February 4, 2009
The Last Straw in Venezuela?
On Shabbat morning, Jan. 31, Caracas Jews, already rattled by increasing government-sponsored anti-Israel campaigning, awoke to yet another manifestation of hostility. Only this time it was worse.
Overnight, 15 heavily armed men stormed into Caracas’ principal synagogue, Mariperez, breaking through its electric security barrier. At gunpoint, they tied and muzzled two security guards. Then they pilfered offices, desecrated the Torah scrolls and ritual items and threw them all to the ground. After five hours, the attackers fled, shooting in the air and shouting anti-Semitic slurs, leaving their parting message of hate graffittied across the walls: “Out Jews,” “Damned Jews,” “Murderers,” “Death.”
The Jewish community in Venezuela, now estimated between 8,000 and 10,000, has been living under increasing tension, grappling with conflicting messages from the government. Their lives as Jews have been a dizzying ride of fear, reassurance, panic and disbelief. But the boldness and ferocity of the Caracas attack seems to have convinced at least some of them that it is time to go.
Before President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998, the Jewish community enjoyed a solid and stable relationship with the Venezuelan government and people for many generations. Since then, the relationship has been strained over a series of disturbing incidents, such as Chávez’s deepening relationship with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, two raids in 2004 and 2007 of a Jewish day school and community center by armed soldiers allegedly in search of weapons and comments in the media about “the killers of Christ” in connection with amassed wealth. This year, however, after the war broke out in Gaza, government rhetoric ratcheted up even further, with government-sponsored anti-Israel rallies, regular anti-Semitic on-air readings and writings in government-controlled media, followed by the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and the breaking of relations with Israel.
While President Chávez overtly assails Israel about its policies, he has issued many reassurances to local Jewish community leaders over time. This time was no exception. In a statement on Monday, Feb. 2, Chávez rejected any connection between his government and the synagogue attackers.
“We condemn the actions against the Caracas synagogue,” Chávez said. “ Violence must be condemned no matter where it comes from, and we will combat it no matter where it comes from.”
The community remains skeptical. Chávez is largely viewed as promoting and inciting anti-Semitism in a country that had otherwise never been anti-Semitic. In a videotaped news report, Abraham Levi, President of the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), an umbrella organization for Jewish organizations, denounced the government’s “anti-Jewish posture, originating with the war in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas ... inciting the people.”
Internationally, Jewish organizations all point to an inflammatory media, blurring the lines between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism, ranging from calls for a boycott of Jewish companies whose owners support Israel, to overt demonization of Israel and the Jewish community.
In his condemnation of Israel, for example, Chávez has called upon the local Jewish community to denounce the actions of the Israeli government.
“We have a strong Palestinian community here that we love, and a Jewish community that we love.” Chávez urged Jewish community leaders to speak out against the war in Gaza.
In response to accusations of inciting anti-Semitism and his responsibility for the profanation of the synagogue, Chávez said, “It is far from my government to compel acts of violence…. One has to ask oneself, who benefits? Not the government, not the people, not the revolution.” Then Chávez went on to make a veiled reference to his political opponents, as if they were behind the attack. “It is certain sectors of the oligarchy that are seeking to darken these bright days,” he said, “seeking to create a scandal right before the Feb. 15 elections.”
On Feb. 15, Venezuelans will go to the polls in a special election to decide whether Chávez can run for office indefinitely. If the referendum passes, many Jews believe Chávez will cement his hold on power.
The Caracas attack directly threatened the Jewish community, and their tone now is distinctly different than it had been before Jan. 31, when they seemed reluctant to point fingers at the government for the rising anti-Semitism. Yet the community has been facing a string of incidents, all leading to the same irrevocable conclusion. Approximately one month ago, the Hebraica, a large Jewish community center and school, was raided by the police. A few weeks ago, a rabbi was beaten on the street while taking a walk on Shabbat. Two weeks ago, on Jan. 20, services at the same synagogue, Mariperez, had to be suspended due to obscene graffiti. The synagogue did not feel it could guarantee the safety of its congregants. This time, services again were canceled.
Elías Farache, president of the Asociación Israelita de Venezuela, said that attendance had been down due to suspects seen filming congregants and the synagogue’s grounds.
“We feel threatened, terrified and unprotected,” Farache said. “We are citizens and have been for several generations. It is incumbent upon the government to guarantee our permanence here, our right to worship and our lives.”
Meanwhile, community members remain at a loss as to how to react to these hostilities. Some are considering leaving their country for good, while others re-assert confidence in their safety in Caracas. One local synagogue member, comforted by Chávez’s statement, told me by phone, “Venezuelans are not anti-Semitic and never have been. There is a clear distinction between an anti-Semitic posture and an anti-Israel posture.”
Another recalled the community’s deep roots in the country and discussed emigration in the context of exile: “Jews in Venezuela date back to the days of Simon Bolivar ... and as Venezuelans, have lived through much. Governments come and go, and this will not last.”
No one had enough confidence in their safety to allow their name to be used.
“Of course it seems to all of us that this was carried out by a parapolice group, and it reeks of government,” said one synagogue member. “Chávez’s response, blaming the oligarchy, makes him even more suspect, since it is evidence that he is not seeking the responsible ones, but a scapegoat.” In response to questions about the future, this synagogue member added, “The result of the referendum will define our future here…. Of course we are considering Plan B ... perhaps Colombia, perhaps Israel.”