large. Ceresole published a series of volumes where he described the Holocaust as a myth and painted Israel as a threat. As he started to organize these books, their content overlapped: some were short essays, others longer meditations. The first was Terrorismo fundamentalista judío (Jewish Fundamentalist Terrorism, 1996); the second was El Nacional-Judaísmo (National-Judaism, 1997); and, by far the most elaborate, a sum of parts that encompasses everything prior to it, the third installment becameLa falsificación de la realidad. He wrote other material on what he termed “Jewish perversion,” including one on Spain and the Jews, but these three became his carta de identidad.
Their line of argument is labyrinthine. He often contradicts his own abhorrent views, or else he cannibalizes his own previous oeuvre. Overall, Ceresole argues that Judaism purports to be a tolerant religion, but at its core it eliminates any possibility of dialogue. (By the way, he is quite critical of Edward Said, for instance, whom he describes as “committing a grave mistake” when considering that Palestinians might find in Jews a partner for dialogue.) The AMIA attack is presented as a byproduct of fundamentalist Jewish forces that infiltrated Israel’s Shin Bet. As a result, he attempts to persuade readers that the actual 1994 tragedy was un autoatentado, a self-inflicted wound made by the Argentine Jewish community, especially the ultra-right within that community, with the help of Israeli intelligence in order to showcase the fury of “the so-called enemies” of the Jewish people. Ceresole goes into detail analyzing the car bomb and the way Israeli intelligence planted evidence in order for Iran to be accused of plotting the explosion. Intriguingly, he meditates on the question of what happens when Jews kill Jews, using as an example the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin just a year later. His interest is when rabbinical response determines such Jew vs. Jew behavior is acceptable.
Clearly, the AMIA incident is the ignition in Ceresole’s machination of hatred. The sediment of that hatred is buried in mud. He reasons that while Argentina is traditionally seen as a European country—e.g., Caucasian—the white population is, in essence, a minority. He then claims that the Jews, using the Bible, colonized Argentina in such fashion that other ethnic groups, demographically larger, were marginalized. A similar strategy took place in the colonization of the United States and Israel, enabling Jews and their allies to usurp a white minority. Other races, including other Jewish racial populations originating in Spain, were thus pushed aside. The outcome of this Jewish supremacy is the kidnapping of world history and the creation of the Holocaust narrative, what he calls “the Myth,” with Elie Wiesel as its foundational father.
Ceresole defined the Holocaust as “a destabilizing creation” and the Achilles’ tendon between Western Civilization and the state of Israel. He calls it “the greatest lie ever told by humans since the Old Testament.” He praises the German scholar Ernst Nolte, a controversial scholar of Hitler’s rise, but subscribes mainly to the ideas of three prominent French Holocaust deniers, whom Ceresole depicted as pals: Roger Garaudy (who wrote the prologue to El National-Judaism), Paul Rassinnier, and Robert Faurisson (an appendix to La falsificación de la realidad features Spanish translations of a couple of Faurisson’s revisionist essays on Auschwitz).
Ceresole and Chávez
The impression that Ceresole’s ideas had on Hugo Chávez is evident in the way the Venezuelan leader has turned them into content in his public speeches. Chávez embraced Ceresole’s vision of the army as an agent of populist change, although, as a means to perpetuate his legacy, he rejected the idea of eliminating the political party. He specifically endorsed Ceresole’s views on the United States and Israel as agents of a global conspiracy in which Jews endorsed torture while seeking to control history.
Ceresole, in turn, saw in the Venezuelan president an antidote to what in his eyes were “facile party” clowns without the authentic will to subvert the political status quo in Latin America. In a 2000 interview, he said that Chávez was eager to comprehend the role of a technologically-advanced army in the implementation of an equitable society and he and Ceresole discussed these ideas frequently. He explained how he told Chávez that all dissidence needed to be abolished in Venezuela in order to prevent a civil war. And he stated that Jews were foreign agents intended on perpetuating a false myth of the past.
In June of 1995, Ceresole was expelled from Venezuela by the DISIP, Venezuela’s secret police, on the grounds that he had been an instigator in Chávez’s 1992 failed coup against Carlos Andrés Pérez and that he had links with Arab terrorists. Ceresole claimed that the expulsion was actually the work of the Israeli Mosad because DISIP and Mosad were partners. In any case, being expelled from Venezuela did nothing to lessen Ceresole’s links to Chávez. By the time Chávez came to power through a general election in Venezuela in December 1999, Ceresole had reemerged as his consultant. It is at that point that Ceresole’s anti-Jewish views became tangible in Venezuela.
