July 7, 2008
The 11-year-old girl whose beauty treatments cost $600 a month to make her look like Barbie.
At 11, Sasha Bennington is too young to remember the days when Jordan was just a country and being branded ‘fake’ was something to be ashamed of.
But maybe the youngster’s biggest tragedy is that her mother, Jayne, 31, is in no hurry to paint a picture of how it used to be.
(More images at source site)
Jayne is talking breezily about how Sasha had her first set of false nails glued on at eight, and now enjoys the sort of rigorous beauty regime - hair extensions, fake tans, pedicures - that was once the preserve of porn stars and Dolly Parton, not school children from Burnley in Lancashire.
Still, times have changed. ‘All the kids are at it now,’ insists Jayne. ‘We spend about £300 a month on beauty treatments for her.
‘Sasha’s friends are the same. All girls their age are. Of course they are! Why else would you be able to buy make-up for pre-teens at Boots?
‘Perhaps it’s different in country areas, where they don’t need to grow up so fast. But, around big cities, girls have got to be more forward and act older than they are. That’s just the way it is.
‘I don’t understand why people get so upset about it. None of it is permanent. Tans wash off. Hair extensions come out. Why all the fuss?’
Just over a year ago, there was fuss galore when Jayne entered Sasha (then ten) in the junior Miss British Isles competition - Britain’s first adult-style beauty pageant for children.
It wasn’t an altogether beautiful experience. Jayne tells me she was uneasy about the way the contest was run, citing odd rules about how much make-up should be applied to those pre-pubescent faces and including confusing clauses about how contestants could bring make-up artists but should try to look ‘natural’.
At first, I think she is criticising the organisers for encouraging the children to look too adult. Wrong!
She means the girls - some of whom were still toddling - weren’t allowed to look adult enough.
‘Because this country doesn’t have a tradition of this sort of thing, the organisers didn’t quite know how to play things. Looking back, it was all very conservative. They kept saying they wanted the girls to look natural. Why? Let them slap it on! What’s the harm?’
Earlier this year, Jayne was given free rein with the blusher when Sasha became the first British child to dip a scarlet-tipped toe into the American pageant scene.
Jayne was at her side, helping her practise her sashay.
The pair took a documentary team with them, and found what you’d expect at a U.S. beauty pageant held in a down-market-looking Texan hotel: mums parading their daughters like prize poodles, kids who look disturbingly like mini Celine Dions, and enough lipgloss to pose a drowning risk to the tiniest entrants.
There was a jaw-dropping moment in the film - Sasha, Beauty Queen At 11, to be shown on July 14 on BBC3 at 9pm - when the pageant veteran charged with showing Sasha the ropes demonstrates how to walk like a beauty queen.
She explains how to turn your body round while holding the judges’ eyes, before flipping your head round at the last minute ‘like that Exorcist child’.
Sasha might not have won, but Jayne loved the process, describing it as ‘the best fun ever’. ‘It was just fantastic,’ she says.
‘What you see in U.S. pageants really is what you get. It’s weird, but brilliant. They take it so seriously, which can only be good for someone like Sasha.
‘All the mums were up at 6am so they could get started on hair and make-up.
‘And everything is just the best. No expense is spared. You have to spend £2,000 on a pageant dress over there. I thought £500 for one here was a lot. The one we bought Sasha was out of this world.
‘We went to this huge shop where there was every colour and style you could imagine. Sasha just ran through all the dresses, she was in her element.
‘Back home, we have to buy an adult dress and get it altered to fit, but there they are totally geared up for girls her age.
‘The pageant was like a dream. The girls are encouraged to put on masses of make-up. It was just like a big theatrical event, like being transported to another world.’
Underpinning the fairy tale, though, was a deep desire to win.
‘I fell in love with a pink dress that made her look like a princess, but the people advising us told us you should always match the dress to the eyes - so we went for green.
‘That was OK, though. I wasn’t there to have the dress I wanted. I was there so that Sasha could win. I was amazed at how much there was to learn, but I knew I was in the hands of the experts.’
It seems that the main lesson learned was that her darling daughter could look like a plastic Barbie, and be rewarded with a sash to prove it.
‘People always said she looked like a Barbie in Miss British Isles, but the girls in Texas truly did,’ enthuses Jayne.
‘It was wonderful. I watched them on the catwalk, with their arms held so precisely, walking slowly and turning just so. They reminded me of little ballerina dolls.’
What sort of mother wants her daughter to look like a doll? The image I have in my head is of Exorcist Barbie, but Jayne sees something else entirely.
Her response to the pageant pictures of Sasha - looking shocking with deep red lips and heavily smoked eyes - probably says more about her than her daughter.
‘The pictures are amazing, and Sasha is such a lucky girl to have them. I’d love to have those sort of pictures, nice pictures, rather than ones you hide away because you can’t bear to look at them.’
It was about the same time she started dabbling in beauty pageants that Jayne declared she wanted her daughter to be the next Jordan. She still does.
‘Of course. Jordan is her idol and I fully support her in that. She’s a great role model, this really down-to-earth woman who has made a big success of her life. She’s a better role model than Britney Spears - any day.’
Jayne always saw the public parading of Sasha as crucial to this goal, so maybe it’s not surprising that she pushed the child Stateside, into a world few in Britain understand.
She chatters away about Sasha’s media ‘career’, believing her daughter is a bona fide celebrity, and is proud to have been instrumental in making that happen.
‘She’s been on TV with Lorraine Kelly. What girl of her age can say that?
”I’m really proud that I’ve helped her get to this stage by giving her all the opportunities I can. Going to the States was just the next stage in all of this, and it’s been worthwhile.
‘We’ve been told she could have a really good future in American pageants, but anything is possible - film, adverts, mainstream modelling. I want Sasha to have all the options.’
