On February 6th, 2009, Shlomo Cohen, Israeli Ambassador in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, received an unwelcome and distressing phone call. The government of Venezuela was expelling all Israeli diplomats and staff – they had 72 hours to leave the country.
In a country whose government had become increasingly hostile to Israel, the call was hardly a surprise. President Hugo Chávez was organizing an anti-Israel demonstration the very next day to denounce what he called Israel’s “Nazi-like atrocities” in Gaza. Pro-Arab sentiment in Caracas, also on the rise, was manifest everywhere, with TV images of Parliament members wearing kafiahs, Palestinian flags ubiquitously waved in the streets, and Muslims praying in mosques.
Danny Biran, Israel’s Head of Administration for North and South America, flew to Caracas, the country’s capitol city, to help close the Israeli Embassy. He provided jewishjournal.com with this account during a briefing in Los Angeles this week.
Venezuelan government rhetoric is not just anti-Israel. It often crosses the line into anti-Semitism, with frequent calls to demonstrate against Israel and its allies – the Jews. Additionally, Chávez is calling on Jews themselves to demonstrate against Israel and its offensive in Gaza.
Against this backdrop, the local Jewish community has been struggling to understand the depth and breadth of this new anti-Semitic posture in a country that – until Chávez—had been nothing but welcoming. Temples had recently been subjected to violent anti-Semitic attacks, leaving ominous messages in their wake: “Damn Jews,” “Assassin Jews,” “Out of here, Jews.” Now, after the Embassy’s inauguration 60 years ago, there would be no Israeli embassy, leaving Jews feeling powerless and stranded.
Closing an embassy is no minor task, said Biran, and proved a formidable one for diplomats more accustomed to building than dismantling them. All kinds of equipment would have to be moved, classified materials handled, cars sold, kids pulled out of schools, relationships suspended. Yet the message was sharp and clear. And the clock was ticking.
Embassy staff embarked on closing the embassy at breakneck pace, simultaneously balancing a dizzying array of complicated logistics and the handling of frantic calls from the dismayed community. Careful not to create panic, yet understanding the need for straightforwardness, the message from the embassy was clear: “We will not leave you alone.”
Amid the frenzy, another piece of bad news was delivered: Chávez now announced that he was cutting off all relations with Israel. Diplomats were now stripped of all immunity, thus deemed illegal aliens, with no protection whatsoever.
Rapidly assessing the gravity of the situation, Consul Biran called his colleagues in Buenos Aires, Panama , New York, and Miami, urging them to come immediately to Caracas to help. As diplomats arrived within hours, Venezuelan authorities intercepted them at the airport. The government refused them entry. Officials escorted the Israelis to a room, where they were held for the next nine hours. No one in government returned phone calls.
After nine hours, the diplomats were released from the airport. Venezuelan Army commandos and three civilians escorted them to the embassy. They were allowed only three days in the country and would be followed everywhere they went, at their hotels, in their conversations, in all their movements.
The sense of precariousness intensified. Without immunity or legal status, Venezuela was an increasingly insecure place. Commandos assigned to the diplomats were everywhere, taking pictures, interrogating all who entered the embassy. Numerous calls to government dignitaries went unreturned. And, atypically, this Jewish community had no connections in the government. Contingency plans began to take shape for the worst-case scenario. If necessary, Biran states, “Everyone would be taken out of the country.”
On February 22, amid tears and sorrow, the flag and sign of the Israeli Embassy in Caracas came down; the embassy was closed.
The situation in Caracas is currently volatile. Consul Biran ascertained that the commandos assigned to overseeing the closure of the embassy were receiving direct orders from Chávez and two high ranking officers, one of whom reportedly has close ties to Hezbollah. In addition, Chávez has been cultivating relationships with the Iranian government for years. There are now numerous weekly direct flights from Caracas to Tehran. Additionally, many reports solidly point to a strong Hezbollah presence.
Expressing dismay and concern at the present state of affairs, Biran adds, “As a Jew, as an Israeli, as a civil servant [traveling the world for years], it is unbelievable to see a community in such an environment–harder than I had seen.” There is general concern that the combination of Chávez’s pro-Palestinian, pro-Iranian, pro-Arab support, and his anti-Israel propaganda, are creating a propitious environment for terrorist attacks.
Nonetheless, the Jewish community is not in a state of panic. Amidst his anti-Israel propaganda, President Chávez sends frequent messages of support to the Jewish community, assuaging fears. Underscoring the unpredictable nature of his posture toward the community, he issued an order that matzah and kosher wine would not be available for Pesach. Under pressure, he reversed the order.
“No ones knows where this situation will lead,” Biran said. “The Jewish community would welcome outside shows of support, be it through missions, or through connections with governments around the world.”