None of the 1,500 children at a Jewish day school in Caracas will forget drop-off on the morning of Nov. 29. On that morning last week, 25 government investigators, some of them armed and hooded, intercepted busloads of kids and turned them away.
Pandemonium broke loose as confused parents attempted to leave the school through the narrow driveway. Other panicked parents, whose kids were already inside the school, tried desperately to gain access. A couple of dozen children were locked inside, the preschoolers in one room and the older children in another. Not knowing whether this was the unfolding of a hostage crisis, anguished parents pleaded for the return of their children. Over the next 30 to 60 minutes, the investigators allowed all the children out. They were unharmed.
Once everyone was evacuated, the investigators remained on the premises for three hours. Aside from the incident with the children, the government agents were courteous and respectful. School officials said the search teams took nothing and left the offices and classrooms undisturbed. Upon completing their operation, the detectives declared that the search of the Centro Social, Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica, was "unfruitful."
The raid, it turns out, took place in connection with the murder of investigating prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, who was assassinated in his car by a remote bomb planted in his cellular phone. Anderson was in charge of several politically sensitive cases, namely the prosecution of key members of the opposition to President Hugo Chávez in the attempted coup of 2002.
The prosecutors had received a tip reporting the transfer of weapons and explosives from Club Magnum, a shooting club, to the Hebraica. Club Magnum was not searched.
Community leaders and international Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee immediately denounced the raid and expressed outrage. In a press release to South American papers, the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the incident as an "anti-Semitic act, more like a pogrom than a judicial proceeding," and demanded immediate suspension of Venezuela's incorporation into Mercosur, the South American Trade Association.
Local indignation was just as strong. In a stirring letter to El Nacional, one of Venezuela's main newspapers, Pinchas Brenner, chief rabbi of Venezuela, denounced the raid describing the method as an "astute economy of intimidation [since] there is not a single Jewish family in Caracas that was not affected. Many of us have children in the school, grandchildren, great-grandchildren -- or friends. An attack on the school is the most effective way of jolting the entire Jewish population."
Even though local papers were abuzz with incensed commentary by Jewish groups, official community statements were careful to omit the accusation, "anti-Semitism."
Why such an apolitical Jewish cultural and community center would be targeted remains a mystery to the community. Since its establishment in Venezuela, the Jewish community has adopted a stance of "live and let live" and has deliberately kept a low profile in political issues. Daniel Slimak, president of the CAIV (Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela), an umbrella organization that includes major Jewish organizations, said, "Our institutional communities do not intervene nor have ever intervened in political activities."
However, the Jewish community's discretion has proven ineffective in the face of independent, non-government sponsored, opinion pieces disseminated in the media in the days preceding the raid. Comparisons of the style of Anderson's assassination to Israeli targeted killings abounded. In the most well-known example, Israelis assassinated Hamas bombmaker Yayha Ayyash in 1996 using a booby-trapped cell-phone.
Government channels unwittingly contributed by airing these commentaries as examples of irresponsible reporting. The commentary resulted in a press release by the Israeli Embassy in Caracas, which television stations aired, condemning the murder of Anderson and unequivocally stating it had no connection whatsoever to it.
"This has been one of the most difficult weeks for the Jewish community in Venezuela," Slimak asserted, "not only because of the children, the fear and the raid, but because everyone is wondering what the real reason behind the raid was."
Most community leaders agreed that, aside from isolated anti-Semitic incidents, there was no anti-Semitism in Venezuela. Slimak is eager to point out that "neither the president nor any high-ranking member of his administration has ever uttered a single word against the community."
Furthermore, according to Slimak, in times of increased terror alert, the community has always sought and obtained government protection -- such as additional security during High Holidays.
Additionally, "Vice President José Vicente Rangel has always been responsive and a good friend to the community," he said.
Reports on anti-Semitism, however, present a bleaker picture. In its Anti-Semitism Worldwide Report of 2002/3 on Venezuela, the Stephen Roth Institute of Tel Aviv reports, "a great deal of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda, including classical manifestations of anti-Semitism."
According to the report, after the unsuccessful coup against Chávez, unfounded theories circulated in the independent media about involvement of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad. Additionally, the report provides examples of anti-Semitic statements issued by important groups such as the left-wing MVR (Movimiento Quinta República) accusing Pedro Carmona, a prominent member of the opposition, during his brief interim presidency, of "having intended to conduct a 'Sharon operation' [in order to do] what the Jews are doing in Palestine."
The Venezuelan-Jewish community in Miami, which keeps close contact with its sister community in Caracas, supports the view that anti-Semitism is at work. An unnamed community leader and activist, concurs with the Wiesenthal Center in that, "the raid sent a strong message to the Jewish community."
Further, she points out that general opinion among the community here is that "[the raid] planted in the minds of the people that the Jews are destabilizing Venezuela." Recognizing that the Israeli Embassy in Caracas should not intervene, efforts are being made from Miami to bring the matter before the United Nations.
At home, however, the outlook is more optimistic, at least officially. According to Brenner's letter, Rangel assured that "the raid was in response to a decision by one of judges on the case, and that the executive would never initiate any such aggression against the Jewish community."
In the words of the rabbi: "His [Rangel's] word was comforting, but no sedative because the most sacred institution of the Jewish community has been violated."
"This is the first stain' on the government's record toward us," Slimak said. "We feel optimistic and we want to believe that what occurred was an isolated incident."