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Jewish Journal

Venezuela’s Jews prosper but keep wary eye on future with Hugo Chavez

by Hal Weitzman

March 29, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The floor of the small synagogue in the center of Coro, the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Venezuela, is covered in a thick layer of sand intended to recall the Children of Israel's time in the Sinai Desert. It is also, however, a symbol of the transience of Jewish settlement in South America.

Jewish settlers arrived in Coro, a small town in western Venezuela that was the country's first capital, from Curacao in 1827. In 1855, nearly the entire community left after a mob ransacked Jewish homes and shops.

Venezuelan Jews say that was the last time anti-Semitism flared up in the country. But in the past few years, a community that had considered itself among the most well-established in South America has lost up to one-fifth of its members, prompted by an increasingly hostile environment under the government of President Hugo Chavez, a radical leftist who has been in power since 1999.

"People have left, but there hasn't been a massive exodus as some people have said," said Jacqueline Goldberg, editor of Nuevo Mundo Israelita, the community's weekly newspaper. Goldberg was referring to rumors in Caracas that up to half of the city's Jews had moved out of Venezuela since Chavez took power.

Accurate figures are hard to come by, but estimates suggest the community now numbers between 15,000 and 20,000. The vast majority are based in the capital of Caracas, with small communities in the cities of Valencia and Maracaibo and on the Caribbean island of Margarita.

A principal factor keeping them in Venezuela is quality of life. The community is mostly middle and upper class, and while it has suffered from living under a regime whose president routinely accuses the wealthy of undermining his "21st century socialist revolution," the government's policy platform also allows business opportunities.

"When you have a president who's massively expanding public spending, there's a lot of money to be made," said a Jewish businessman who asked not to be named. "A lot of Jews are involved in construction, which is booming, what with the government building more schools, hospitals, housing and roads."

Also keeping people from leaving are foreign exchange controls the Chavez government introduced in 2003, making it difficult for Venezuelans to take their wealth out of the country.

Another attraction is the strength and cohesion of the community. Given its small size, the Jewish infrastructure in Caracas is impressive: There are five synagogues, and the community carries out its own kosher slaughter. The centerpiece is the Club Hebraica, a large complex in Los Chorros, an up market residential neighborhood in the eastern part of the city.

The Hebraica comprises a well-equipped Jewish school and a sports and social club, with a large swimming pool, tennis, basketball and squash courts; soccer pitches, and even a bowling alley.

Hebraica's tranquility feels a world away from the social and economic revolution gripping Venezuela and symbolizes how the Caracas Jewish community has protected itself from some effects of that upheaval.

"If you're not involved in politics, you don't really feel the regime," said Rabbi Pynchas Brener, head of the Ashkenazi community.

Nevertheless, Venezuelan Jews feel a tangible discomfort.

"We've never had anti-Semitism here in Caracas, so this situation is something new," community member Moises Nessim said. "I would say there is worry and concern, but not yet fear -- more uncertainty about what's going to happen."

Although Chavez -- a former army officer and coup leader known for his fiery anti-American rhetoric -- has never been much favored by Venezuelan Jews, relations between his government and the community started to deteriorate in earnest in 2004. In November that year, Club Hebraica was raided by police under a search warrant issued by a local pro-Chavez judge. The warrant, which came after the murder of public prosecutor Danilo Anderson, suggested that the Hebraica was being used to store weapons.

The accusation apparently sprang from rumors that Anderson had been killed with equipment from Israel's Mossad spy agency. After searching the school and the club, police left empty-handed.

Incredulous that authorities might think the Jewish community was storing weapons in its school, some observers concluded that the raid really was intended to intimidate the community.

"Chavez must have known about" the raid, one community member said. "In this society, nothing happens without his permission. There was a feeling that the government wanted to send a sign that no group was immune from its control."

The situation deteriorated further a month later, when Chavez said in a speech that "the descendants of those who killed Christ" and "the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here" had "taken possession of all the wealth in the world."

Though the "Christ-killer" comment clearly appeared anti-Semitic, some commentators said Chavez actually was referring to global capitalism. Indeed, when Jewish leaders soon afterward met with the president at Miraflores Palace, his official residence, he assured them that he had not been referring to the Jewish community.

That meeting in January 2006 brokered an uneasy peace, but the official reaction to Israel's war with Hezbollah last year unleashed what Freddy Pressner, head of CAIV, the Jewish community's umbrella organization, calls "an explosion of anti-Semitism in Venezuela."

Chavez repeatedly compared Israel's behavior to that of the Nazis, a stance that locals say encouraged a wave of similar slanders. Sammy Eppel, a Jewish journalist in Caracas, catalogued a host of violently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic writing and cartoons in the local government and pro-government media.

In one article, which appeared last September in Diario de Caracas, a pro-government newspaper, journalist Tarek Muci Nasir wrote of the "Jewish race" that "the only resource they have left to stay united is to cause wars and genocide."

A cartoon that ran last year in Diario VEA, a state-owned newspaper, depicted Hitler saying, "How they've learned from me, these Israelis!"

One worrying trend is the extent to which these sentiments appear to be approved and encouraged by the government. The Ministry of Information last year organized a demonstration outside the main Sephardi synagogue in Caracas, an act that Pressner called "insensitive and imprudent."

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