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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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We must not close our eyes

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It was very surprising, indeed disappointing, to see that former prime minister Jean Chrétien attended the recent funeral of Hugo Chavez. Chrétien went there as a private individual, not as an emissary of the Canadian government conveying a gesture of condolence to the government and people of Venezuela.

According to the Globe and Mail, Chrétien acknowledged that Chavez “went probably too far” in his policies, but he still nevertheless “felt it [going to the funeral] was the right thing to do.” 

In trying to explain, however, why he felt it was the right thing to do, the former prime minister relied on a series of straw man justifications that fall away in the light breeze of examination.

“I respect the people of Venezuela” Chrétien said.

It would be quite difficult to find many normal-thinking individuals anywhere on the planet who did not respect the people of Venezuela. The people of Venezuela were not the problem with the politics of its leader. It was Chavez’s deeply distasteful, manipulative demagoguery. Disdain for him did not extend to his people.

“He was very much on the side of the poor and we have to think of the poor in any society. I’m not the type of guy who thinks the crumbs on the table are enough for the poor, either there or in Canada,” Chrétien said.

Chrétien’s sentiment is unassailably admirable. It happens, however, to be the sentiment of most caring people. None of us should think the crumbs on the table are enough for any living soul. But that sentiment is quite irrelevant to the main point about Chavez.

Since when does being on the side of the poor require one to be viciously antisemitic, actively destructive of democratic institutions and wholeheartedly supportive of the main state sponsor of terrorism?

One gets the sense that the former prime minister was evading the simple truth of why he went. He liked Hugo Chavez. He even joked with Chavez about baseball! So, out of respect for the man he once liked, he went to the funeral.

The late president of Venezuela was the most ardent, non-Muslim backer and ally of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Presumably, he was also a backer of Ahmadinejad’s ideas and policies toward Israel, Jews and the Shoah. 

The late president of Venezuela let loose a state-run apparatus that mercilessly targeted and scapegoated the Jews of Venezuela, so much so that nearly two-thirds of the community fled the country.

Why could Chrétien not draw a line in the moral sand?

At what point does a friendship based somewhat loosely, we presume, on a long-ago expressed, shared affection for baseball, step aside for the sake of honouring the principle that inciting hatred of the Jews is wholly intolerable?

Is it sufficient justification for attending Chavez funeral to say, as Chrétien did, “A lot of people love him there?” 

One need not look too far into the pages of history or onto the pages of current events to see demagogues, political firebrands, strongmen or tyrants enjoying the affection of a lot of their people. But surely we must test the nature of a ruler by his policies, his deeds, not by the extent of the “love” of his people. 

It is hard to imagine that the former prime minister was unaware of Chavez’s appalling policies. And it is harder still to imagine that Chrétien condoned them in any way. Despite his personal distaste for the way Hugo Chavez singled out of the Jews of Venezuela for collective opprobrium and national suspicion, Chrétien still believed “it was the right thing to do.”

This is what disappointed most: Chrétien closed his eyes to the larger, truer picture of Chavez’s nature and of Chavez’s policies. 

And that is how antisemitism – or any bigotry and prejudice – in all its hateful, dangerous aspects slowly, insidiously edges closer toward the mainstream of social and political discourse even in fair-minded societies: good, decent people find a way to close their eyes to it.  

We cannot leave the subject of closing one’s eyes to the evils encouraged by others without pointing out that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan must have been stunned by the strong reaction to his statement last month that Zionism was a “crime against humanity.”

For he clumsily, and not very convincingly, tried to recant. 

“Everyone should know that my criticism [is about] certain cases, particularly Gaza and the settlements, and directed against Israeli policy,” Erdogan told the Danish newspaper Politieken via email, ahead of his visit last week to Denmark. “It is quite natural for us to continue to criticize Israel, as long as it has not abandoned its denial of the Palestinian state’s right to exist.”

We could believe Erdogan’s apology was sincere if it too did not contain more lies within it. But, alas, it did.

We will not, however, close our eyes to the true picture of Erdogan’s nature or of his policies. –MBD

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