Venezuelan Jews authenticate 19th-century mikvah


Venezuela’s Jewish community has certified the authenticity of a 200-year-old mikvah, or ritual bath, found in 2013 during restoration work on a museum.

The president of the Institute of Cultural Heritage of Venezuela, Omar Vielma, said the finding in Coro near the Alberto Henriquez Museum marks a precedent to preserve the site as the first Jewish settlement in the country. Vielma said he expects to find more artifacts.

“The certification is essential for this finding to gain legal support aiming at, in the near future, being named part of Venezuela’s official cultural heritage,” said Vielma, who was present for the certification on Monday.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have noted the unique design of the mikvah and said it was used by the Jewish inhabitants of the area, the Correo del Orinoco newspaper reported.

The finding in Coro, the capital of the Falcon state in western Venezuela about 200 miles from Caracas, has been catalogued by the Institute of Cultural Heritage as an example of diversity of the archaeological heritage of the site, which was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

The Jewish community was given the land where the mikvah was discovered. The site had been damaged by torrential rain and flooding in 2010.

The mikvah will become a study object in the curriculum of the school of anthropology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and will be added to the country’s national registry for cultural heritage.

Venezuela is home to some 9,000 Jews, down from some 25,000 in 1999. Many Jews left, mainly for Florida and Israel, due to a deteriorating financial and social climate, along with a growing anti-Semitic environment established under the Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro regimes.

With Venezuela in a tailspin, growing number of Jews opting for ‘Plan B’


They left after Venezuelan secret police raided a Jewish club in 2007, and after the local synagogue was ransacked by unidentified thugs two years later.

They left after President Hugo Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador to Caracas, and when he called on Venezuela’s Jews to condemn Israel for its actions in Gaza in 2009.

They left when Caracas claimed the ignoble title of most dangerous city in the world — and when inflation hit double digits, food shortages took hold and the country’s murder rate reached 79 per 100,000 people.

With Venezuela now roiled by anti-government demonstrations — the death toll reached 18 last Saturday — Venezuelan Jews who remain have yet another reason to leave their country: growing despair.

“There’s less hope about the future,” said Andres Beker, a Venezuelan Jewish expatriate in the United States whose parents still live in Caracas. “My parents are huge fans of Venezuela. Until last year I thought they would stay no matter what. Now, for the first time, they’re talking about Plan B: leaving Venezuela.”

Over the last 15 years, from the time Chavez came to power and in the year since Nicolas Maduro has ruled the country, the Venezuelan Jewish community has shrunk by more than half. It is now estimated at about 7,000, down from a high of 25,000 in the 1990s. Many of those who left were community leaders.

It’s not just Venezuelan Jews who are leaving. Hundreds of thousands of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans have relocated in recent years, swelling the size of expat communities in places like Miami, Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.

The exodus of Venezuelan Jews has put a great strain on the community’s institutions.

“Emigration has really played a big factor in the community — that’s our main problem,” said Sammy Eppel, a Caracas journalist and Jewish community member who also serves as director of the B’nai Brith Human Rights Commission in Venezuela.

“When we were a numerous and prosperous community, we built numerous and heavy institutions,” Eppel said. “A lot of our members have left, and we are left with the same institutions but with less people to take care of them. We have to make serious adjustments while making sure the services we provide to the community don’t suffer.”

A high school junior named Allan who attends the Jewish community school, Hebraica, says his grade has shrunk to 85 students from 120 six years ago. The younger grades are much smaller, with 40-50 kids each. The school is now considering combining the first and second grades, he said.

Interested in keeping as low a profile as possible, leaders of Jewish institutions in Venezuela declined to be interviewed by JTA for this story.

The massive anti-government demonstrations that began on Feb. 12 were sparked in part by new lows for Venezuela’s economy and an upsurge in violence.

“It started deteriorating to the point where a couple months ago you couldn’t get milk, chicken, eggs, toilet paper,” Beker said. “It’s really started to affect all families.”

Allan, the high schooler, said the streets long have been off limits for him and his friends, due to threats of violence and kidnapping. But these days, it’s hard to leave the house to go anywhere.

“Now it’s more dangerous,” Allan said. “Nobody goes out, nobody goes to parties, nobody goes to dinner. Everybody’s in their houses.”

Outsiders might puzzle over why anybody would stay given the challenging circumstances of daily life. But Venezuelan Jews say leaving home is never easy. There are those with jobs that can’t be shifted overseas, and those who lack the money or energy to leave and start over somewhere else. And the changes have been gradual enough that, time and time again, Venezuelan Jews — like their gentile countrymen — simply have adjusted to the new reality.

“It’s a matter of adjusting, I think, not a matter of survival,” Eppel said. “That’s what the community has been trying to do: adjust to adverse circumstances.”

Sandra Iglicki, who left Venezuela for South Florida a decade ago but still goes back often, says it’s also been emotionally difficult to leave a country that for decades was good to Jews, serving as an anti-Semitism-free refuge for European Jewish families who fled the Nazis.

“It’s very painful for the community in Venezuela,” she said.

And there’s still some hope, even among expats, that the country eventually will right itself.

“If you talk to a lot of Venezuelans that are here, they’re waiting for this to be over,” Iglicki said in a phone interview from Florida. “I would love to go back to Venezuela.”

Many emigrants still work in Venezuela, commuting back for weekdays to run their businesses while their families adjust to life in a new country.

In Miami, the last few weeks have been particularly fraught for Venezuelan expats, filled with anxious phone calls to relatives back home and endless agitation on social media.

With state media in Venezuela blacking out news of the massive demonstrations, the expats have occupied the peculiar position of funneling news to relatives back home in Caracas about what’s happening in Venezuela, often via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Offline, there have been large demonstrations in Miami against the Maduro government, which is blamed for Venezuela’s tailspin.

“This is something that in Miami is top news every day,” said Juan Dircie, associate director of American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute in Miami. “The exile community of Venezuelans has been holding rallies, doing interviews on TV, writing letters to the editor. The demonstrations are in favor of democracy and human rights, but of course there is a big component of opposition to the Maduro government.”

Beker, who left Venezuela eight years ago at age 17 to go to Emory University, said he recently did a quick tally to calculate whether he had more family members in Miami or Caracas. He said he was shocked when he realized Florida won out.

“It’s a little sad,” Beker said. “You think: I’m just going to college for a couple of years and coming back. But that never happens.”

Venezuelan president: My grandparents were Jewish


Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro, denying that his government has an anti-Semitic bent, said his grandparents were of Sephardic Jewish descent.

“My grandparents were Jewish, so many of the Maduros, same as the Moors [Muslims], converted to Catholicism in Venezuela,” Maduro told Apporea, a pro-government media outlet, last week. “The mother of the Minister of Communication and Information Ernesto Villegas is of the same tradition.”

During the interview, Maduro rejected allegations he attributed to Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, that his government was anti-Semitic.

“I deeply lament the declarations of Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who I know and have met with in Venezuela many times, saying that there is anti-Semitism in Venezuela and accusing Chavez and me … if he wants he can accuse me, but he should leave Chavez alone.”

Jews have been leaving Venezuela since Chavez came to power due to a combination of the dramatic rise in violent crime, economic instability and a series of police raids and attacks on Jewish institutions. The Jewish community now numbers about 9,000 people, down from 22,000 in 1999.

Government-sponsored media have frequently used anti-Semitic rhetoric against opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, a devout Catholic whose grandparents were Jewish.

During the interview, Maduro condemned the Israeli air strikes against Syria last week and its “aggression” against Iran, but he said he differentiated between Israel and the Jewish people.

“We reject the campaign [against us],” said Maduro. “We are a humanitarian people. We are not anti-Semites.”

Capriles, grandson of Holocaust survivors, calling for recount after losing Venezuelan presidency


Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, is calling for a recount after narrowly losing the country’s presidential election.

Nicolas Maduro, the acting president and the preferred successor of late President Hugo Chavez, was declared the winner of the April 14 election with 50.7 percent of the vote, compared to to 49.1 percent for Capriles, representing a difference of 235,000 ballots.

In calling for the recount, Capriles cited voting irregularities. He has not accepted Maduro’s declaration of victory, Reuters reported.

Leaving Venezuela


Sitting outside a Starbucks coffee shop in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., a small city north of Miami Beach, Paul Hariton recalled the dramatic night in 2002 when he and his wife decided to leave their native Venezuela.

Leftist leader Hugo Chavez had just returned to power after a failed coup, and the Haritons feared the political fallout.

“We thought he was gone already,” said Hariton, 56. “We came back from a big opposition demonstration in the city center where several people were shot, including one member of the community. A girl was shot in the head. She survived.”

The next day the Haritons were in Florida. Eleven years later they’re still there.

“For my kids, it was a great move,” Hariton said. “My oldest son is going to medical school. My daughter just graduated and is working at the bank. And my youngest son is 17 and is applying for university.”

Over the past decade, thousands of Venezuelan Jews have followed suit, driven abroad by rising crime rates and the growing anti-Semitism many attribute to Chavez’s harsh criticism of Israel and cozy alliance with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. About 25,000 Jews lived in Venezuela in the 1990s — a number that has shrunk to 9,000 today, according to CAIV, the umbrella group for Venezuelan Jewry.