In the forthcoming documentary, Jayne takes Sasha to a major agency, in the hope that she will be signed up.
The model booker says a vehement ‘no’, horrified by her portfolio, and tells Jayne that clients want their child models to look like children, and that for this sort of career success she would have to stop bleaching Sasha’s hair and encouraging her to wear plastic nails. Jayne refuses to comply.
It comes as no surprise that Jayne used to be a model herself, and one who worked in the ‘glamour’ side of the business.
She started at 23 - which, she explains, was ‘far too late’ for real career success - and now believes that earlier is better, in order to maximise profit and notoriety.
One of her own happiest memories is of entering a beauty pageant and winning the coveted sash. ‘I was on top of the world. One day I was an ordinary clerical worker, the next everyone was looking at me. It was wonderful.
‘I’d never been a particularly pretty child. I was always short and fat - not like Sasha - but I did OK with the modelling. Who knows what would have happened if I’d started earlier?’
Is it a coincidence that Jayne would have been working as a promotional model when Jordan came along and changed all the rules about how restrictive such a career can be.
She boasts she has met the pneumatic queen of the glamour world, and was even photographed with her.
They were both products of their time. As she watched Jordan achieve extraordinary mainstream success, Jayne tried to forge her own path in the new world, where everything crass and ostentatious was celebrated rather than shunned.
She set up a limo hire business, and tried to get a foothold in the reality TV world, appearing on Wife Swap. Then she turned her attentions to Sasha - getting her in front of the cameras became paramount.
When I ask whether this latest pageant business is just about her trying to realise her own thwarted ambitions through her daughter, she is offended - but only because the question assumes her career is over, which she denies.
‘I might go back and do some more modelling. Who knows? If something comes up. I’m not past it yet.’
She maintains it has always been Sasha who has driven her own ‘career’ forward. Even as a baby she was a ‘total poser’, playing up for the cameras and basking in the attention.
‘She’s always wanted to be a model, 100per cent. I’m just helping her do what she wants, like any good parent would. It’s not pushing her into anything. I hate it when people say I’m a pushy parent. I’m not. I just want the best for her.’
Yet can ‘the best’ really involve holding her hand as she steps into a terrifyingly sexualised world? It is Jayne herself who says that her daughter looks ‘about 18′ when she has full make-up on.
‘But, even without make-up, she looks about 13 or 14, certainly older than her age.’
She thinks this is a good thing and brushes off questions about unwelcome male attention.
‘People go on about the paedophile thing, but they’ve got that one wrong. Paedophiles don’t want girls who look 18. If anything, it’s the fresh-faced younger ones they want.
‘And so what if she poses in a bikini? There are plenty of 11-year-old girls on beaches in bikinis. If people have a problem with it, I’d say it is their problem, not mine.
‘Besides, as I keep saying, this is what Sasha wants.’
And what Sasha wants, Sasha clearly gets. Last Christmas, Jayne and her husband, Martin, a builder who works all over the UK and is barely at home, spent £26,000 on Sasha’s presents, which included a swimming pool.
Martin seems to exert no influence at all – ‘I leave all that to Jayne,’ he says.
Has Jayne ever stopped Sasha doing anything? ‘She wanted to get her belly button pierced and I said no,’ she says.
This is puzzling. Sasha clearly has her belly button pierced, and is happy to display the evidence in her photo shoots. What happened? She sniggers. ‘Maybe I gave in. Yeah. I’m not always that strict with her.
‘People can say what they want. I know there is nothing bad about what I’m doing. I’m just helping my daughter make something of her life. Any good mum would do the same.’
After our interview, Jayne will be taking Sasha to cheerleading classes, in a further bid to realise that all-American dream.
She makes Sasha practise her cheerleading wherever she goes - even pushing her into the middle of the floor in restaurants. Why?
‘You have to be out there, being noticed, even at a bus stop. What if Andrew Lloyd Webber walks past?’
What will become of the child, who turns just 12 in two weeks? We might hope for a reverse teenage rebellion - one in which she dyes her hair mousey brown and professes a desire to study political science at university - but it’s unlikely.
Ask Sasha how she sees herself and she replies: ‘Blonde, pretty, dumb - I don’t need brains.’ Her mum laughs her head off at this, proud that the child is so like her.
First came the “medical spa,” or medi spa, offering dermatology services in a retail setting. The medi spa begat the dental spa, bringing tooth bleaching to storefronts nationwide. The dental spa begat the podiatry spa.
And now comes the first medi spa in Manhattan wholly dedicated to strengthening and grooming a woman’s genital area. Phit — short for pelvic health integrated techniques — is to open this month on East 58th Street.
Dr. Lauri Romanzi, a gynecologist who performs pelvic reconstruction surgery, said she came up with the idea for the spa one day while walking by an outlet of BriteSmile, the tooth-whitening chain. She liked that the stores cater to people with healthy teeth.
So Dr. Romanzi developed her own concept of “pelvic fitness” for healthy women. She said that Phit (www.theperfectphit.com) will help women get “in shape from the inside out.”
The spa is essentially a gussied-up examination room down the hall from Dr. Romanzi’s medical practice. At the spa, the signature treatment will be a $150 gynecological exam — in which a client contracts her pelvic muscles around Dr. Romanzi’s fingers — to determine by feel whether muscle tone is weak, moderate or strong.
Dr. Romanzi likes to call the vaginal workouts she prescribes “personal training.” Clients could also use an in-office electrostimulation machine to improve pelvic muscle tone or buy a device for home use. Dr. Romanzi said that such treatments are intended to improve bladder control; she said pelvic training may also lead to more intense orgasms.
Welcome to the era of the gyno spa.
“The idea is to make it very easy for women to come in and know their pelvic fitness,” said Dr. Romanzi, who is a clinical associate professor of gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital.
