“A little bird flew in and circled above me three times. It landed on a beam in the church and started singing. I looked at it, and I sang to it. The bird told me ‘the battle starts today. Onward to victory. You have my blessing.’”
One of these statements was made by a fictional president of a South American country in Woody Allen’s “Bananas,” the other by the actual president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. Given recent reports of Venezuela’s toilet paper shortage – caused by a combination of price and currency controls that make it unprofitable for domestic suppliers to provide the country with basic goods, and next to impossible to import foreign goods – an executive order to change underwear twice an hour might be considered wise, even essential. But in a country whose current leader receives directives from its previous leader in the form of flying feathered friends, Maduro’s most recent admission that he’s of Jewish descent has many of his now fellow Semites wishing he’d kept that secret, well…secret.
Maduro came out of the Hebrew closet last week after Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, accused Chávez and Maduro, at the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest, Hungary, of “fostering anti-Semitism on the continent” by “strengthening relations of various Latin American countries with Iran.”
“My grandparents were Jewish, from a [Sephardic] Moorish background, and converted to Catholicism in Venezuela… The mother of [Minister of Communication and Information] Ernesto Villegas also comes from a similar background,” Maduro said last week, in response to Epelman’s comments, according to Apporea, a Venezuelan news portal supportive of Chávez’s socialist platform and reform initiatives.
After Maduro’s statement, a collective silent groan could be heard amongst the approximately 9,000 Jews currently living in Venezuela, mostly in the capital city of Caracas. Venezuelan Jews outside the country that sits on the northern coast of South America, were less reticent in their reactions. Pearl Cohen, a Venezuelan Jew now living in Brooklyn, said in response to Maduro’s claim of Jewishness, “We have enough problems with the Jews we already have. Let him stay Catholic.”
Moses Bromberg, 78, a Venezuelan expatriate, who fled with his family to Miami before Chavez took power, a man whose age, yarmulke and distinctly Eastern European looks might make one think that Yiddish and not Spanish is his first language, waved his hand dismissively, and said in heavily accented English, “Jews don’t talk to birds. Burning bushes maybe, but not birds.”
Estelle, Bromberg’s bride of fifty-six years, added in Spanish, which she immediately translated into English, “How many Jewish bus drivers do you know?” – alluding to Maduro’s pre-political career as a bus driver.
The veracity of Maduro’s claim is in question amongst Venezuelan Jews not only because of his repeated vilifications of Israel but because of Chavez’s attempts last year to try and discredit election challenger Henrique Capriles, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, for his Jewish heritage. The Anti-Defamation League said Chavez and his government, which at the time included Maduro as vice president, used anti-Semitic rhetoric as a divisive political tool to scapegoat Jews, with Chavez holding a number of conspiracy theories, among them accusing Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency of trying to kill him.
Maduro, however, insists that having a problem with the state of Israel, and what he called attacks on the people of Syria and the Gaza Strip, did not entail criticism of the “noble Jewish people.” He conveniently failed to address the accusations of the ADL.
It’s possible that Maduro simply used Epelman’s criticism as an opportunity to insert himself into the ranks of other iconic socialists with Jewish blood like Lenin and Marx. His remark that “if there is a people that has a rich socialist tradition, it’s the Jewish people,” along with his declaration that “Karl Marx was a Jew,” is indicative of the fact that he’d probably rather go down in history as a pure revolutionary whose dedication to the cause was predetermined by his Jewish DNA than as a bus driver whose political adviser spent his days ruining windshields.
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