“I can’t tell you if 10 years from now we’ll be half of what we are, but the trend at the moment is a decreasing one, which is very worrying for the community,” said Efraim Lapscher, CAIV’s vice president.

Many Jews in Venezuela are determined to stay. They have businesses, a sense of cultural belonging and an impressive array of Jewish institutions painstakingly built over decades. Yet uncertainty after the death of Chavez last month may send more overseas to join their friends and family living abroad, many of them in Florida.

Just three hours by plane from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, the Miami region has similar weather, Spanish is widely spoken and is home to a large Jewish community, making it a favorite among Venezuelan Jews looking for a fresh start.

Many of the newcomers have joined the Michael-Ann Russel Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Hebraica, the sprawling Jewish compound in Caracas. Though it lacks the Hebraica’s dramatic surroundings — notably its location at the foot of the lush Avila mountain — the tennis courts, pool, well-kept buildings and easygoing lifestyle are much the same.

“There is a lot more use of facilities, not just for sports,” said Ariel Bentata, a Venezuelan Jew and the JCC’s president. “It’s more of a gathering place now, and that’s a big change. This is something that Venezuelan Jews have brought from the Hebraica.”

Indeed, Caraqueno transplants are likely to bump into many familiar faces in these parts. Rabbi Pynchas Brener was chief rabbi of the main Ashkenazi synagogue of Caracas for 44 years until he retired here two years ago as he neared 80.

“I could have stayed on for another three years; I was offered that opportunity,” Brener said. “But I didn’t want to at this stage of the game, basically because of the tremendous personal insecurity [in Caracas]. And I have eight of my nine grandchildren living here. So that’s why I came.”

Florida may be the destination of choice for Venezuelan Jews, most of whom live in Caracas, but it is by no means the only one. Smaller communities of Venezuelan Jewish expats exist in Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala — Spanish-speaking countries with small but robust Jewish populations.

Others have resettled in Israel. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, 1,290 Venezuelans have moved to the Jewish state since 1999, numbers that do not include the Venezuelan Jews who already were Israeli citizens before they moved. A Jewish official said the number of Jews in the latter category is “sizable.”

Some Venezuelan Jews have gone on to significant successes in their adopted countries.

Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz is working on a movie starring Rober De Niro and Gael Garcia Bernal. Michel Kreisel was a member of the special effects team that won an Academy Award for “Life of Pi.” Moses Naim, Venezuela’s former minister of development, is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and a respected columnist for Spain’s El Pais.

“Generally, more idealistic people or those with relatives came here,” said Maor Melul, 37, a computer engineer who moved to Israel from Caracas in January. “The people who have a lot of money go to Miami. And generally those who go to Panama and Costa Rica are waiting to go back to Venezuela if things improve.”

Melul fell in love with Tel Aviv over a previous extended stay. Most of his friends in Israel are from Brazil, Venezuela’s neighbor to the south, but if people mistake him for a Brazilian, he is quick to correct them.

“In my room I have an indigenous clay doll with the colors of the flag of Venezuela and the stars,” he said. “On my dining table I have a Venezuelan flag. And of course there’s the Venezuelan soccer team. I wore its T-shirt when I made aliyah. After you leave, you start showing your colors, showing you are Venezuelan.”

For the most part, Melul feels detached from the place he had called home for decades. Most of his family and friends either died or emigrated. Only occasionally does he feel nostalgic, like when he goes through old photo albums.

“I look at pictures of coconuts and the water and how I’d love to be there right now,” he said. “But I can’t.”

Hariton believes most Venezuelan Jews would not go back, even if things improved. They are settled in their new homes, he said, and think only sparingly of their country of birth.

“I miss what I had, which is not there anymore,” Hariton said. “The community we had and country we had is not there anymore.” 

Venezuela Jews unveil new main Sephardic synagogue


The Jewish community of Caracas officially dedicated the Venezuelan city's new main Sephardic synagogue, Tiferet Israel Este.

Hundreds gathered Sunday at the multimillion-dollar synagogue in the Las Palos Grandes neighborhood for the ceremony led by Isaac Cohen, the chief rabbi of the local Sephardic community.

“As Kohelet said, there is a time for everything,” Cohen told JTA last week. “[The new synagogue] shows that people seek religion in their lives, and we have freedom of religion here.”

Tiferet Israel Este offers an alternative to Tiferet Israel, the old main Sephardic synagogue located in a now dangerous part of town where few Jews remain. In 2009, armed vandals attacked Tiferet Israel, desecrating Torah scrolls and scrawling anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls.

The unveiling of the synagogue was postponed by a week due to the death of Hugo Chavez, the country's longtime president.

About 9,000 Jews live in Venezuela, down from 25,000 in the mid-1990s.

Venezuela to probe Chavez cancer ‘poisoning’ accusation


Venezuela will set up a formal inquiry into suspicions that the late President Hugo Chavez's cancer was the result of poisoning by his enemies abroad, the government said.

The accusation has been derided by critics of the government, who view it as a typical Chavez-style conspiracy theory intended to feed fears of “imperialist” threats to Venezuela's socialist system and distract people from daily problems.

Still, acting President Nicolas Maduro vowed to push through a serious investigation into the claim, which was first raised by Chavez himself after he was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

“We will seek the truth,” Maduro told regional TV network Telesur late on Monday. “We have the intuition that our commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way.”

Foreign scientists will be invited to join a government commission to probe the accusation, the OPEC nation's acting leader said.

Maduro, 50, is Chavez's handpicked successor and is running as the government's candidate in a snap presidential election on April 14 that was triggered by his boss's death last week.

He is trying to keep voters' attention firmly focused on Chavez to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his millions of supporters. The opposition is centering its campaign on portraying Maduro, a former bus driver, as an incompetent who, they say, is morbidly exploiting Chavez's demise.

'HIS FAITHFUL SON'

“They're attacking him saying he isn't Chavez. Of course Nicolas isn't Chavez. But he is his faithful, responsible, revolutionary son,” senior Socialist Party and campaign official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters.

“All these insults and vilification are going to be turned into votes for us on April 14.”

Running for the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition is a business-friendly state governor, Henrique Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in a presidential vote last year.

Tuesday was the last day of official mourning for Chavez, although ceremonies appear set to continue. His embalmed body was to be taken in procession to a military museum on Friday.

Millions have filed past Chavez's coffin to pay homage to a man who was adored by many of the poor for his humble roots and welfare policies, but was also hated by many people for his authoritarian style and bullying of opponents.

Though Maduro has spoken about combating crime and extending development programs in the slums, he has mostly used his frequent appearances on state TV to talk about Chavez.

The 58-year-old president was diagnosed with cancer in his pelvic region in June 2011 and underwent four surgeries before dying of what sources said was metastasis in the lungs.

Maduro said it was too early to specifically point a finger over Chavez's cancer, but noted that the United States had laboratories with experience in producing diseases.

“He had a cancer that broke all norms,” Maduro told Telesur. “Everything seems to indicate that they affected his health using the most advanced techniques … He had that intuition from the beginning.”

Maduro has compared his suspicions over Chavez's death with allegations that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004 from poisoning by Israeli agents.

The case echoes Chavez's long campaign to convince the world that his idol and Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar died of poisoning by his enemies in Colombia in 1830.

Venezuela's National Assembly was expected to begin debating a proposal by pro-government legislators and Chavez supporters to call a referendum – which could also be held on April 14 – on whether he should be buried at the pantheon in Caracas, a mausoleum built for Bolivar's remains.

OPPOSITION'S UPHILL FIGHT

Though keeping a low profile out of respect for Chavez's supporters, opponents are furious at what they see as the use of his death by government officials to bolster their chances of staying in power.

Launching his candidacy on Monday, Maduro's speech began with a recording of Chavez singing the national anthem. Hearing his booming voice again, many supporters wept.

As well as the wave of sympathy over Chavez, the opposition faces a well-financed state apparatus, institutions packed with government supporters, and problems within its own rank-and-file, still demoralized over October's presidential election defeat and a mauling at gubernatorial polls in December.

Capriles, an energetic lawyer and career politician, has tried to kick-start his campaign with accusations that Maduro and other senior officials lied about the details of Chavez's illness, hiding the gravity of his condition from Venezuelans.

That has brought him a torrent of abuse in return, with the words “Nazi” and “fascist” being used by senior government officials – despite Capriles' Jewish roots.

An opposition official, Henri Falcon, told a news conference Capriles had not registered his candidacy in person on Monday because his team had received “very serious information that an ambush was being prepared for him.”

At stake in the election is not only the future of Chavez's leftist “revolution,” but the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and other aid crucial to the economies of left-wing allies around Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia.

Venezuela boasts the world's largest oil reserves.

Polls from before Chavez's death gave Maduro a lead over Capriles of more than 10 percentage points.

Though there are hopes for a post-Chavez rapprochement between Venezuela and the United States, a diplomatic spat worsened on Monday when Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation.

Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Christopher Wilson

With Chavez gone, Venezuelan Jews look warily to future


The eyes of a dead man stare at visitors passing through immigration at Simon Bolivar International Airport. They follow drivers making the trek along the tortuous four-lane highway through a mountain range leading to town. And they reappear at public spaces throughout this city.