Such a clinic may appeal to women hoping for better sex lives or new mothers with reduced bladder control.
But some doctors scoff at the notion of pelvic fitness, which is not a medical term.
There are no medical standards for determining what constitutes normal “fitness” or how to evaluate it, said Dr. Abbey B. Berenson, a gynecologist who directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“If this is being recommended to women who have no symptoms, then there are no medical organizations or literature that support that that is necessary,” Dr. Berenson said.
With the ubiquity of pornography, the pelvis had already become a marketable area for modification, ranging from the Brazilian bikini wax to genital surgery referred to as vaginal “rejuvenation.” Doctors have even coined a term for such genital “beautification”: cosmetogynecology or cosmogynecology.
The advent of the pelvic spa, however, takes body fixation to a new level, furthering the idea that there is no female body part that cannot be tightened, plumped, trimmed or pruned.
“Whether the marketing is pushing the women or women are pushing the marketing, I don’t think anybody knows,” Dr. Berenson said.
Dr. Romanzi said her goal was to teach women how to properly perform Kegel exercises, intended to strengthen the sling-shaped muscle that supports the bladder, vagina and rectum. Gynecologists sometimes suggest such pelvic physiotherapy for minor vaginal laxity after childbirth or for mild urinary incontinence.
But Dr. Romanzi believes all women might benefit from such exercises.
“If you can vote and you have a vagina, you should do these,” she said. “It’s the dental floss of feminine fitness.”
There is medical evidence that Kegel exercises can improve mild bladder problems. But some doctors dismissed the exercises’ value as preventative health care or as a sexual aid.
“There is good data to suggest if you floss regularly, it reduces gingivitis down the road,” said Dr. Erin E. Tracy, a gynecologist who is an assistant professor in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at the Harvard Medical School. But there is no evidence to suggest that a young woman who starts doing Kegel exercises will decrease her chances of pelvic problems later in life, she said.
Dr. Romanzi said the pelvic fitness concept is based more on her clinical experience than on rigorous medical evidence. The spa will also offer cosmetic laser treatments intended to tighten the skin of the vulva in post-menopausal women.
“The outer layer can become almost scrotal, very wrinkly and lax,” Dr. Romanzi said.
She treats pelvic skin using a combined laser and radio frequency device that is designed for facial skin and has not been studied for safety and efficacy when used on the vulva, she said. But she said the laser does not penetrate deeply enough to affect internal organs like ovaries.
But Dr. Tracy warned against such untested procedures. And Dr. Berenson questioned whether healthy women need any kind of pelvic strengthening or cosmetic procedure.
“The common practice in gynecology is we treat where there is a problem,” Dr. Berenson said. “It’ll be interesting to see if there are people who actually request these services.”
July 7, 2008
Cairo – Soad Ahmed Hassan paces anxiously outside the school where her daughter is sitting Egypt’s end of year exams. So far the test has driven two pupils to suicide and sparked a wave of corruption claims.
At the Gamal Abdel Nasser school in central Cairo a dozen mothers wait for their children to finish the dreaded “thanawiya amma” – Egypt’s equivalent of A-levels or SATs – that largely determine a child’s future.
In a country rife with corruption where some 20 percent live below the poverty line, a university education, especially a degree in medicine or engineering, can help to break down rigid class barriers.
The stakes are high for most parents, who pour much of their meagre salaries into private tuition to compensate for a crumbling education system in which classrooms are overcrowded, teachers frustrated and under-paid and schools under-resourced.
Most students taking the thanawiya amma come from middle- and low-income families, with wealthier students able to opt for private education at English, French or German schools.
The social mobility coveted by many students and their families depends in part on two years’ aggregated exam results. In 2008 the pressure has already driven two students to suicide.
Hassan Mohammed Yussri, 16, hanged himself in his Cairo home a day after taking his maths exam. And in the canal city of Port Said, Mirhan Hani Salem, 18, jumped from her sixth floor flat on the morning of her mechanics exam.
“Both sets of parents told police that their children had been under immense stress in the run-up to the exams,” a security official said.
The fiercely competitive test pushes parents to find new ways to help their children cheat… shouting answers outside classroom windows, using text messages or even hiding cheat sheets under religious headscarves.
Twirling a silver keychain, Soad paces outside the school gates waiting for her daughter Rania, as she and other mothers mumble prayers and supplications.
Then the students begin streaming out, some crying, some angry, and form clusters outside the school to analyse the minutiae of the day’s mechanics exam.
A tearful Rania is among them. “A disaster like all the others,” she tells Soad, burying her head in her mother’s shoulder and sobbing.
In 2008 the pressure was even more intense amid reports that some exam questions were not part of the curriculum and that papers were leaked in advance to rich and powerful parents.
Public prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmud told reporters last week that 19 people would face trial for leaking exam papers, including a police officer, a headmaster and three education ministry employees.
The prosecutor insisted to a disbelieving public that the corruption was limited to the southern province of Menya and did not affect most of the roughly 800 000 students sitting the exam.
The case has gripped the nation, bringing together state and opposition media in a rare show of unity to demand answers. Columnists have demanded a re-sit, with teachers and academics supporting them.
Mostafa Kamal Mohammed Yussuf, a professor of science at Mansura University and head of the committee that wrote the national physics textbook, admitted to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram that the exams were too difficult and did not correspond to the curriculum. He called for an inquiry.
As a result of his and other such testimony, a rumour that the government was deliberately limiting the numbers entering university became an unshakable truth for many parents.
“Why didn’t they just tell us our children don’t have a chance of getting into university?” demands a furious Soad.
“People like us can’t even think of sending them to a private university.”
Small private universities charge about 5 000 Egyptian pounds (about R7 006) per year, with fees reaching up to £100 000 (about R140 133) at the more prestigious American or German Universities in Cairo – far beyond the budget of the average household.
