Venezuela’s much depleted Jewish community – waiting and hoping

Venezuelans demonstrate against President Nicolás Maduro (REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez)

Venezuela has been home to a Jewish community for some two hundred years. That community contributed to the fabric of Venezuelan society and was instrumental in the development of the country’s economy while also constructing its own communal infrastructure, including schools, synagogues, and community centres.

In 1999, Venezuela’s Jewish community numbered some 25,000. Today, after more than twenty years of the “Bolivarian socialist” regime of President Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, only about 6,000 Jews are believed to remain in the country.

Yet with that regime now facing an unprecedented challenge – with National Assembly President Juan Guaido being widely recognised as interim President in place of Maduro – some are hoping that community will soon be revived.

Last week, Maria Corina Machado, the national coordinator of the centre-right Vente Venezuela party, thanked Israel for recognising Guaido as the oil-rich nation’s president. She then added, in an English-language video statement on Monday 28 January:

“I want to reaffirm the valuable contribution the Jewish community has given to the development of Venezuela through decades. And even though many have been forced to leave our country, we want and expect that they come back to rebuild our nation.”

Venezuelan Jews are today scattered around the globe – in Israel, Canada, the US and elsewhere. Florida and Costa Rica have been very popular places for Venezuelan Jews to find a new home. Panama, the Dominican Republic and Columbia are also common choices.

Both the exiles and the minority who have remained behind are doubtless hopeful that the political, social, and economic situation in the country will soon improve. While horrific crimes rates (for the past three years at least, Caracas has been named as the most dangerous or the second most dangerous city in the world), severe poverty and repression have been problems for Venezuela’s residents over recent years, the Jewish community also has had its own additional specific problems.

A Community Under Siege

After President Hugo Chavez assumed power in Venezuela in 1998, he made it clear that he was a friend of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and the Palestinian leadership, including the Hamas terrorists in Gaza. He was consistently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist in his public speeches.

Moreover, Chavez is thought to have been influenced by his association with Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian with antisemitic views, who advised Mr Chavez in the 1990s.

In 2006, Chavez was awarded Muammar Gaddafi’s Prize for Human Rights, and a few days later, in Teheran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented Chavez with Iran’s highest honour for backing its nuclear ambitions, stating “In Chavez I met a comrade and trench mate.” The seemingly incongruous friendship between Chavez, a secular socialist, and Ahmadinejad, president of an Islamic theocracy, was based on a shared hostility to the United States, the West in general and Israel. They sharply increased bilateral trade, inaugurated weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, with Western security experts accusing Venezuela of providing Iran with a Latin American base for illicit activities, including arms trading.

Chavez’s constant linkage of Venezuelan Jewry with Israel seemed to give presidential sanction to antisemitism, even if Chavez himself said he “respected and loved” Jews.

Antisemitic graffiti appeared in Caracas, equating the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Broadcasters on state radio recommended the antisemitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as an insightful read.

On Jan. 31, 2009, a dozen unidentified men broke into the Gran Sinagoga Tiféret Israel, the oldest synagogue in Caracas. The assailants bound and gagged security guards, entered the sanctuary, ripped open the Ark, and tossed its contents out across the floor. Then they rifled through administrative files and spray-painted “DEATH NOW,” “OUT, OUT,” “ISRAEL MALDITOS,” and a horned devil with 666 in red on the walls.

“People are being taught to hate. Venezuela has never seen anything like this before,” said then Venezuelan Chief Rabbi Pynchas Brener in 2009.

In 2002, Chavez ascribed an attempted coup to a “Zionist plot masterminded by the Mossad.” In 2004 and again on Dec. 2, 2007, the Chavez government’s security forces raided the main hub of Jewish life in Caracas – the site of the main Jewish school and club – the Colegio y Centro Social, Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica. The first time, the reason was allegedly to search for evidence in the high-profile murder case of a prosecutor. The second time, the government claimed it had been given an anonymous tip that there were weapons stored illegally in the club or that it was a front for Israel’s Mossad. Masked and armed police stormed over the walls as young children arrived for class. Nothing relating to the allegations was reported to have been found.

Another example of controversial rhetoric from Chavez was his December 24, 2005, Christmas Eve speech in which he blamed the “descendants of those who crucified Christ” for stealing the world’s wealth.

Speaking at a rehabilitation centre on December 24, Chavez said “the descendants of those who crucified Christ…have taken ownership of the riches of the world, a minority has taken ownership of the gold of the world, the silver, the minerals, water, the good lands, petrol, well, the riches, and they have concentrated the riches in a small number of hands.” (The full speech in Spanish can be found here and the remarks about Jews are on page 18.)

The Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote to Chavez, demanding that he apologise for “a negative reference to Jews” during that Christmas Eve speech. The Wiesenthal Centre also asked the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to “freeze the process” of incorporating Venezuela into Mercosur, a regional trade bloc, unless the Venezuelan president publicly apologised.

Some, including elements of the remaining Venezuelan Jewish community, took issue with the Wiesenthal Center’s claims, arguing that in Latin American liberation theology, “descendants of those who crucified Christ” can mean the wealthy in general, not specifically Jews.