It's easy to be spooked by the ubiquitous image of Hugo Chavez, the larger-than-life leftist leader who died last week from an unspecified form of cancer. But in Venezuela, it has been the reality since he came to power in 1999.

“It never used to be this way with presidents before him,” said David Bittan, the owner of a taxi company whose cousin of the same name is the president of the Venezuelan Jewish umbrella group CAIV. “They started putting up these posters everywhere after he was first elected. It's in line with Communist Party propaganda.”

With Chavez gone, this divided nation finds itself at a crossroads. Will Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, carry on “until victory,” as the posters of his political patron promise? Or might he chart a new path, taking a more conciliatory approach to relations with the United States and with the business community?

Or could opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, surprise everyone by winning the presidential election set for April 14?

For members of Venezuela's dwindling Jewish community, the political uncertainty is particularly unnerving. During Chavez's 14 years in power, their numbers have dropped from 25,000 to about 9,000 today, driven abroad by economic instability, anti-Semitism in state-owned media and rampant crime that made Caracas a serious contender for murder capital of the world.

“We have great institutions, we have a great school, we have a wonderful Hebraica,” said Efraim Lapscher, the vice president of CAIV, referring to the sprawling community center that is the heart of Jewish life here. “We, our fathers and our grandfathers, built this with a lot of sweat, ideology and hard work. And it's painful for us to see them slowly emptying out.”

Jewish life in Caracas revolves around the Hebraica, the compound at the foot of the Avila Mountain that is also home to the Jewish school and a growing number of communal institutions. Past the heavily guarded gate and high walls is the lush campus with a pool, soccer pitch, tennis courts, gym, food court — even a bank. On a warm day, children gambol by the pool while their parents lay on deck chairs.

“It's a beautiful prison,” said a representative of an international Jewish organization based in Caracas. “Members of the community live their entire lives there without leaving because of fear of crime outside. Children are so used to be being cooped up that when they visit Israel, they call their parents and say, 'Guess what, I'm on a bus!' That's an exciting experience for them.”

The sense of siege hinders the willingness of Venezuelan Jews to publicly criticize their government, though there is little love lost for the president who severed diplomatic ties with Israel while embracing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Lapscher talks about the community's post-Chavez prospects with deliberate caution so as not to be construed as taking sides.

“Sometime in the near future we'll have elections and we can change the government. Or the same government will stay but we will have the same issues,” he said. “We will try to give the best Jewish life possible and combat anti-Semitism if it comes from the government, its supporters or from the outside.“

Asked about the tense political situation, most Venezuelan Jews direct questions to community leaders, fearing unwelcome repercussions. An exception is Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist who writes for the opposition paper El Nacional. Eppel has paid a heavy price for his outspoken critique of Chavismo, Chavez's particular brand of socialism.

Eppel says government interference led him to shut down a call center he operated and that officials have tried unsuccessfully to isolate him from the community leadership. But still he blames the Chavez government for economic policies that have led to periodic shortages of food staples, frequent devaluations of the bolivar fuerte and a marked drop in oil output.

“The government that takes over is going to have a difficult situation,” he said. “Politics you can manipulate, but the economy is a science. It's very hard to manipulate the economy. And when hard times come, they will come for everybody. And unfortunately, those hard times might hit the Jewish community also.”

If such predictions come to pass, it may send even more Venezuelan Jews to places such as Florida, the destination of choice for Jewish expats. Pynchas Brener, the chief rabbi of Venezuela for 44 years and friends with all its presidents “except this one,” is one of many who now call the Miami area home.

“I could have stayed on for three more years, but there is tremendous personal insecurity,” Brener said. “Besides, I have eight of my nine grandchildren here.”

Brener sees two possible paths for the country: It could become like Cuba, with the Jewish community losing most of its verve and viability, or Chavismo might be defeated at the ballot box. Of the two, he sees the latter as more likely.

“Even though the government has won a few elections — although not fairly because they used government resources — I still see half the population or close to half the population resisting, so I don't think it will turn into Cuba,” he said. “I don't think the government will be able to do whatever they want.”

Despite the uncertainty, some glimmers of hope are visible.

On Sunday, a new synagogue, Tifferet Israel Este, will be inaugurated in Los Palos Grandes, an affluent Caracas neighborhood that is home to a sizable Jewish community. The synagogue offers worshipers a safer alternative to an older temple in a formerly Jewish part of town now considered dangerous.

“As Kohelet said, there is a time for everything,” said Isaac Cohen, who replaced Brener as chief rabbi. “[The new synagogue] shows people seek religion in their lives, and we have freedom of religion here.

“It pains us, it hurts us that there is no Israeli ambassador or embassy, but we hope that day will come and ties will be renewed. When will it happen? Nobody but God knows.”

After lavish Chavez funeral, Maduro sworn in as interim president of Venezuela


Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked successor of the late Hugo Chavez, was sworn in as the interim president of Venezuela amid opposition calls that the choice was unconstitutional.

Maduro, the former foreign minister, took the oath of office on Friday night promising to uphold the legacy of his political patron.

“I take the sash of Chavez to complete his oath and continue his way, the revolution and forward movement of independence and socialism,” a solemn Maduro vowed.

Earlier in the day, the heads of 55 states attended Chavez's lavish funeral at the military academy in Caracas.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the leader of the opposition, held a news conference calling Maduro's swearing-in unconstitutional. Radonski, who lost to Chavez by an 11-point margin in elections held last October, read aloud a passage from the constitution drafted by Chavez's party in 1999 that called for the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, to fill the position.

“Nicolas, they did not elect you,” said Capriles, who identifies as Catholic and is the grandson of Holocaust survivors.  “The people have not voted for you, kid.”

The constitution calls for new elections within 30 days; no date has been set for a vote.

David Bittan and Efrain Lapscher, the leaders of CAIV, Venezuelan Jewry's umbrella group, said on Friday that their group's mission would not change regardless of the victor of the expected presidential race.

“In the future, we'll have elections and we can change governments or the same government will stay, but we will have the same issues,” Lapscher said. “We will try to give the best Jewish life possible and we will combat anti-Semitism if it comes from the government, their supporters or outside.”

During his 14 years in office, Chavez championed Venezuela's poor, setting up an elaborate welfare system with the country's vast oil wealth while haranguing the opposition. An avowed critic of what he called “U.S. imperialism,” he severed ties with Israel and formed alliances with countries such Cuba, Iran, Libya and Syria.

At Chavez's funeral, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kissed the coffin of the late leader, who once called him a “kindred spirit.” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as the last dictator of Europe, shed tears.

The ceremony's host made special mention of the presence of representatives of Palestine, which drew particular applause, and Bashar Assad's embattled government in Syria.

In a eulogy, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson described Chavez as a champion of the poor and called for better ties between the U.S. and Venezuela.

Maduro placed a gold sword — a replica of the one that belonged to 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar, one of Chavez's heroes — on the late president's coffin.

State-owned TV channels broadcast images from the funeral live under a banner that read “Chavez, forever.”

“It's just his body, just his body,” gushed an anchor. “Chavez lives on.”

Long the bane of Venezuelan Jews, Chavez is gone. Now what?


For more than a decade, Venezuelan Jews have been holding their breath, subject to the whims of a mercurial president who used his bully pulpit to intimidate, rail against Israel and embrace Iran.

There was the police raid of a Caracas school in 2004, allegedly to search for evidence in the high-profile murder case of a prosecutor. There were the demands by President Hugo Chavez when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in December 2008 that his country’s Jews rebuke Israel for its conduct in Gaza. There was Chavez’s warm alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was the use of state radio to spread anti-Semitic canards.

Most recently, there were revelations that Venezuela’s intelligence service, SEBIN, was spying on the country's Jewish communty.

While Chavez never explicitly threatened the Jews of Venezuela, his frequent harassment and staunchly anti-Israel positions kept them continually on edge. Afraid to criticize their president, the Jewish community found itself in a predicament that took on a frightening resemblance to the one faced by Jews in another staunchly anti-Western, anti-Zionist country: Iran.

But even with Chavez gone, felled by an undisclosed cancer at age 58 just weeks into his fourth term, Venezuelan Jews aren’t quite ready to exhale.

For one thing, Chavez leaves behind a country wracked by violent crime and mired in economic turmoil. For another, Chavez played such a commanding role in Venezuelan life and politics that nobody is quite sure what will happen to the country.

Perhaps most notably for Venezuela’s Jews, far fewer of them are still around to find out.

Over the past 14 years, Venezuelan Jews have been leaving the country in droves. When Chavez was elected in 1999, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Venezuela. Today the community is estimated to have fallen to less than half that number.

Jews were not the only ones to take flight from the Chavez regime. Hundreds of thousands of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans left during the Chavez years, seeking to escape Venezuela’s anti-business climate, the government’s nationalization of private companies, economic crises and a soaring crime rate. Jews left for many of the same reasons, with anti-Semitism by all accounts taking a back seat to concerns for economic and physical security.

With Chavez gone, there is an opportunity for change. But it’s far from clear things will improve for the Jews of Venezuela, at least in the short term.

Venezuela’s constitution appears to require new elections be held within 30 days. In his final months, Chavez made clear his preference that his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, take over Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution. The likeliest opponent to Maduro, who has echoed Chavez’s anti-Western rhetoric, is Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez by an 11-point margin in elections held last October.