The exams are also an enormous financial burden on most parents who are forced to pay for private tuition costing up to 100 Egyptian pounds a day throughout the academic year.
Hussein Abdel Rahman, 52, teaches at a public school in Cairo and makes 400 Egyptian pounds a month.
But in order to afford the second-hand Suzuki he drives and to provide his family of five with a middle-class lifestyle, he supplements his salary with private tuition.
He charges each student 20 Egyptian pounds an hour and refuses to teach students individually, insisting on a group of at least ten pupils per lesson.
“If I lost my job at the school today it wouldn’t make a difference. That salary doesn’t go very far,” he says.
A cartoon in the state-owned Al-Messai newspaper shows two undertakers talking.
“The death business is booming these days. Those who escape the price hikes will die of the difficult thanawiya amma exam,” one tells the other, referring to soaring inflation that sparked deadly riots and a wave of popular discontent earlier in 2008.
Outside the school there is both despair and fury as the mothers debate what to do next.
Soad, who comes from a family of eight children in the rural Nile Delta and married at 17, says she broke with rural tradition and had only two children in the hope that she could afford to give them a better education.
“If I’d known it would be like this I would have had more children, lived in the village and married off my daughter,” she says.
July 7, 2008
How dumb are we? Thanks to the Internet, dumb and dumber…
In the four minutes it probably takes to read this review, you will have logged exactly half the time the average 15- to 24-year-old now spends reading each day. That is, if you even bother to finish. If you are perusing this on the Internet, the big block of text below probably seems daunting, maybe even boring. Who has the time? Besides, one of your Facebook friends might have just posted a status update!
Such is the kind of recklessly distracted impatience that makes Mark Bauerlein fear for his country. “As of 2008,” the 49-year-old professor of English at Emory University writes in “The Dumbest Generation,” “the intellectual future of the United States looks dim.”
The way Bauerlein sees it, something new and disastrous has happened to America’s youth with the arrival of the instant gratification go-go-go digital age. The result is, essentially, a collective loss of context and history, a neglect of “enduring ideas and conflicts.” Survey after painstakingly recounted survey reveals what most of us already suspect: that America’s youth know virtually nothing about history and politics. And no wonder. They have developed a “brazen disregard of books and reading.”
Things were not supposed to be this way. After all, “never have the opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater,” writes Bauerlein, a former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. But somehow, he contends, the much-ballyhooed advances of this brave new world have not only failed to materialize — they’ve actually made us dumber.
The problem is that instead of using the Web to learn about the wide world, young people instead mostly use it to gossip about each other and follow pop culture, relentlessly keeping up with the ever-shifting lingua franca of being cool in school. The two most popular websites by far among students are Facebook and MySpace. “Social life is a powerful temptation,” Bauerlein explains, “and most teenagers feel the pain of missing out.”
This ceaseless pipeline of peer-to-peer activity is worrisome, he argues, not only because it crowds out the more serious stuff but also because it strengthens what he calls the “pull of immaturity.” Instead of connecting them with parents, teachers and other adult figures, “[t]he web . . . encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age.” When Bauerlein tells an audience of college students, “You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the speaker of the U.S. House is,” a voice in the crowd tells him: ” ‘American Idol’ IS more important.”
Bauerlein also frets about the nature of the Internet itself, where people “seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort.” In entering a world where nobody ever has to stick with anything that bores or challenges them, “going online habituates them to juvenile mental habits.”
And all this feeds on itself. Increasingly disconnected from the “adult” world of tradition, culture, history, context and the ability to sit down for more than five minutes with a book, today’s digital generation is becoming insulated in its own stultifying cocoon of bad spelling, civic illiteracy and endless postings that hopelessly confuse triviality with transcendence. Two-thirds of U.S. undergraduates now score above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, up 30% since 1982, he reports.
At fault is not just technology but also a newly indulgent attitude among parents, educators and other mentors, who, Bauerlein argues, lack the courage to risk “being labeled a curmudgeon and a reactionary.”
But is he? The natural (and anticipated) response would indeed be to dismiss him as your archetypal cranky old professor who just can’t understand why “kids these days” don’t find Shakespeare as timeless as he always has. Such alarmism ignores the context and history he accuses the youth of lacking — the fact that mass ignorance and apathy have always been widespread in anti-intellectual America, especially among the youth. Maybe something is different this time. But, of course. Something is different every time.
The book’s ultimate doomsday scenario — of a dull and self-absorbed new generation of citizens falling prey to demagoguery and brazen power grabs — seems at once overblown (witness, for example, this election season’s youth reengagement in politics) and also yesterday’s news (haven’t we always been perilously close to this, if not already suffering from it?). But amid the sometimes annoyingly frantic warning bells that ding throughout “The Dumbest Generation,” there are also some keen insights into how the new digital world really is changing the way young people engage with information and the obstacles they face in integrating any of it meaningfully. These are insights that educators, parents and other adults ignore at their peril.
July 7, 2008
In December 1998, preaching a gospel of socialist revolution that had gone blessedly unvoiced in the decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hugo Chávez won a landslide election for the presidency of Venezuela. At the time, his governing philosophy, dubbed “Chávismo,” seemed unlikely to amount to more than a historical and geographical anomaly—a temporary reversal in a region that appeared to have decisively rejected Marxist nostrums.
Nearly another decade has passed since Chávez’s ascension. He has suffered a few setbacks in the intervening years, notably a temporary ouster in a 2002 coup and a defeat in a referendum last year that, if passed, would have effectively made him dictator for life. His propensity for wild rhetoric and diktats—as when he created a new time zone by fiat in December 2007, moving the clocks in Venezuela back a half-hour to address the inability of his countrymen to arrive promptly at appointments—has led to questions about his emotional and mental stability. It has also made it easier for Western policymakers to discount the seriousness of his oft-stated goal of fomenting violent political change throughout Latin America.
