‘Nothing resembles Venezuela,” stated songster Dan Almagor’s chorus in the charming tune “Venezuela” that led the 1960 hit parade for eight months, and still is played on Israel Radio to this day.
With Google, Facebook, Wikipedia and the Israeli backpacker all yet to be born, Almagor didn’t know much about the Latin American country other than that it had a lot of coffee, gold and oil, and that he could make Venezuela rhyme with Ella, the name of a Hebrew University undergrad whose attention he hoped to catch through his song’s repetition of her name.
The romantic hope was dashed, he recently reminisced, but Venezuela became here a lovable connotation, an exotic land that had happily backed Israel’s establishment and which thousands of Israelis, thanks to the song, assumed was like no other country in the world.
Now Venezuela is indeed like no other place; an economic black hole, a social disaster zone and a political moonscape whose relevance to Israel may seem remote, but in fact is pertinent, first and foremost because in 2009 Caracas expelled the Israeli ambassador, charging us with “persecuting” the Palestinians.
We will return to that bizarre moment shortly, but before that, we should consider two other Israeli lessons from Venezuela’s tragedy, as a bewildered world watches it grapple with food lines, medicine shortages, rigged elections, street crime, political riots and a hyperinflation underscored by this summer’s introduction of a 20,000-bolivar bill whose black market value is less than $2.
THE FIRST lesson for us is about authoritarianism.
As this column has noted in the past, democracy’s global march since 1989 has come to face a great authoritarian reaction, driven by Russia, China and Turkey. The three’s apparent stability and predictability seem to be the envy of some Israeli politicians.
No, such Israelis would surely not go as far as arresting professors or assassinating journalists. They would, however, buy an unfriendly newspaper’s integrity, replace civil servants with party hacks, and also “bulldoze the Supreme Court,” as one of them recently put it himself.
To all these would-be Israeli autocrats, a glance at Venezuela can be educating: authoritarianism can only last that long and will ultimately fall that hard.
The second Israeli thought should be on what Venezuela did economically.
Sitting atop crude reserves more than 10% larger than Saudi Arabia’s, Venezuela is the world’s biggest oil barrel. Alas, it never used its black gold to industrialize its 30 million people and diversify its one-dimensional economy.
Instead, Caracas used its petrodollars to reward the regime’s cronies, featherbed a bloated public sector, and buy social quiet by subsidizing fuel and food. The result was an economy that did not supply enough goods to satisfy demand fueled by easy money. The result of that was inflation, followed by capital flight and unemployment.
Some of this dynamic might have been on its way to Israel later this century, following its recent gas findings. Fortunately, and thanks to former Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer, this syndrome will not develop here.
Fischer imposed on our politicians the establishment of a sovereign fund that will siphon most of Israel’s gas royalties and then drip them into the economy slowly and steadily, mainly for education, health and other social causes.
That is how Israel’s politicians lost the ability to abuse its gas revenues, and that is how the Israeli economy was disabused, in advance, of the kind of financial obesity that has plagued Venezuela with economic heart disease.
Still, the political and economic lessons of Venezuela’s collapse dwarf compared with its lesson for any anti-Semite.
EAGER TO reopen England to Jewish settlement for the first time since their expulsion in 1291, Dutch Jew Menasseh Ben Israel wrote Oliver Cromwell in 1655 that throughout history, whoever abused the Jews was “heavily punished by some ominous exit,” while whoever was “a benefactor to that people and cherished them in their countries” soon “begun to flourish.”
Ben Israel was obviously a biased Jew with a lobbyist’s cause, but anti-Jews indeed repeatedly met economic demise, while those who accommodated the Jews prospered.
Spain went bankrupt four times in the decades following its expulsion of its Jews, while the Ottoman Empire, which welcomed Spain’s Jews, blossomed.
Antwerp lost to Amsterdam its status as Europe’s financial hub in tandem with the two’s inverted treatments of their Jews. Antwerp attacked its Jews, while Amsterdam welcomed the Jews, so much so that Christian scholars often attended Ben Israel’s sermons. Antwerp’s brief financial stardom began when Iberian Jews arrived there, and it ended when they fled.
Faced with this phenomenon, German sociologist and future Nazi Werner Sombart waxed poetic: “Israel passes over Europe like the sun: at its coming new life bursts forth; at its going all falls into decay.”
This pattern repeated itself last century, when the anti-Jewish East Bloc and Arab world stagnated economically, while the West, which accommodated the Jews, prospered. Similarly, the economic rise of India and China overlapped the two’s normalization of relations with the Jewish state, and followed decades of poverty while they were hostile to the Jewish state – as if to vindicate the biblical Balaam’s vow that Israel’s cursers will be cursed and those who bless it will be blessed.
In 2009 Venezuela’s previous leader, Hugo Chavez, cursed Israel, hoping his bravado would divert the masses’ attention while he was robbing their riches.
Now Venezuela’s crisis obviously requires shock therapy unrelated to Israel. However, a good way to launch the procedure would be to apologize to the Israeli people, who never harmed Venezuela and even praised it in a song.