Capriles, who identifies as a Catholic, also happens to be the grandson of Holocaust survivors — a fact Chavez exploited in launching anti-Semitic attacks against him.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, state-run media urged Venezuelans to reject “international Zionism” and vote against Capriles, describing him as having “a platform opposed to our national and independent interests.” Chavez also said the Mossad, Israel's secret service, was out to kill him and accused Israel of financing Venezuela’s opposition. Government media described Capriles as “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie.”

The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned Chavez for his rhetoric.

The campaign was typical Chavez, only the latest in a long series of episodes that left Jews feeling deeply unsettled in a country that before Chavez had remarkably little anti-Semitism.

The first signs of trouble under Chavez came during the years of the second intifada, when the government sponsored rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. After one such rally in May 2004, the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas was attacked.

But it wasn’t until November of that year that Venezuelan Jews felt directly targeted by the government, when security forces carried out an armed raid on a Jewish school in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. The incident was described in a report by Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism as “perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community” in Venezuela.

Chavez kept up his anti-Israel and anti-Western rhetoric throughout the 2000s, calling U.S. President George W. Bush a devil during a 2006 speech at the United Nations and linking Israeli and American “terrorist” policies. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Chavez accused Israel of perpetrating a “new holocaust” and using Nazi-like methods to kill Lebanese and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Chavez nurtured an ever-closer relationship with Iran. The seemingly incongruous friendship between Chavez, a secular socialist, and Ahmadinejad, president of an Islamic theocracy, was built around shared hostility to the United States, the West and Israel. The two leaders sharply increased bilateral trade, inaugurated weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, and frequently visited each other.

As the size of the Iranian diplomatic presence in Venezuela grew, Western security experts accused Venezuela of providing Iran with a Latin American base for illicit activities, including arms trading.

Venezuela’s final break with Israel came in 2009, during the three-week Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began in late December 2008. Chavez severed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. Chavez also insisted that the Jews of Venezuela rebuke Israel for its actions.

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

Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Caracas, equating the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Broadcasters on state radio recommended the anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as an insightful read. Jewish institutions and houses of worship in Venezuela were attacked.

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

But Chavez was no Hitler. Venezuelan Jews were free to come and go as they pleased, and even many of those who emigrated returned frequently to visit — including Brener, who has since moved to Florida.

To some extent, Chavez watched over the country’s Jews. In 2009, the government gave round-the-clock police protection to the site of a Caracas synagogue that had been attacked.

But Venezuelan Jews also felt that Chavez was watching them — a suspicion vindicated by the publication early this year of documents showing that the SEBIN secret service was spying on Venezuelan Jews. The documents, which were obtained by the Argentinian media outlet Analises24, included intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos.

For now, it’s unclear whether or for how long the anti-Jewish atmosphere Chavez allowed to take root in Venezuela will survive him.

But after 14 years of policies that prompted more than half of Venezuela’s Jews to pick up and leave — and with Venezuela’s economic and security problems now compounded by political turmoil — it’s hard to imagine very many of the Jewish emigres are hurrying back.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez dead from cancer


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died after a two-year battle with cancer, ending the socialist leader's 14-year rule of the South American country, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised speech on Tuesday.

The flamboyant 58-year-old leader had undergone four operations in Cuba for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011. His last surgery was on December 11 and he had not been seen in public since.

“It's a moment of deep pain,” Maduro, accompanied by senior ministers, said, his voice choking.

Chavez easily won a new six-year term at an election in October and his death will devastate millions of supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums.

Detractors, however, saw his one-man style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of opponents as traits of an egotistical dictator whose misplaced statist economics wasted a historic bonanza of oil revenues.

Chavez's death opens the way for a new election that will test whether his socialist “revolution” can live on without his dominant personality at the helm.

VICE PRESIDENT MADURO FAVORITE TO WIN ELECTION

The vote should be held within 30 days and will likely pit Maduro against Henrique Capriles, the centrist opposition leader and state governor who lost to Chavez in the October election.

One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead.

Maduro is Chavez's preferred successor, enjoys support among many of the working class and could benefit from an inevitable surge of emotion in the coming days.

But the president's death could also trigger in-fighting in a leftist coalition that ranges from hard-left intellectuals to army officers and businessmen.

Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves and some of the most heavily traded bonds, so investors will be highly sensitive to any signs of political instability.

A defeat for Maduro would bring major changes to Venezuela and could also upend its alliances with Latin American countries that have relied on Chavez's oil-funded largesse – most notably with communist-led Cuba, which recovered from financial ruin in the 1990s thanks largely to Chavez's aid.

Chavez was a garrulous figurehead for a global “anti-imperialist” alliance stretching as far as Belarus and Iran, and he will be sorely missed by anti-U.S. agitators.

FROM OUR ARCHIVES:

Documents show Venezuela spying on Jewish community


The Venezuelan human rights group Espacio Anna Frank says its goal is to promote tolerance by teaching the life story of the teenage diarist murdered by the Nazis.

But is there something sinister lurking behind the organization’s benevolent facade?

SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence service, seems to believe so.

According to a dossier attributed to SEBIN, the Caracas-based group is actually part of an Israeli cloak-and-dagger operation aimed at undermining the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez.

“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,” said the 34-page report.

The document, which includes surveillance photographs of the group’s offices and personal details of its board members, goes on to suggest that Espacio Anna Frank poses a security threat and should be kept under surveillance through hidden cameras and listening devices.

The report is part of a massive cache of material obtained by Analises24, an Argentinian media outlet opposed to Chavez, that includes intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos and even personal information on Chavez's family. Nicolas Solano, Analises24’s editor, told JTA that the website received the material from “a former high-ranking SEBIN source.”

On Jan. 22, the website published 50 documents from the cache that focus on Venezuelan Jews, Israel and the Middle East. Many more documents will be released soon.

“This material is absolutely genuine,” Solano told JTA.

Venezuelan officials at the country's embassy in Washington would not comment on the documents, forwarding an inquiry to Caracas, which has not responded.

But if the documents are indeed authentic, it would confirm what Venezuelan Jews have long suspected: That their own government considers them to be a fifth column and is spying on them.

“As part of the security apparatus of the regime, many Venezuelans are under surveillance,” said Sammy Eppel, a Jewish columnist at the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, a leading opposition newspaper. “The Jewish community is obviously perceived as some sort of threat that warrants those actions.”

Paulina Gamus, one of the directors of Espacio Anna Frank and a former member of the Venezuelan parliament, said the allegations against her and her organization were spurious.

“They accuse [Espacio Anna Frank] of belonging to the Mossad and the Israeli secret services only because we are an institution that promotes respect of different religions and cultures and have a Jewish component, although we are all Venezuelans,” she wrote in an email.

Venezuelan Jews told JTA they were not surprised that SEBIN, the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, has been spying on them.

State security raided Jewish institutions twice, in 2004 and 2007, and Chavez has accused Israel of financing the “counter-revolution” in Venezuela. In 2009, a Caracas synagogue was ransacked by an angry mob — including several police officers — following Operation Cast Lead, the 2009 Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Chavez condemned the synagogue attack and several suspects were arrested.

Combined with a failing economy and a surge in violent crime, the hostility from the Chavez government has led to a Jewish exodus to the United States, Israel and other Latin American countries. Fewer than half the 1999 Jewish population of 22,000 remains.

Rabbi Pynchas Brener is among those who relocated. A vocal critic of Chavez, Brener is identified in the SEBIN documents as the Mossad's chief spymaster in Venezuela. One chart places him at the head of an intricate web of informants and cover-up operations that report directly to the Israeli intelligence service and the American and Canadian embassies in Caracas.

“I'm not a Mossad agent — you can write that — and I never was one,” Brener told JTA. “Maybe I'll be one in the future.”

Born in Poland, Brener was raised in Peru and led a congregation in Caracas for 44 years before retiring to Florida in 2011. He said he was labeled a spymaster because he was among Venezuela’s more visible Jews.

“Venezuela is the most tolerant society that I know,” Brener said. “There's almost zero anti-Semitism. But the government has been cultivating it.”

The leaks come at a potentially pivotal time for Venezuela. Chavez has not been seen in public in months since undergoing an operation related to an unspecified form of cancer. The government vows that the self-proclaimed revolutionary leader will recover and be sworn in for his fourth successive presidential term. But rumors abound that he is terminally ill.

For many members of the Jewish community, the possible departure of Chavez from Venezuelan politics would be a cause for renewed hope. Last month Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, met in Caracas with Nicolas Maduro, the vice president and temporary fill-in for Chavez. The meeting, which included several Latin American Jewish leaders, seemed to hint at a possible rapprochement.

“[Maduro] is not Chavez,” Gamus said. “He does not have his charisma or character, and he is not influenced by the anti-Semitic ideologies like those that Chavez had.”

But one should be careful not to write off Chavez. Like his hero, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has survived countless assassination attempts and suspected ailments, Chavez has regularly proven rumors of his demise to be greatly exaggerated.