But to dismiss Chávez as a lunatic is to wish away his proven political skill. He is, without question, a powerful figure—and one who, thanks to a quirk of geography, is also in possession of dangerously large amounts of oil. His government claims to control over 100 billion barrels of proven reserves, by far the largest of any country in the Western hemisphere. Although estimates vary, at current production levels and prices Venezuela’s oil revenues may top $250 million daily.
Unlike Fidel Castro, who as a client of the Soviet Union had to apply to his patron for funds, Chávez is thus free to indulge his ambitions. “In Venezuela we have a strong oil card to play on the geopolitical table,” he told the Argentinian newspaper Clarín in 2005. “It is a card,” he added, “that we are going to play forcefully against the nastiest country in the world, the United States.”
To this end, Chávez has made common cause with FARC, a narco-terrorist group working tirelessly to overthrow the legitimately elected democratic government of Colombia, Washington’s closest ally in South America. No less ominously, he has aligned his government with regimes and terror groups that would otherwise seem to hold little attraction for a Spanish-speaking country on South America’s northern coast. These include Libya—which awarded Chávez the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, named for the country’s dictator—as well as Syria, Hizballah, and Hizballah’s patron Iran. Virtually alone among world leaders, Chávez is an impassioned defender of Tehran’s right to pursue nuclear technology and has even hinted he would be willing to finance it.
As this list may suggest, there is something else, aside from simple anti-Americanism, at work in Chávez’s foreign policy. He and his supporters are in the grip of another age-old obsession, albeit one with a few indigenous twists: an obsession, that is, with the supposedly excessive power of world Jewry, and in particular of Venezuela’s few, prosperous, and increasingly imperiled Jews.
Venezuela’s Jewish community, amounting to less than 1 percent of the country’s total population of 26 million, is among the oldest in South America, dating back to the early 19th century. During the struggle for independence from Spain, the fugitive revolutionary Simón Bolívar found refuge among a group of Venezuelan Jews, some of whom later went on to fight in the ranks of his liberating army. Today, the majority of the country’s Jewish population is descended from an influx of European and North African immigrants who arrived during the years surrounding World War II. Most reside in the capital city of Caracas, comprising a tightly knit community made up of roughly equal numbers from Ashkenazi and Sephardi countries of origin.
Venezuelans pride themselves on living in an ethnic and religious melting pot. Their homeland, unlike its neighbors Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile, has no history of having harbored Nazi fugitives. Before Chávez came to power, members of the Jewish community reported little animosity from either the government or the populace, and sharply anti-Zionist rhetoric was relatively uncommon. Nor did Venezuela’s fifteen synagogues (all but one of them Orthodox) experience much of the anti-Semitic vandalism common in other Latin American countries with tiny Jewish populations. The Hebraica center—its building functions as a lavish social hub, elementary school, country club, sports facility, and gathering place for Caracas Jewry—was largely left in peace.
No longer. Since Chávez took the oath of office at the beginning of 1999, there has been an unprecedented surge in anti-Semitism throughout Venezuela. Government-owned media outlets have published anti-Semitic tracts with increasing frequency. Pro-Chávez groups have publicly disseminated copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century czarist forgery outlining an alleged worldwide Jewish conspiracy to seize control of the world. Prominent Jewish figures have been publicly denounced for supposed disloyalty to the “Bolívarian” cause, and “Semitic banks” have been accused of plotting against the regime. Citing suspicions of such plots, Chávez’s government has gone so far as to stage raids on Jewish elementary schools and other places of meeting. The anti-Zionism expressed by the government is steadily spilling over into street-level anti-Semitism, in which synagogues are vandalized with a frequency and viciousness never before seen in the country.
The details are arresting.
• Graffiti, often bearing the signature of the Venezuelan Communist party and its youth organization, have appeared on synagogues and Jewish buildings, with messages like “mata niños” (“child killers”), “judios afuera” (“Jews get out”), “judios perros” (“Jews are dogs”), and swastikas linked to stars of David by an equals sign.
• Sammy Eppel, a columnist for the independent Caracas newspaper El Universal, has documented hundreds of instances of anti-Semitism in government media. To take one particularly noxious example, in September 2006 El Diario de Caracas, until recently one of the country’s most important papers, published an editorial containing these fiery words:
Let us pay attention to the behavior of the Israeli-Zionist associations, unions, and federations that are conspiring in Venezuela to take control of our finances, our industries, commerce, construction—which are infiltrating our government and politics. Possibly we will have to expel them from our country . . . as other nations have done.
• On television, Mario Silva, the host of a popular pro-Chávez show called La Hojilla (“The Razor Blade”), has repeatedly named prominent Venezuelan Jews as anti-government conspirators and called on other Jews to denounce them. “Rabbi Jacobo Benzaquén and Rabbi Pynchas Brener are actively participating in the conspiracy in conjunction with the media,” Silva has said. “So as not to be called an anti-Semite,” he added, “I repeat that those Jewish businessmen not involved in the conspiracy should say so.”
• Armed government agents have conducted two unannounced raids on the Hebraica club during the past five years. The first occurred during the early morning hours of November 29, 2004, when two dozen men wearing masks invaded the elementary school just as pupils were arriving for class. In the second, which came shortly after midnight on December 2, 2007, government agents broke through the front gate and disrupted hundreds of celebrants at a wedding party in the nearby synagogue. In each case, allegedly, the agents were looking for weapons and other evidence of “subversive activity.”
• The last few years have seen the creation of a terrorist group in Venezuela calling itself Hizballah in Latin America. The group has already claimed responsibility for placing two small bombs outside the American embassy in Caracas in October 2006—one of them, it is thought, intended for the embassy of Israel. Although neither of the two bombs detonated, the group’s website hailed the man who planted them as a “brother mujahedin” and has urged other, simultaneous attacks throughout Venezuela in solidarity with Hizballah in Lebanon.