Two weeks after Chávez’ election, Pynchas Brener, the rabbi of Unión Israelita, published a piece in El Naciona titled “The King is Naked,” in which he linked Chávez’s demagoguery to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and expressed hope that things would change sooner rather than later. Ceresole saw Brener’s critique not only as an affront to the emerging leader, whom he believed had redeeming powers to reorganize the infrastructure of Venezuelan society, but also as proof that, as in Argentina, Venezuelan Jews were traitors with whom it was impossible to establish a dialogue. He responded to Brener’s letter by depicting the rabbi as “a prophet of Zionist hatred” and maintaining that Brener’s opinion wasn’t his alone but represented the Venezuelan Jewish community in its entirety. In his eyes, they were a Zionist envoy in Chávez’s land.
For a while, the soul of Chavismo oscillated between two poles that can be identified with Ceresole and José Vicente Rangel. Rangel was a journalist and another important intellectual influence on Chávez, who served in various positions in his government, including those of foreign minister, defense minister, and vice president before he was replaced in 2007. Rangel promoted the idea of a democratic revolution, arguing in favor of a controlled dialogue among political factions. Ceresole represented the opposite pole. He believed that political parties eventually betray the popular needs and that, as a result, political parties need to be abolished.
He advocated caudillismo, a system of government with a long-standing tradition in Latin America that sees redemption in a centralized dictatorial figure—in Venezuela’s case, Hugo Chávez. According to Ceresole, Chávez as a political leader didn’t need any party as his intermediary; rather, the Venezuelan president could best establish a direct connection to his people through the army. For Ceresole, the charismatic leader represents the people through the army; all other political apparatus is a virus, an illness, to be expelled.
Here is the link between Ceresole’s politics and his anti-Semitism. As Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez argued in a piece in the Boston Review, “in the Chavista corporealization of politics, any alternative becomes alien and monstrous, and must be expelled from the body of the nation and annihilated.” Just as Chávez becomes the personification of popular will, Jews become the arching metaphor for the illness of the state, the excess of party and ideology that must be expelled for the state to function properly.
In 1999, Ceresole released a book, Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo: La Venezuela del Comandante Chávez (Caudillo, Army, People: Venezuela under Comandante Chávez), emphasizing Chávez’s promise as a panacea to the country’s ills. With this book, he won the heart of Chavismo. The title’s triptych quickly became the unofficial motto of the Chavista revolution. Ceresole cemented his position as Chávez’ favorite by accusing Rangel, in his letter to Brener, of being “a Jew by option,” that is, another enemy of the Venezuelan people. Because Rangel believed in political parties, he became a “Jew,” that is, the personification of all that must be expelled for a healthy state.
The relationship between Chávez and Ceresole, always a point of pride for both, remained steady until, according to lore, the Venezuela leader threw him out of his house for being “an anarchist.” Certainly, within the Chavista movement, Ceresole was perceived as an extremist, and among moderates in the movement his anti-Semitism was worrisome. Nevertheless, Chávez continued to praise his confidant in various forums, including in his weekly show Aló Presidente, where on May 2006 he described Ceresole as a “great friend” and an “intellectual deserving great respect.”
Indisputably, Ceresole’s ideological influence is felt beyond the Chavistas. It is also resonant outside the places he was active in, Peru and Venezuela. Inspired by Chávez’s message, other regional leaders, from Bolivia’s current Evo Morales to Honduras’ deposed Manuel Zelaya, have embraced anti-Israel policies, and, under Ceresole’s ideological scope, anti-Semitic views.
Naturally, Jewish communities in Latin America, given their small size and precarious security apparatus, feel under threat. Within those communities there is ample dissent toward the policies of the Israeli military. But that dissent is eclipsed in an atmosphere such as the one generated by Chávez that reduces Jews, Israel, and the United States, into a unified foe eager to destabilize the hemisphere first and then the globe. Graffiti on the walls of the synagogue in Caracas’ Mariperéz neighborhood constantly joints the swastika and Star of David, graphically shrieking “Jews out.” The distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is deliberately murky. Chavistas resist any suggestion that dissent among Venezuelan Jews with the politics of the Israeli government is part of the democratic debate.
While the roots of anti-Semitism in the Hispanic world go back to the Inquisition during the colonial period, between the age of independence in the nineteenth century and World War II the region experienced only mild manifestations of Jewish hatred. At no time in the recent history has that hatred been as rampant as it is today. And Norberto Ceresole, though dead, is one of its instigators.
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