On Monday, Venezuelan Defense Minister Diego Molero reported that Chavez was having his “best moment yet” since he underwent surgery.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wins re-election, defeating grandson of Holocaust survivors


Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez won re-election, defeating Henrique Capriles Radonsky, the grandson of Holocaust survivors

Chavez took  54.42 percent of the votes to Radonsky's 45 percent in the Oct. 7 poll, his term will end in 2019.

Chavez, a known friend of Iran, become a leading figure in modern Latin American history and will extend his rule over the OPEC member state to two decades.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed its concern over Chavez's reelection, citing the fact that Venezuela has Shahab 3 long-range missile launching platforms on the country’s Caribbean coast aimed at Florida.

“Hugo Chavez’ triumph can only strengthen Iran’s political and military penetration of Latin America,“ Dr. Shimon Samuels, director for International Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA Tuesday.

“Six more years of the Caracas-Tehran axis could be as perilous as an Afghanistan with oil,”  added Samuels.

Argentina´s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner used Twitter to congratulate her regional ally: “”Your victory is also ours. Go Hugo,“ she tweeted.

Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal Center’s director for Latin America, told JTA that  “Chavez reportedly facilitated the recent http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/10/04/3108586/argentinas-jews-balk-at-negotiations-with-iran”>dialogue between Argentina and Iran, clearly aimed at closing both the AMIA Jewish Center bombing investigation and Buenos Aires’ demand for extradition of the Iranians complicit in that atrocity.”

Since taking power in 1999, the former solider has become a global “anti-imperialism” fighter, and close ally of leaders from Iran, Cuba, Bolivia and Belarus. Chavez has described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “genocide” and called Zionism racism.

In July 2012 Venezuela was accepted as a full member of the Mercosur regional free trade and political group, and will have increased influence in the bloc which also includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Mercosur's members all recognize a Palestinian state.

Chavez allies turn on Venezuelan opposition leader


President Hugo Chavez’s allies are bombarding Venezuela’s newly anointed opposition leader with attacks ranging from the legitimacy of the primary vote to his sexuality and Jewish roots.

Auguring a rough campaign ahead of the presidential election in October, the torrent of accusations against Henrique Capriles began just minutes after his landslide win at the Democratic Unity coalition’s primary on Sunday.

With Chavez himself uncharacteristically quiet, senior officials and state media have led the attack, denouncing Capriles – a 39-year-old state governor who wants to be Venezuela’s youngest president – as a “bourgeois” and “fascist.”

“Now we know who is the candidate of imperialism, of capitalism and the right wing,” said Congress leader Diosdado Cabello, a former military comrade and longtime staunch supporter of the socialist president. “The anti-patriotic candidate has a face. He won’t have an easy election campaign.”

Capriles – the grandson of Jews who survived the World War Two Holocaust in Poland – defines himself as a center-left “progressive” who admires Brazil’s “modern left” model of free-market economics with a strong social face.

The attacks against him illustrate the election battle that lies ahead in the polarized South American OPEC member nation, where Chavez has strong support among the poor and projects opponents as representatives of a discredited, super-rich elite.

The most furious accusations have come from state media commentator Mario Silva, who often targets Chavez’s foes on his late-night show “The Razorblade.”

Silva insulted opposition leaders and then read out a purported police document reporting Capriles was caught in a car having sex with another man in 2000.

Capriles denied the allegation and said the document was falsified. Police have not commented.

Another state radio commentator, Adal Hernandez, wrote a vitriolic profile of Capriles, highlighting his Jewish family background and titled: “The Enemy is Zionism.” Capriles, a practicing Catholic, has not responded to the profile.

One cartoon, retweeted on Wednesday by a senior Chavez aide, showed Capriles in pink shorts with a Swastika on his arm, facing a much larger image of Chavez. He often talks emotionally of his grandparents’ escape from Nazi repression.

CAMPAIGN BATTLE

Capriles comes from a rich family but pointedly spends more time in a T-shirt in shanty-towns than in his office, and he is seeking to project himself as above the mud-slinging.

“I wasn’t elected to fight with anyone but to solve problems,” said Capriles, who won nearly two-thirds of the 3 million votes cast in Sunday’s primary.

“The only confrontation I want is against violence, unemployment, corruption and other problems in Venezuela.”

Much of the official ire against Capriles has focused on Sunday’s primary vote, saying the overall numbers were inflated to give an impression of massive opposition turnout – even though the state electoral authority supervised the poll.

Chavez supporters have also demanded to know the source of Capriles’ campaign financing, implying pro-U.S. interests have been backing him. The Democratic Unity candidate has responded that his books are open for all to see.

Adding to the charged political mood in Venezuela, the Supreme Court blocked the opposition coalition from burning voter registration books from Sunday’s vote – a measure they had promised to counter fears there could be retribution.

The government for years discriminated against Venezuelans whose names were on a list of people who had requested a recall referendum on Chavez’s rule, blocking them from jobs, state loans and in some cases even entrance to government buildings.

Capriles has criticized one-sided coverage by state media, accusing it of routinely ignoring protests about crime and water shortages while extensively reporting “every time a mango falls on a roof” in the state of Miranda where he is governor.

UNITED OPPOSITION

He traveled to the Caribbean island of Margarita on Tuesday to visit a shrine and give thanks for his primary victory.

Capriles says his religious conviction increased during four months in jail in 2004 after a riot outside the Cuban Embassy which he was accused – but later acquitted – of fomenting.

Analysts say the finally united opposition – which in the past has been crippled by in-fighting and failed to dislodge Chavez via mass street protests or a string of votes – has its best chance in 13 years of unseating him in October.

Yet the president still appears to have the edge, thanks to high popularity among the poor, a formidable party machine and an extraordinary pre-election spending spree on welfare projects like allowances for single mothers and pensioners.

Recent polls have shown Chavez would win about 60 percent of votes in October, though analysts caution that could change if Capriles runs a dynamic campaign. He plans to start a tour of Venezuela from next week.

“Capriles is a competitive candidate. He is young and less connected to the country’s discredited pre-Chavez political class and he is the governor of an important state, who enjoys high approval ratings,” the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said in a report.

“We don’t think this will be enough to defeat Chavez, but it points to the fact that the election could be tighter than most anticipate, and that there could be some volatility in terms of expectations in the run up to the election.”

Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray

Son of Shoah survivors to challenge Chavez


Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, will challenge President Hugo Chavez in upcoming elections.

Capriles, 39, governor of the Miranda state, won a primary Sunday with 61 percent of the vote to become the unity candidate against Chavez, who has been in office for 13 years. Some 3 million voters participated in the country’s first-ever primary ahead of the Oct. 7 election.

Though Capriles’ maternal grandmother is Jewish, he was raised Catholic and he describes himself as a fervent Catholic.

“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” Capriles told JTA last year in an interview.

Capriles has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. In 2009, pro-government supporters dressed in red surrounded the Governor’s House and painted swastikas on the yellow outer walls. During the governor’s race in 2008, government-aligned media described Capriles as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie” and “genetically fascist.”

Iranian, Venezuelan leaders rebuff U.S., joke about having nuclear bomb


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez lavished each other with praise on Monday, mocked U.S. disapproval and joked about having an atomic bomb at their disposal.

“Despite those arrogant people who do not wish us to be together, we will unite forever,” the Iranian president told socialist leader Chavez at the start of a visit to four left-leaning Latin American nations.

Despite their geographical distance, the fiery anti-U.S. ideologues have forged increasingly close ties between their fellow OPEC nations in recent years, although concrete projects have often lagged behind the rhetoric.

Ahmadinejad was in Venezuela at the start of a tour intended to shore up support as expanded Western economic sanctions kick in over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

“The imperialist madness has been unleashed in a way that has not been seen for a long time,” Chavez said in a ceremony to welcome Ahmadinejad at his presidential palace in Caracas.

Both men hugged, beamed, held hands and showered each other with praise.

As he often does, the theatrical and provocative Chavez stuck his finger right into the global political sore spot, joking that a bomb was ready under a grassy knoll in front of his Miraflores palace steps.

“That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out,” he said, the two men laughing together.

“The imperialist spokesmen say … Ahmadinejad and I are going into the Miraflores basement now to set our sights on Washington and launch cannons and missiles … It’s laughable.”

U.S. officials from President Barack Obama down have expressed disquiet over Venezuela’s close ties with Iran. They fear Chavez will weaken the international diplomatic front against Iran and could give Tehran an economic lifeline.

The United States and its allies believe Iran’s nuclear policy is aimed at producing a weapon. Iran says it is only for peaceful power generation.

As well as Venezuela, Ahmadinejad plans to visit Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador—a visit that Washington has said shows its “desperation” for friends.

ALLIES

Those nations’ governments share Chavez’s broad global views, but do not have Venezuela’s economic clout and are unable to offer Iran any significant assistance.

Regional economic powerhouse Brazil, which gave the Iranian leader a warm welcome when he visited during the previous government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was notably absent from his agenda this time.

Analysts are watching closely to see if Chavez will back Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil shipping lane, or how much he could undermine the sanctions by providing fuel or cash to Tehran.

Ahmadinejad, who is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign policy, has said little about the rising tensions with the West, including the sentencing to death of an Iranian-American man for spying for the CIA.

The Venezuelan and Iranian leaders mostly limited their comments on Monday to mutual adulation and anti-U.S. snipes.

“President Chavez is the champion in the war on imperialism,” Ahmadinejad said.