In this connection, although there is no direct evidence linking Chávez with Hizballah in Latin America, the group’s website has featured words of praise for him, and the feeling may well be mutual. Not only has Chávez repeatedly expressed support for Hizballah in general, but (according to Venezuelan newspapers) he paid $1 million to print posters of himself with Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to be displayed at a Hizballah rally in Beirut.
Insofar as there is a rationale behind any of this, it would seem to form a part of Chávez’s general view of the world. According to that view, the United States has coopted both Europe and Israel into a transnational enterprise whose purpose is to exploit and impoverish the world’s less developed but resource-rich countries. Jews, especially but not exclusively in the form of the state of Israel, are an integral part of this enterprise. In a July 2006 interview with the Arab TV network al-Jazeera, Chávez elaborated upon the relation between the U.S. and Israel:
The greatest menace to the future of humanity is the United States, and one of its instruments of aggression in [your] part of the world is the state of Israel. . . . The Secretary of State has said that that [the U.S.] will change the map of the Middle East. This plan was made in advance and in great detail in the Pentagon, except that Israel is the executor. . . . They want to transform the map of the Middle East in order to guarantee the dominance and control of the largest reserves of oil and energy in the world.
As an alleged oppressor of the Palestinian Arabs, Israel has its own place of special infamy in Chávez’s world view. This latter theme has served him particularly well in his efforts to mobilize the sentiments of his rural constituents. Thus, during a 2005 speech marking Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, Chávez likened the plight of Venezuela’s Indians to that of Palestinians. Reminding his listeners of how their ancestors had been “murdered in their land” by “governments, economic sectors, and great land estates,” he thundered: “You were expelled from your homeland, like the heroic Palestinian people.”
All of these elements seem entirely derivative of Marxist-Leninist theorizing, with a strong admixture of post-colonialism à la Franz Fanon and Fidel Castro. But Chávez is not just another Latin American leftist on the Castro model. While the Cuban dictator may be his most important political influence, his greatest intellectual debt is to the Argentinian writer and thinker Norberto Ceresole: a man not of the Left but of the populist Right, a Holocaust denier, and a sworn enemy of Israel and the Jews.
Born in 1943, Ceresole was one of the leading spokesmen for the radical populist government of the Argentinian president Juan Perón. Later, in the guise of a political theorist, he argued that the only appropriate leaders for Latin American nations were caudillos: nationalist, militarist, and charismatic strongmen capable of ushering in a “post-democratic” age in which the region’s people would become effortlessly at one with the generals who would direct every aspect of society. Led by a group of such caudillos, a confederation of Latin American fascist states would then be in a position to beat back American global hegemony.
Ceresole reportedly traveled with Chávez during his initial bid for power. After the latter’s 1998 victory, he published a celebratory volume, Caudillo, Army, People: The Venezuela of President Chávez. The second chapter is entitled “The Jewish Question and the State of Israel.” In it, Ceresole espoused a “new revisionism” that defined the Holocaust as a “myth” and Israel as a global menace:
The existence of this political enterprise—Israel: a power concentrated in the monopoly of monotheism and implemented through an army, police forces, jails, tortures, assassinations, etc.—seeks to consolidate itself through a series of ideological manipulations in the bosom of the hegemonic power of the United States, which seeks to be accepted as the ruler of the world by any means, even generalized terror, and dissuasive and persuasive practices.
It was for this reason, according to Ceresole, that one of the greatest threats to the Chávez regime lay in Venezuela’s “Jewish financial mafia.” Indeed, the Venezuelan Jewish community as a whole was to be considered guilty of race-based hostility to Chávez’s redemptive nationalist movement.
The ingeniousness of Ceserole’s doctrine, as filtered through the sensibility of Hugo Chávez, resides in its blending of Marxist economics with two venerable anti-Semitic traditions. The first, still powerful in South America, derives from Catholic teachings about the historic Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. The second, encapsulated most notoriously in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has flourished in both rightist and leftist variations throughout modern European history, resurfacing in our own time in the fulminations of extreme anti-Zionists. Chávez drew on both traditions in an address he delivered on Christmas Eve in 2004. Here he spoke ominously of certain “minorities, the descendants of those who crucified Christ,” who had “taken possession of the riches of the world.”
But there was an added element at play in this passage, which has to be quoted in full to be properly appreciated:
The world has enough for everybody, but it happened that some minorities—the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who ejected Bolívar from here and who crucified him in their own way in Santa Marta, over in Colombia—took possession of the riches of the world. A minority appropriated the world’s gold, the silver, the minerals, the waters, the good lands, the oil, and has concentrated the riches in a few hands.
Like most of its South American neighbors, Venezuela is a nation of economic extremes. There are a small number of extraordinarily well-to-do families—the “white oligarchs”—and an enormously large population of very poor people, partly or wholly native-American, with few prospects of economic advancement. Since his ascension to power, Chávez has been engaged in a policy of forcible redistribution, nationalizing industries and large farms and turning their proceeds over to social programs aimed ostensibly at ameliorating the condition of the poor.
In common with most such efforts at top-down nationalization and redistribution, however, this one has been a grotesque failure. A country bringing in at least $1.75 billion a week in oil revenues suffers from chronic food shortages, including in such staples as coffee and sugar. Even the oil business, now run by Chávez cronies rather than by professionals, is nowhere near as profitable as it might be. And so the inequities persist, and with them the need to identify scapegoats that can divert attention from Chávez’s culpability and allow him to maintain his iron grip.
