Why a Marathon Man Got Mocked: Venezuela’s Leftist Revolution Again Faces Anti-Semitism Questions

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Few stories at this month’s New York City Marathon were as inspiring as Maickel Melamed’s. The 36-year-old Venezuelan man, born with a severe muscle-depleting condition that makes it difficult to move across a room let alone a 26-mile marathon course, finished the race in 15 hours and 22 minutes to “help people realize the things they can achieve.” But as Melamed was being hailed in Venezuela and abroad last week, the Twitter ether got fouled by some ugly bigotry – and once again questions are being raised about anti-Semitic currents inside Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

(See Photo Essay: “Runner’s High: One Man’s New York City Marathon Dream Comes True”)

Shortly after Melamed completed the marathon on November 6, Manuel Anteliz, a journalist for Venezuela’s state-run Telesur network, tweeted from his account (@manteliz) that the disabled athlete was a “morbid show.” Melamed, Anteliz asserted, was receiving attention “purely because he’s fashionable…If he weren’t a mediagenic millionaire Jew, they would just call him a street cripple and throw him a couple coins.” Anteliz later complained that esquálidos (“the squalid ones,” an epithet that left-wing, anti-U.S. President Hugo Chávez likes to call his opponents) were criticizing him for his offensive remark. The closest he ever came to apologizing was a backhanded salute he finally tweeted that said, “I hope [Melamed’s] next challenge isn’t an Internet show and that he scales the Himalaya [sic].”

Melamed, for the record, is Jewish but no millionaire. What many find as troubling as Anteliz’s boorish tweets, however, is Telesur’s tepid response to them. The television network, founded in 2005 by Chávez as an international tele-outlet for his socialist revolution, did release a statement last week – but it was hardly the condemnation most people had hoped for. Anteliz’s comments “don’t reflect the [network’s] position,” it said. “Telesur reiterates its commitment to inclusion, anti-discrimination and respect for human rights.” When I contacted spokesman Armando Giménez this week, he said, “This is an internal matter for the institution.”

Problem is, this is not the first time a Venezuelan state TV personality has made an anti-Semitic crack in recent years. In January 2009, Mario Silva, a pro-Chávez talk show host on Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), another state-run network, made a point of noting that two student leaders of an anti-Chávez rally had “Jewish last names, so right away you can see the problem.” That month, Chávez expelled Israel’s ambassador to protest that country’s military assault on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Around the same time, Caracas’ largest synagogue was badly vandalized and a Jewish community center pipe-bombed. (No one was injured.)

Chávez in fact condemned the synagogue and community center attacks, and arrests were made. And he was hardly alone among world leaders in denouncing Israel’s Gaza operation. Venezuela’s then Ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, insisted to me at the time, “We’ve been very loud and clear about separating our policy of denouncing Israel from our policy of support for the Jewish people.”

But Chavistas – Chávez supporters – haven’t always been so careful about compartmentalizing Israeli policy and Jewish people. While Jewish leaders in Venezuela insist they don’t believe Chavez is an anti-Semite, they do feel that he and his government need to be “more vigilant,” as one told me, when Chavistas like Silva and Anteliz cross the line. They were also troubled in 2009 when Chávez challenged Venezuelan Jews “to declare [yourselves] against this [Gaza] barbarism.” As another member of Venezuela’s Jewish community says, “Singling us out that way created an intolerant atmosphere,” since rank-and-file Chavistas tend to hang on their comandante’s every word.

Jewish leaders outside Venezuela are more direct. Shimon Samuels, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization that is calling for Anteliz’s dismissal from Telesur, says his organization worries that Chávez’s strong alliance with Iran has let the anti-Semitism of its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, leach into Bolivarian thinking as well. Chávez officials strongly deny that notion. Still, says Samuels, “We would at least expect Telesur to condemn what was [tweeted by Anteliz]. It hasn’t happened.”

Whether or not Telesur dismisses Anteliz, it should censure his anti-Semitic (not to mention anti-disabled) Twitter rant, if only because he violated the network’s stated principles. It should also be mindful that questions about anti-Semitism, fairly or not, have long surrounded the international left. To its credit, the left identifies with global underdogs like the Palestinians (whose statehood campaign has won widespread support in Latin America among even conservative governments like Chile’s). Yet the left’s traditional criticism of the rich, and of global powers like the U.S. that back Israel, can sometimes lead its followers to the dark impulse of scapegoating Jews.

In Latin America’s case, left-wing political philosophers like the late Norberto Ceresole of Argentina – whose anti-Jewish writings include a denial of the Holocaust – haven’t helped. Chávez has acknowledged that he admires Ceresole’s ideas about Latin American nationalism and integration, but he denies he ever embraced the Argentine’s anti-Semitism. Even so, Ceresole’s influence on the Latin left is all the more reason that governments like Chavez’s should denounce anti-Semitism – more than Telesur has in this instance – whenever it’s disgorged from inside their own ranks.

For his part, Melamed – a motivational teacher who insists, “I don’t get involved in politics” – is taking the same high road regarding Anteliz that he took at the marathon. He does, however, turn one of Anteliz’s tweets back on the offending journalist. “I’m not thinking about [Anteliz],” he told me. “My role is to encourage people to reach their maximum potential – and I’m looking for my next challenge.” He leaves little doubt who the real esquálido is in this particular case.

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