“The only bombs we’re preparing are bombs against poverty, hunger and misery,” added Chavez, saying 14,000 new homes had been built recently in Venezuela by Iranian constructors.

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray

Ahmadinejad to visit Latin American nations


Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he will tour four Latin American nations in January.

Ahmadinejad will be visiting Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador during the second week of January, Iranian officials told state news agency IRNA on Wednesday.

According to the officials, he will meet personally with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, and attend the swearing-in ceremony of Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega. A report from Iran’s PRESS TV said that he will meet with “senior officials” in Cuba and Ecuador.

The visit comes as the United States and its European allies are ratcheting up sanctions on Iran.

Chavez has been accused of inciting violence against Venezuela’s Jewish community. Last year, he described Israel as a “genocidal state,” and accused the country of financing Venezuelan opposition groups and the Mossad of attempting to assassinate him.

Last year, Cuba’s Fidel Castro told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that the Iranian government needed to understand the history of the Jews.

“The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust,” said Castro.

Rival to Chavez, demonized for his Jewish roots, is opposition’s new hope in Venezuela


As someone who has spent his entire political career opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Gov. Henrique Capriles Radonski is accustomed to rough handling.

But even he was taken aback by the viciousness that erupted two years ago outside the yellow walls of the old colonial home that now serves as his government seat.

“They came here and they called me Nazi, when my grandmother was in the Warsaw Ghetto,” he said, his voice rising. “My great-grandparents were killed in a concentration camp. My grandmother’s mother and father were killed by the Nazis in Treblinka.”

By “they” he means the red-clad mob, led by the city’s pro-Chavez mayor, who chanted “Nazi fascist!” and sprayed red swastikas onto the outer walls of the Casa Amarilla (Yellow House) in 2009.

Since taking office three years ago as the governor of Venezuela’s second-largest state, Miranda, Capriles has become a lightning rod for anti-Semitic attacks from the state’s most radical corners even though he says he is a fervent Catholic and subject to what he describes as a campaign of “permanent sabotage” by the government.

Capriles, 38, last month declared his intention to seek the nomination to run as the opposition candidate against Chavez, who will be running for his third consecutive term.

Recent surveys show that the lanky Capriles, a grandson of Holocaust survivors who does not identify himself as a Jew, is the most popular politician in Venezuela.

Sensing its best opportunity to defeat Chavez as the nation struggles with rampant crime, double-digit inflation and deteriorating services, the opposition for the first time has agreed to unite behind a single candidate chosen in a primary scheduled for February.

This makes Capriles the opposition’s most credible chance of defeating Chavez since he assumed power 13 years ago.

“He represents the next generation of Venezuelan political leaders,” Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development and a former Venezuelan minister of planning, said of Capriles. “He honed his political skills during very conflicted times and has been able to garner support from a very heterogeneous voting bloc.”

Capriles is used to confronting the government. He was imprisoned in 2004 for 120 days for charges related to his activities as mayor of a middle-class district of Caracas during the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. After several trials he was exonerated, allowing him to move on from mayor to governor.

In 2008 he defeated a powerful Chavez ally to lead Miranda, which has nearly 3 million people. His victory unnerved the government by finding thousands of new votes in the overcrowded slums surrounding Caracas, which traditionally voted with Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV. Incensed at the loss of such a key state, Chavez immediately ordered the central government to take over Miranda’s hospitals.

By presidential decree, Chavez dismantled the state’s infrastructure, taking over police units, asphalt plants and state employees, slashing budgets and crippling the governor’s ability to effectively administer power.

To many it looked like revenge, an attempt to paralyze a potentially dangerous political foe. However, the effort seems to have backfired: Some polls are showing that as many as three out of four voters are blaming the Chavez government and not Capriles for reduced services.

Capriles notes that while he believes he was targeted by the Chavez government, all of Venezuela’s states, regardless of their political affiliation, have had their powers diminished by the central government.

“Chavez has won through elections, but his daily maneuvering isn’t democratic,” Capriles told JTA. “The challenge is to democratically overcome a government that isn’t democratic.”

Chavez does not usually refer to his opponents individually but has begun telling the nation it must be vigilant against political elements “looking to set the nation on fire.”

Shortly after Capriles announced his intention to run, Chavez warned that the opposition was planning to destabilize the nation. Such remarks harked back to 2002, when the opposition tried to overthrow his presidency and carried out a devastating strike in the national oil industry.

In an interview with a local private station, Chavez said he was sure he would win.

“If they don’t kill me or some other catastrophe doesn’t occur, I’m certain—though there will be much work to do—that I will be re-elected for six more years,” Chavez said earlier this year.

While Chavez’s approval rating has dropped from its peak level of about 80 percent, he still commands the support of about half the electorate. The half that is against Chavez is fractured among the opposition candidates.

Chavez has benefited as well from more than a decade of political organization at the grass-roots level, and he remains popular among many members of Venezuela’s underclasses.

Capriles argues that he can more effectively bring about the social improvements Chavez has promised. Acknowledging that Chavez has brought attention to the vast inequalities that separate Venezuela’s rich and poor, Capriles says Chavez is too ideologically driven to successfully manage the nation.

Capriles’ non-ideological focus on improving lives has found a receptive audience among many who have grown tired of Chavez’s tirades and a seemingly growing list of unfulfilled promises.

In the last few weeks, rolling power outages again have struck the nation, resulting in citywide rationing in Caracas and beyond. In 2009, Chavez claimed the blackouts were due to a drought that severely curtailed the nation’s hydroelectric capabilities. This year, the blackouts are occurring after months of unusually heavy rains have displaced thousands of people throughout the country.

“[Chavez] has in his hands all the tools to make this country function, and if he did so everyone would support him,” said Josefina Arias, 36, a vendor who described herself as a former Chavez supporter.

Arias had gathered with several hundred other people at Casa Amarilla to receive state-funded vouchers worth about $3,000 to repair her rain-damaged cinderblock home.

“There are many people who want this country to change,” Arias said. “Unfortunately, I believe that Chavez has lost his vision of what Venezuela could be.”

While voicing her own disenchantment with Chavez, Arias noted that many in her family still support the president. They fear that if the opposition wins, Chavez’s social programs, like providing subsidized groceries or free clinics, may be reversed.

Many expect an ugly electoral fight ahead, warning that Chavez is unafraid to use the full force of the state’s considerable media and financial resources against his enemies.

“Chavez, of course, has every interest in sowing conflict among the opposition, and he will have considerable resources to do so,” said John Carey, a political scientist at Dartmouth College.

For Jews, this could mean the resurgence of anti-Semitism that many hoped had been put to rest through recent overtures made by the president toward the community.

Despite the fact that he says he’s Catholic, Capriles consistently has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. During the governor’s race in 2008, state media described him as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie” and “genetically fascist.”

Though the campaign hasn’t officially begun, the state press continues to refer to Capriles as Jewish. Observers say that may be an attempt to generate opposition against him.

“We have already begun to see a species of feint referring to him as Jewish, which we believe is an attempt to carve out the votes of anti-Semites and especially anti-Israel [voters],” said a Jewish representative who asked to not be identified. “The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, but we’re sure there will be [anti-Semitic] attacks.”

Local Venezuelan Jews say Capriles has “very good relations” with the community, even though he doesn’t identify spiritually with it.

“Because of my mother and grandmother, for Jews I’m Jewish, but I’m Catholic,” Capriles said.

Describing himself as a fervent Catholic, Capriles said he adopted religion in prison, becoming a “strong believer in the Virgin Mary.”

“When you’re in jail, if you attain a spiritual connection, that connection is then very strong,” he said.

While he no longer has a religious connection to the Jewish community, their story of survival affects him deeply, he says.

Responding to whether he believes he will be singled out for personal attacks in the upcoming campaign, he says it doesn’t matter.

“I have the blood of struggle running through my veins,” said Capriles. “My grandparents arrived in Venezuela with just a suitcase full of clothes, fleeing Nazi persecution.”

While he expects an exhausting fight, Capriles says he is ready for whatever lays ahead as he seeks to win the opposition’s endorsement and defeat Chavez.

“I’m not here to be a candidate,” he said. “We are in this competition to win.”

Venezuelan Jews protest broadcast of ‘Protocols’


Venezuela’s largest Jewish advocacy group has protested to the government a state-run radio broadcast that positively referenced the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In a formal complaint filed this week with the Public Ministry, the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations denounced the broadcast in which journalist Cristina Gonzalez read the infamous text and suggested that listeners also should read it.

“Venezuelan Jews know that promoting this anti-Semitic document only sows hate and discrimination, violating the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” the confederation said in a statement.

During the broadcast, Gonzalez expressed her admiration for the Jewish community and “non-Zionist” Israelis before plucking what she called “little pearls” from the book to explain to listeners why Zionists have been able to amass a concentration of power and wealth.

“I do not have an anti-Semitic stance, I’m not anti-anything, I read everything that falls my way,” she said.

“The Protocols,” written at about the turn of the 20th century, purportedly describes a Jewish plan for achieving global domination. It has been proven to be a fraud.

Confederation President Salomon Cohen has requested a formal investigation into the matter and a meeting with government officials.