Chávez often speaks of Jesus Christ as the first true socialist, whose agenda he, like Bolívar before him, is fulfilling. In so doing he draws upon another Latin American trope, this one of more recent vintage. The “liberation theology” that emerged in Catholic circles in Brazil in the 1960’s provided a theological justification for radical social change; proponents of this quasi-Leninist doctrine use the phrase “Christ killers” to refer to the capitalists who allegedly block the fulfillment of their revolutionary vision. In this sense, Chávez’s Christmas 2004 speech, adroitly weaving together the teachings of liberation theology with local political history, appealing to a legacy of deep economic resentment that he himself has greatly exacerbated, and evoking the incendiary motifs of the world’s oldest hatred, made up a perfect storm of demagogic rhetoric.
It is helpful to keep this background in mind in evaluating the response of Venezuela’s Jews to the outrages, physical and verbal, that have been perpetrated against their community. Reaction to the Christmas 2004 speech provides an illustration.
As it happens, one unequivocally strong protest emanated from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in distant Argentina. “In your words,” read a statement addressed to the Venezuelan president,
we find two central arguments of anti-Semitism: the canard of the deicide and the association of Jews with wealth. . . . Our center condemns your anti-Semitic statements. Such offense to universal values demands an immediate and public apology.
But this protest itself drew a protest—from, in fact, the head of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela. “We believe the president [in his speech] was not talking about Jews,” wrote Fred Pressner in a letter to the Wiesenthal Center. Rather, Pressner went on, seizing on the speech’s artful ambiguities, Chávez was referring to the “white oligarchy.” Still worse, according to Pressner, was the fact that the Wiesenthal Center, by acting “without consulting us, on issues that you do not know or understand,” had “interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community.”
Unquestionably, the Venezuelan Jewish community is in a very difficult situation. There had already been something of a split earlier in 2004 following the first raid on the Hebraica club. While some had reflexively tried to downplay the significance of the incursion, Pynchas Brener, the country’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, demurred, pronouncing the raid a “direct aggression” by the state heralding an “important shift” in relations. “There is not a single Jewish family in Caracas that was not affected,” Rabbi Brener said.
Nor was there any equivocation on Rabbi Brener’s part in the wake of the second raid on the Hebraica club in December 2007. This was particularly ominous, he averred, because of the timing: the raid took place on the day before the Venezuelan electorate was scheduled to vote on a constitutional referendum that, if passed, would allow Chávez to retain office indefinitely. In light of the ruling party’s well-documented eagerness to blame its political troubles on Jewish machinations, the raid could have been a fishing expedition—a hunt for prospective “evidence” pointing, in the event of the referendum’s failure, to a conspiracy on the part of the country’s leading Jews.
Shortly after this second raid, indeed, Pressner’s organization abandoned its own previous calls for moderation. “We denounce this new and unjustifiable act against the Venezuelan Jewish community,” it declared in a forceful press release, “and express our profound indignation and repulsion.” For his part, Rabbi Brener proclaimed that the purpose of the raid “was just to scare the daylights out of the Jewish community, to convince us not to vote and to keep a low profile.” But, he added defiantly, “since the Holocaust we don’t scare easily.”
Neither, of course, does Venezuela’s president. Although the government acknowledged that the search for evidence of “subversive activity” at Hebraica was fruitless, and although the referendum did narrowly fail, Chávez has vowed to achieve his constitutional reform—that is, to create his dictatorship—by other means.
One-third of Venezuela’s Jews have fled the country by now, and those who remain are in a state ranging from discomfiture to terror. When asked why they stay, some wealthier Jews say that the answer is economic. “The problem . . . is that you could never live like this anywhere else,” the owner of a Caracas textile plant told a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Nobody here really wants to go to Israel. You would need to have ten times as much money to live this way.” Others, less well off, are similarly reluctant, and offers by the Israeli government to ease the process of aliyah have so far met with few takers.
The stated reasons are many. Even amidst all their trouble, it has been pointed out, Venezuela’s Jews retain a workable relationship with the Chávez government. Jewish journalists can still speak out. Nor have Jewish business been targeted for expropriation by Chávez’s redistributionist policies. Jews can still travel freely, and anti-Semitic violence has not touched many of them personally. So they hold out, bearing the yoke of economic and political harassment and hoping for change.
Are they right to do so? History suggests that once anti-Semitism becomes an instrument of state policy, the possibility of violence can never be discounted. For centuries, moreover, anti-Semitism has waxed and waned with fluctuating business cycles. With both the ailing economy and Chávez’s social programs dependent almost entirely on oil revenues, a drop in prices could trigger widespread animosity against the “Semitic banks” that members of Chávez’s party have repeatedly denounced for every passing ill. A major event like a military strike on Iran by the United States or Israel might similarly serve as justification for seizing the assets of Venezuela’s Jewry. In the meantime, as the numbers dwindle, and many of the richest depart, it is becoming increasingly difficult to care for the Jewish poor, who make up a full 25 percent of the community.
Caught in a vise between an all too realistic fear and a possibly illusory hope, one of South America’s most productive and peaceful minorities awaits the future in grim expectancy.
July 7, 2008
At the 2001 UN Conference against Racism in Durban, anti-colonialism bared its anti-Semitic face. Democracies should stay away from a repeat performance next year in Geneva.
In September 2001 the South African city of Durban played host to the third United Nations World Conference against Racism, which was aimed at achieving recognition for crimes related to slavery and colonialism. The event’s organisers hoped that the whole of mankind would use this ceremonious occasion to face up to its history and chronicle events with equanimity.
These good intentions rapidly degenerated into one-upmanship among victims and bloodlust directed at Israeli organisations and anyone else suspected of being Jewish. The original intent, which was to heal the wounds of the past through a sort of collective therapy and arrive at new standards for human rights, twisted into an outburst of hatred which, in the wake of the September 11 attacks that followed only days later, disappeared from the public eye.