Caracas stopped issuing tourist visas to Israelis following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when President Chavez accused Israel of perpetrating a “new Holocaust” and using Nazi-like methods to kill Lebanese and Palestinians.

Venezuela officially cut ties with Israel on Nov. 3, 2009, expelling the Israeli ambassador to protest the war in Gaza, or the ‘Holocaust that Israel was perpetrating in Gaza’ as Chávez put it. At a rally at the Sheik Ibrahim Mosque in Caracas, with senior Venezuelan officials in attendance, and Tareck El Aissami, the interior minister, said at the rally, “Our revolution is also the revolution for a Free Palestine.”

Meanwhile, President Chavez called on Jews in Venezuela to support his description of Israel’s leaders as a “government of assassins”, and vandals painted antisemitic epithets on the walls of Jewish institutions and businesses. Chavez urged the Jews in Venezuela to denounce “Israel’s barbarism. Do it. Don’t you strongly denounce any act of persecution and the Holocaust? What do you think we are looking at [in Gaza] if not another Holocaust? (referring to the Israeli army’s military incursion into Gaza).”

In June 2010, Chavez said, during a visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “Israel has become the assassin arm of the United States. The Israelis are not acting along. They are an executing arm of a genocidal policy.”

On Jan. 22, 2013, documents reportedly from SEBIN (the Venezuelan secret service) were published by Analises24, an Argentinian media outlet opposed to Chavez, having been received from “a former high-ranking SEBIN source”. The documents confirmed to Venezuelan Jews that their own government was spying on them. A 34-page report on Espacio Anna Frank, a Venezuelan human rights group which promotes tolerance by teaching the life story of young Holocaust victim Anne Frank, states, “We conclude that [Espacio Anna Frank] operates as a strategic arm of the Israeli intelligence in the country… operating in the field of subversive socio-political influence through representatives of far-right Zionist groups and economic elites.”

Rabbi Pynchas Brener – a vocal critic of Chavez who led a congregation in Caracas for 44 years before retiring to Florida in 2011 – was identified in the SEBIN documents as the Mossad’s chief spymaster in Venezuela, with a chart placing him at the head of an intricate web of informants and secret operatives who supposedly report directly to the Israeli intelligence service and the American and Canadian embassies in Caracas.

Nicolas Maduro, who took over from Chavez following his death in 2013 has continued the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel rhetoric in his own speeches.

Following the start of Israel’s operation against Hamas in Gaza in July 2014, President Maduro publicly accused Israel of pursuing “a war of extermination against the Palestinian people” and compared Gaza to Auschwitz. Social media was full of vitriol against Venezuelan Jews, graffiti reading, “Protect the Homeland…kill a Jew” was found in the Caracas subway, and the website of the country’s Jewish Newspaper, Munda Israelita, was hacked on July 26, 2014 with anti-Israel messages.

On Nov. 14, 2014, a member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Adel El Zabayar, told the Hezbollah-run Al Manar TV, “If we look into who financed Hitler before WWII we will see that the main financiers were the Zionist. He also said, “In 1934, they even issued a coin representing the friendship between Zionism and German Nazism.”

Meanwhile, the emigration of so many of Venezuela’s Jews has made it challenging to maintain the once-flourishing facilities and schools built by the community over the decades.

Today – hoping but keeping their heads down

Amidst the current unrest, members of the community are biding their time to see what will happen and hoping that the current crisis passes.

“There is a really confusing situation here, two presidents, and the situation of the Jewish community – like that of the other residents – isn’t good,” says Elias Farache, president of the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV) – the umbrella organisation for the Venezuelan Jewish community.

“We as a community do not officially support anyone. We hope and pray that there will be peace in the country and no violence. As of now, there are a few thousand Jews in the country, and for Jews, the situation is tolerable. The government tries to respect us and gives us freedom to live as Jews. There are synagogues, schools, and all the Jewish services are fine. It disturbs us that there are no diplomatic relations with Israel,” he added.

“Most of the people now are clearly behind Guaidó, not Maduro,” says Venezuelan journalist Gabriel Chocron, the executive director of Aurora, a Spanish-language news website based in Israel.

Chocron says that in the last presidential election, held a year-and-a-half ago, Maduro “won by a wide margin because the opposition didn’t run against him. They knew that everything was corrupt, but about 70% of the people didn’t vote. That says a lot about the situation… Thirteen of the fourteen Latin American nations did not recognize Maduro’s new government because they said the election was illegitimate.”

“As far as the Jewish community goes,” Chocron says, “the chief Sephardi rabbi, Yitzhak Cohen, met with Maduro a month and a half ago because the Jewish community wants to keep living in the country as a community whose safety is ensured, and can keep importing kosher products and maintain its Jewish lifestyle. The community keeps pretty much out of politics. Most of the members of the community hold very clear opinions – most of them oppose Maduro – but don’t want to take a chance and get caught up in the situation,” Chocron added.

While of course events in Venezuela are still very much up in the air, for a community long in decline, there is today new reason to hope, however warily, for Venezuela’s Jews.