Last year, President Hugo Chavez met with Jewish community representatives to discuss what they described as an incessant barrage of anti-Semitic commentaries on state-affiliated media. Chavez took to the airwaves and formally denounced anti-Semitism, saying it had no place in a revolutionary society.

Subsequently, the confederation said, there was a noticeable decrease in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Additional diplomatic signals from the Chavez government suggested that relations between the community and the state were improving.

However, anti-Semitism seems to be percolating again among the most radical elements of government supporters as Chavez gears up for what is expected to be a hard-fought campaign for re-election next year.

Grandson of Holocaust survivors to challenge Chavez


The governor of Venezuela’s Miranda state, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, announced he will challenge President Hugo Chavez next year.

Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski said he wants to be “president of all Venezuela.” The state of Miranda includes part of Caracas. Capriles said he will seek the endorsement of what has been a divided opposition. In an effort to field a unified candidate, the opposition has scheduled a primary for February 2012.

Capriles is not Jewish, but nonetheless has been the target of anti-Semitic attacks. In 2009, pro-government supporters dressed in red surrounded the Governor’s House and painted swastikas on the yellow outer walls. During the governor’s race in 2008, government-aligned media described Capriles as a member of the “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie,” and “genetically fascist.”

“Capriles Radonski is not a member of the community, he was raised a Catholic,” said a member of the Jewish community. “His grandparents are Shoah survivors and he has very good relations with the kehila.”

Polls in recent months show the popular 38-year old governor leading the pack of other potential opposition candidates.

Chavez tells Israelis: Disobey ‘genocidal’ government


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told the Israeli people not to support their government, which he described as genocidal on Friday, the second day of his trip to Syria.

Chavez is on an 11-day trip to Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iran, Belarus, Russia and Spain in what he is describing as a bid to build a multipolar world and decrease U.S. influence in the region.

Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Israeli Official Describes Venezuelan Embassy Ouster


On Feb. 6, Shlomo Cohen, Israel’s ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, 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 hardly came as 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 kaffiyehs, 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 to help close the Israeli Embassy. He provided The Jewish Journal 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 recently have 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 will be no Israeli embassy, leaving Jews feeling powerless and stranded.

Closing an embassy is no minor task, Biran said, and proved a formidable one for diplomats more accustomed to building than dismantling them. All kinds of equipment had 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 stated, “Everyone would be taken out of the country.”

On Feb. 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 remains volatile. Consul Biran ascertained that the commandos assigned to oversee 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. Amid 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 Passover. Under pressure, he reversed the order.

“No one 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.”

JEWISHJOURNAL.COM EXCLUSIVE: An Eyewitness Recounts the Day Venezuela Booted Israel’s Embassy


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.”

Venezuela Jews Rebuild After Synagogue Attack


CARACAS (JTA)—The quiet on a residential street in this eastern Venezuelan city is shattered by construction crews as workers perched on a scaffolding place panels of marble on the external wall of a two-story synagogue.

The construction occurs under the watchful eye of local police, who monitor the street around the clock. From their post on the corner, the police van has kept surveillance over the site since late January, when an older synagogue in the rundown Mariperez district of Caracas was attacked and desecrated.

Committed to their future here, the city’s Jews are building a new synagogue to replace the 50-year-old Sephardic synagogue that was attacked.

They must do so under police protection.

On Jan. 30, more than a dozen assailants invaded Tiferet Israel, overpowering two security guards and disabling the surveillance system. They desecrated holy objects, stole a computer database with the congregation’s personal information and put this city’s Jews on edge.

“It’s something that is really shocking and that has never been seen before in Venezuela. Never ever,” said Federica Palomero, who curates a small museum at Tiferet Israel. “In Venezuela there’s a tradition of coexistence, tolerance, respect and mutual admiration.”

Synagogue members say that anti-Semitic graffiti began to appear on the temple’s exterior walls in January, after President Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country to protest the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.

As Chavez ratcheted up his rhetoric against Israel, calling it a genocidal state, the official media followed suit, calling for a boycott on local Jewish businesses unless they publicly denounced Israel.

Venezuelan Jews, who first arrived here in the 1700s, say an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitism has followed.

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

“We’ve never had any kind of political or social problems in Venezuela,” he went on. “Venezuelans are extremely tolerant; they accept differences.”

Other attacks and outbursts of hostility followed the Tiferet Israel attack. In February, unknown assailants lobbed a small explosive into a Caracas Jewish community center.

A local production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was even caught in the maelstrom after the orchestra chairman pulled out of the musical, possibly because of the play’s Jewish content.

The play’s producer, Michel Hausmann, said Manuel Torres, who had performed in “Fiddler” in the past, felt that to do so this year would be politically offensive and threaten his financial support from the state.

Torres refused to comment about the case when reached by JTA via telephone. But in an interview several days earlier with a local daily, the chairman denied being pressured and said the orchestra was concentrating on other events.

For its part, the government has been erratic in its response to the attacks on the Jewish community.

At first, Chavez and other members of his government denounced the attack on Tiferet, promising the assailants would be quickly apprehended. But Chavez also blamed government opponents for the raid and told the Jewish community not “to allow themselves to be manipulated.”

Then the Interior Ministry arrested 11 people, saying robbery was their real motive and that it simply was disguised as a bias crime.

While local Jewish leaders have publicly expressed their gratitude toward the government for prioritizing the investigation, many in the community quietly express doubt that the real perpetrators of the attack will be brought to light.

As Tiferet’s Palomero guides a visitor through a small exhibit of pictures showing the destruction caused by the attack, she says the attack does not reflect the attitudes of Venezuelans toward Jews “but rather those of a small group” that is “small, but active, dangerous and supported.”

Like many Jews here, Palomero declined to say who she believes is behind the attacks. But Jewish leaders from overseas have made clear who they believe is to blame.

“Now that I’ve been here and seen this with my own eyes, I have no doubt that direct responsibility for the attack on the Tiferet Israel synagogue goes directly to the door of Hugo Chavez,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Congregation Ohev Sholom in Washington after a recent visit to Caracas.

“The attack couldn’t have happened without the permission of Chavez,” he said, noting the technical sophistication used to break into the synagogue and crack safes inside.

Herzfeld, who was part of a four-person delegation from North America, said he is pressing U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House or Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, to assemble a congressional commission on religious freedoms in Venezuela.

Israel also is using its diplomatic muscle to keep the spotlight on Venezuela’s treatment of the Jewish community. Its Foreign Ministry has asked 15 countries with ties to Venezuela to bring up the issue with Chavez, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

“There has been a significant outbreak of anti-Semitism there, and we wanted to send messages to Venezuela’s president through several different channels in order to clarify the gravity with which we view the situation,” a senior government source told the paper.

Locally, the Jewish community has not been directly outspoken against Chavez. Its members say they need to continue with their lives as before.

“Life goes on and one has to keep working,” Palomero said. “The Jews are Venezuelans just like the Muslims, the Protestants and the Catholics. We’re Venezuelans and we’re Jewish.”

Q&A with Argentine Ambassador Hector Timerman


At 53, Argentine Ambassador Hector Timerman is one of South America’s top diplomats; recently promoted from consul to New York to the prized post of envoy to the United States, he bears one of the most famous last names in modern South American history. He’s the son of the late Jacobo Timerman, the heroic journalist-publisher who was abducted in 1977 and tortured by his nation’s former military dictatorship. International protest by outraged writers and activists and then-President Jimmy Carter gained the elder Timerman’s release from the gulag, where some 30,000 others died. The son followed in his father’s footsteps as a journalist before becoming a diplomat.

Timerman sat for an interview at the Argentine residence in Hancock Park. He was in town to give a speech at UCLA to commemorate the opening of a new institute for study of South America’s Southern Cone nations. That night he flew to Washington to spend Yom Kippur “with family and friends.”

The Jewish Journal: Many American Jews don’t realize how Jewish Argentina is these days — particularly Buenos Aires, with the biggest Jewish community in the Spanish-speaking world. What accounts for the new vitality of this community?
Hector Timerman: The modern rise of the Jewish consciousness in Argentina stems from the return to democracy of 25 years ago. For the first time in its history, Jews can feel not like a conspicuous minority or foreign presence, but part of a society in which they participate fully. The same is true of other minorities frightened by earlier regimes, particularly the dictatorship. It was also true that the rest of society learned the value of a modern, diverse democracy, which brought us a newer generation, a more creative generation, that values [differing] people simply for what they contribute to society. So Jews now live in a society that is happy to receive their creative spirit.

JJ: America’s enduring its toughest financial crises in two decades. Argentine commentators have suggested, perhaps facetiously, that based on the experience of its own banking crises, such as that of 2002, Americans could learn from Argentines how to live with meltdown.
HT: Yes, Argentina has gone through terrible economic crises. We know too well how these events can batter you. We understand the pain the United States is going through. But Argentina isn’t the United States. Each country has to find its own way out of its own economic troubles. No one solution fits all– each nation has its own history, traditions, realities. Maybe this crisis [will help] America understand that its own financial advice to other countries wasn’t always right for that particular country. Maybe, when the United States comes out of this crisis, we’ll all be better prepared to understand one another.