It’s time we had another look. Against the wishes of the organisers, Durban became an arena where people screamed and hurled insults at each other in a re-enactment of the comedy of damned, in the face of the white exploiter. “The pain and anger are still felt. The dead, through their descendants, cry out for justice”, Kofi Annan said on August 31 of the same year – an astounding choice of words for a UN secretary general and more a call for revenge than reconciliation. The delegates at the conference, particularly those from the Arab-Muslim states, also understood it as such and, together with the African group, they transformed the conference into a stage for anti-colonialist revenge. The West, which is genocidal by nature, should recognise its crimes, beg for forgiveness and pay symbolic and financial reparations to the victims of its oppression. Emotions ran high and anger was brought to the boil by coverage of the second antifada which was being violently quashed by the Israeli army.
Zionism was condemned outright as the contemporary form of Nazism and apartheid, but so was “white viciousness”, which had caused “one Holocaust after the other in Africa” through human trafficking, slavery and colonialism. Israel should disappear, its politicians should be brought before an international tribunal similar to the one in Nuremberg. Anti-Semitic cartoons were circulated, copies of “Mein Kampf” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were handed out. Beneath a photo of Hitler were the words that Israel would never have existed and the Palestinians would never have had to spill their blood if he had been victorious. A number of delegates were physically threatened, there were calls of “Death to Jews”. This farce came to a head when the Sudanese Minister of Justice, Ali Mohamed Osman Yasin, demanded reparations for historical slavery, while in his own country, people were being shamelessly thrown into slavery as he spoke. It was like a cannibal suddenly calling for vegetarianism.
One might think that this sinister comedy would give the UN second thoughts about repeating its mistake. But there is no underestimating the extraordinary determination of dictators and fundamentalists, who have transformed the UN Human Rights Commission into a platform for their demands. A Durban II (The Durban Review Conference) is due to take place in Geneva 20 to 24 April 2009, and it promises to be a repeat of Durban 1 (more information here).
The reports and projects which have been mounting up over the past six years reports do not encourage optimism. On September 14, 2007, Doudou Diene, UN Special Rapporteur for racism, xenophobia and discrimination held a speech in front of the United Nations in Geneva (available on this site under the nummer A/HRC/6/6 as pdf). ) In it he repeatedly blames Western countries for using September 11 to encourage the most perfidious forms of Islamophobia. He defines this Islamophobia as a form of racism which has its roots in the first contact between Islam and Christianity, notably the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista. He does make mention of anti-Semitism, anti-Christian sentiment and other forms of religious suppression, but his main focus is “anti-Muslim racism”. Throughout Europe and the United States intellectuals and politicians of all stripes are guilty of a wide array of offences against the religion of the prophet.
These include the principle of laicism, as championed by the French, the “ban on religious symbols in public schools”, the “threatened ban on the burqa in England’s public buildings” and stigmatisation of the veil and the headscarf: all signs of a resurgence of intolerance. Diene regrets that laicism has lead “to a general suspicion of religious belief” and he believes that “dogmatic secularism” is being used to “manipulate the freedom of religion”. So it comes as no surprise to him that the West, as a “pillar of slavery and colonialism”, is leading the way in a “systematic denigration of Muslim intellectuals” (here he is thinking particularly of Tariq Ramadan) and the idea of a “clash of civilisations” a la Samuel Huntington.
By contrast, as he sees it, the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East, Africa and India is the unfortunate consequence of the missionary work of Evangelical groups from North America, who are letting their religious brothers suffer for their own bigotry. All criticism of dogma, every questioning of religious belief is, Diene says, a form of racist insult and should be punished. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius have become untouchable icons, who must be protected against criminal attacks. Should we reintroduce blasphemy as a criminal offence like the fundamentalists of the three monotheistic religions are suggesting – in a return to the Ancien Regime?
Unsurprisingly, Diene’s report has the ardent support of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the majority of the Non-Aligned Movement where you can count the democracies on one hand. Because Doudou Diene makes it his policy to refrain from all criticism of authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America and reserves his munition for the States of Europe and North America, whom he accuses of fomenting pogroms against their minorities. It will also come as no surprise that in April 2007 Iran was nominated as vice president and Syria as rapporteur for the Disarmament Commission. This might be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic!
In a nutshell: Anti-racism in the UN has become the ideology of totalitarian regimes who use it in their own interests. Dictatorships or notorious half-dictatorships (Libya, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cuba etc.) co-opt democratic language and instrumentalise legal standards, to position themselves against democracies without ever putting turning the questions on themselves. A new Inquisition is establishing itself, which brandishes “defamation of religion” to quash any impulses of doubt, particularly in Islamic countries. And this at a time when millions of Muslims, particularly in Europe, want to distance themselves from bigotry and fundamentalism. In a reversal of values, anti-racism is being propagated by despots in the service of obscurantism and the suppression of women! It is being used to justify precisely the things which it was formulated to fight: suppression, prejudice, inequality.
In the hands of these powerful and organised lobbies, the UN is becoming an instrument of retrogression in the world, when it was created to promote justice, peace, and human dignity.
Europe must take a firm stand against this buffoonery: boycott it, plain and simple. Just as Canada has done. Perhaps we should also think about dissolving the Human Rights Commission or only letting truly democratic countries in. It is intolerable that in the year 2008 – like in the thirties – nations which recognise justice, the multi-party state and freedom of expression are being brought before the tribunal of history by the lobbies of fanatics and tyrants.
Pascal Bruckner, born in 1948, is one of the best known French “nouveaux philosophes”. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne under Roland Barthes. His works include The Temptation of Innocence – Living in the Age of Entitlement (Algora Publishing, 2000), The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt (The Free Press, 1986) The Divine Child: A Novel of Prenatal Rebellion (Little Brown & Co, 1994) Evil Angels (Grove Press, 1987)