What do a synagogue break-in in Caracas, the testimony of America's new spy chief, and a controversy involving the pope all have in common? Read on to find out.
First to Caracas. The men who trashed the main synagogue in the capital of Venezuela on Jan. 31 knew exactly what they were doing.
After spray-painting walls with anti-Semitic slogans and desecrating Torah scrolls, they made off with computer hard drives containing personal data on congregation members. Such a thing had never happened before in Venezuela.
President Hugo Chavez, a demagogue whose troubles mount as oil prices fall, blamed the break-in on political opponents. Pro-Chavez media, prone to anti-Semitic diatribes, blamed it on Israeli intelligence.
Welcome to the return of history. As in the past, global economic crises produce ugly xenophobic tendencies, such as anti-Semitism, which we fail to confront at our peril. They are warning signs of the political upheavals ahead.
Which brings us to the new U.S. spy chief, Dennis Blair (otherwise known as the director of national intelligence), who warned Congress on Thursday about future political upheavals. He said the global economic crisis could lead to political unrest and endanger some governments.
Picking up that theme, Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine told me: "The year 2008 will be remembered in history as the year when the financial system went down, but the year 2009 will be remembered as the year when political systems go down," with clashes in countries hard hit by the deepening recession.
"Many governments will struggle to retain control," he continued, "and some will resort to age-old techniques such as blaming their troubles on 'the other' - meaning different religions, ethnic groups, or foreigners."
Of course, in Venezuela, one must factor in the backlash against Israel's military action in Gaza, which sparked demonstrations and hostile rhetoric from Chavez, who has close ties with Iran. But strong feelings about Gaza don't explain the synagogue trashing or the painting of anti-Semitic epithets on the walls of Jewish businesses.
The same is true in Argentina, which has Latin America's largest Jewish population, about 250,000, and where swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti have been scrawled on walls and Jewish schools.
Nor is Europe immune from such scapegoating. A new survey of seven European countries by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (www.adl.org) found that 31 percent of all respondents blamed Jews in the financial industry for the global economic recession.
More than 40 percent of all those surveyed thought "Jews have too much power in the business world." The United Kingdom and Germany ranked at the low end, with 15 percent and 21 percent, respectively, endorsing the statement. But 67 percent of Hungarians, 55 percent of Poles, and 56 percent of Spaniards signed onto this idea, with Austria and France in the middle.
"One of the constant classics of anti-Semitism is Jews and money," I was told by Abe Foxman, the ADL's national director. "When an economic crisis comes, you look for whom to blame."
Of course, it won't just be Jews who will be scapegoated. It can be Chechens or dark-skinned people from the Caucuses in Russia, or migrant workers in Chinese cities, or illegal immigrants in the United States.
And yet, the worsening of anti-Semitism should ring special alarm bells because of the tragic ways in which it has been manipulated in dark times past.
This brings me to the pope. Foxman called me from Rome, before a meeting between Jewish representatives and Pope Benedict XVI. The pope was mending fences after the furor that erupted when he lifted the excommunication of a British bishop who contends that Nazi gas chambers never existed.
The bishop, Richard Williamson, is also part of a society that opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which absolved Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion. Keep in mind that 23 percent of the Europeans surveyed in the ADL poll still blame Jews for the death of Jesus, a charge that has fed into anti-Semitism for centuries.
The pope contended he was unaware of Williamson's (very public) positions. However, after protests by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, German bishops, and many others, the Vatican demanded that Williamson recant before resuming his duties. The pope told the Jewish delegation that the Roman Catholic Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed" to rejecting anti-Semitism. He condemned Holocaust denial and reaffirmed the Vatican II positions.
This reaffirmation is especially important as we head into hard times, when political leaders may try to save themselves by appealing to the basest prejudices. What Caracas showed, what Blair knows, and what the pope realized, is that we must stand against such prejudices, lest they swallow us all.