JJ: As ambassador, you’ve spoken out strongly about the so-called ‘Maletagate’ trial –the ongoing federal case in Miami concerning a suitcase full of $790,000, allegedly from Venezuela, smuggled last year into Argentina on a private jet. The FBI and federal prosecutors contend the money was to help elect your president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and their witness, Antonini Wilson, so testified. He also signed a letter to the Venezuelan government asking for help. You recently asserted there were flaws in the U.S. government’s case.
HT: I think the FBI belongs to the Justice Department and not to the judicial system. I think that Antonini was prepared [by the FBI] to ask certain questions, to name certain names, to give certain answers. This is something that is difficult to understand for Argentineans, because in Argentina, if our Justice Department prepared a witness, the case would be invalidated. Nor can you prepare a letter to the head of a foreign government and ask your witness to sign it, as apparently happened here.

JJ: You’ve said it’s notable that the case originated in Miami.
HT: That’s right. In Miami, you can still find people who see the world like another 1960s Cold War. People who just don’t get the idea of [independent] Latin American democracies, and see all Latin America the way they see Cuba. I think the [political] environment in Miami is very much influenced by the Cuban and Venezuelan exile communities.

JJ: But many other Americans are made uncomfortable by the actions and words of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
HT: Venezuela is a close friend of Argentina and an important country in Latin America. Chavez works with the new generation of democratic leaders — Brazil’s Lula, Chile’s Bachelet. No one can ignore Venezuela’s importance.

JJ: Yet Chavez has been accused of anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic outbursts. This worries many U.S. Jews.
HT: We thought this was a problem we could help with. In fact, just two months ago, at request of [our] Jewish community, a group of Jews from the United States, along with members of the Venezuelan Jewish community and help from our president, Christina Fernandez Kirchner, intervened with Chavez and asked him to receive a delegation of Jews [from both countries]. I was there to prepare the meeting, it was a very good meeting, and we are already seeing favorable results.

JJ: But Chavez is outspokenly allied with Iran, which Argentina holds responsible for the 1990s terror bombings against Jewish and Israeli buildings in Buenos Aires that killed well over 100 people.
HT: In Argentina, we don’t think that one country has to base its relationship with another country on a relationship which that country has with a third nation.

JJ: Speaking of which, how would you describe Argentina’s present relationship with the United States?
HT: Very good. We cooperate very closely on anti-terrorism, abating the drug trade and human trafficking and many other issues. Last year, America was the largest overseas investor in Argentina.

JJ: And in the future, how do you see our relations going?
HT: We’d like to have America’s continuing support of the growth of democracy in Latin America — whatever the immediate results. Not so much of specific governments as of the democratic process in general. That’s what’s important.

JJ: You are the son of one of your country’s great modern heroes. You were 22 when he was arrested. How do you best remember him?
HT: I’m afraid I didn’t learn enough from my father. I know that somehow I love him even more than I admire him. But most of all, I remain loyal to his ideals.

British boycott moves reveal anti-Israel bias


The utter hypocrisy of the British National Union of Journalists, which recently voted to boycott only Israel, has now become evident in the face of the silence over the recent move by Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to suppress dissent by the media in his leftist regime.

General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, too, has now imposed massive press censorship. In many of the other hard-left favored countries – Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe – suppression of the press is routine, and imprisonment of journalists is common.

But there is not a peep about these countries from the British National Union of Journalists, who seem to admire tyranny and condemn democracy and openness.

Only Israel, which has among the freest presses of the world, is being targeted for sanctions. Even Arab and Muslim journalists have more freedom of the press in Israel than in any Arab or Muslim nation. While Palestinian terrorist groups murder, kidnap and threaten journalists, the British Union exempts the Palestinian authority, run by the censorious Hamas, from its journalistic sanctions.

The reason is obvious. The British Union cares less about journalists or freedom of the press than it does about blindly condemning the Jewish state.

The same can be said about the British University and College Union, which has voted to move forward with the boycott against only Israeli academics. Israel has more academic freedom – for Jews and Muslims alike – than any Arab or Muslim nation and than the vast majority of countries in the world.

Israeli scientists have developed, on a per capita basis, more lifesaving medical technologies than any nation in the world. Yet the British Union has singled out Israel alone for boycott.

Again, this has nothing to do with protecting academic freedom or scientific inquiry. It has everything to do with anti-Israel bigotry.

Now academics around the world are fighting back against this British bigotry. Led by more than a dozen Nobel Prize winners, thousands of American academics have signed a petition declaring themselves to be honorary Israelis for purposes of any academic boycott. They have pledged to refuse to participate in any events from which Israeli academics are boycotted.

Any academic who wishes to join this moral response to an immoral boycott can e-mail ScholarsforPeace@aol.com.

Fate of Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance rests with Israeli high court


Fate of Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance Rests With Israeli High Court

Israel’s highest judicial and executive authorities both have weighed in on the protracted dispute surrounding construction of a $200 million Center of Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.The ambitious Simon Wiesenthal Center project, designed by famed Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, has been stalled since February, when the Israeli Supreme Court issued an injunction halting any construction work. The court acted on a petition by two Palestinian groups, which asserted that the planned museum would sit atop an ancient and sacred Muslim cemetery.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s founding dean, and his lawyers in Jerusalem have argued that the site has been used as a parking lot and underground garage for decades and that Islamic courts had ruled that the onetime cemetery had thus lost its sacred character.

Hier said that he had offered a number of compromises to resolve the dispute, but that the Muslim plaintiffs were stalling and “trying to run out the clock.”

Attorney Durham Saif, representing the Palestinian side, said that in its most recent hearing in October, the court told the Wiesenthal Center to submit a redesign of the museum, so that construction would not damage the cemetery.

The next court hearing is scheduled Jan. 3, but in the meantime, Hier said, the delay has added more than $1 million to the cost of the project and has slowed down fundraising in the United States.

One bright spot for Hier was a rousing endorsement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been a strong supporter of the project since his days as mayor of Jerusalem. During a visit to the Wiesenthal Center last month, Olmert said that present Mideast tensions made the establishment of the museum more vital than ever.

“I knew from day one that what we really need in this part of the world is a concerted effort by a major organization that will be dedicated to one thing: to educate for human dignity, to educate for some kind of cooperation and understanding and compassion amongst all of us who are destined to share the Middle East,” Olmert said.

He added that “there is nothing that can stop the creation of the building and construction of this magnificent building, and I am impatiently looking forward to the inauguration and the completion of this world-class project in the city of Jerusalem.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

P.A. Prime Minister, Iranian President Meet, Vow to See Israel Eliminated

The Palestinian Authority prime minister and Iran’s president, in their first official meeting, vowed to see Israel eliminated. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on his first foreign tour since his faction took power in March, met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Qatar last weekend.

An Iranian news agency quoted Ahmadinejad, who has stepped up support for Hamas in a bid to offset a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority, as saying that “there is no doubt the Palestinian nation and Muslims as a whole will emerge victorious.”

Ahmadinejad also predicted: “The continued commission of crimes by the Zionist regime will speed up the collapse of this fictitious regime.”

Haniyeh, whose Islamist faction is similarly sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction, thanked Ahmadinejad for Iran’s support.

“The Iranian nation’s brilliant stand in the rightful battles of the Palestinians encourages them and signifies their deep understanding of Islamic principles,” he was quoted as saying.

Israel Scales Back West Bank Actions

Israel ordered its forces to scale back operations in the West Bank. The order was given last weekend amid efforts by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to build on a truce declared last month in the Gaza Strip and which eventually may be extended to the West Bank.

While Israeli troops in the West Bank are continuing their arrest raids, 15 suspected terrorists were taken into custody Monday. Missions more likely to lead to violent confrontations are being limited. The army also is reviewing its tactic of besieging the homes of Palestinian terrorists until they surrender, because these tend to provoke gunfights.

However, military officials made clear that there would be no letup in operations against Palestinians believed to be about to carry out attacks against Israelis.

Israeli Official Favors Barghouti Release

An Israeli Cabinet minister said he would favor freeing Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti, 47, a Fatah lawmaker, was captured in the West Bank in 2002, tried and sentenced to five life prison terms for masterminding terrorist attacks that killed five people.

However, Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra said Monday that releasing Barghouti, which successive Israeli governments have ruled out, would be worthwhile if it won the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip and led the Palestinian Authority to halt violence.

“Even the prime minister has talked about the need to release prisoners once Gilad Shalit is freed,” Ezra told Israel Radio, referring to the captured soldier. “It depends how big a deal we are talking about and what the other side promises in return.”

Barghouti is still popular and powerful behind bars, and some see him as a potential Palestinian leader who could undermine the rule of Hamas Islamists and broker a two-state peace deal with Israel.

Bolton Resigns U.N. Post

John Bolton, a staunch defender of Israel, resigned as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The White House said Monday that Bolton would step down once his recess appointment ends.

President Bush had given Bolton the position in August 2005, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The appointment will expire by early January, though Bolton may step down earlier.

Most major U.S. Jewish groups broke with tradition to endorse Bolton, who, in addition to his support of Israel, is a strong opponent of Iran’s nuclear drive.

Venezuela’s Chavez Wins Re-Election

Hugo Chavez, who has been accused of encouraging anti-Semitism, was re-elected president of Venezuela. Chavez’s victory was announced late Sunday night. He won at least 61 percent of the vote to challenger Manuel Rosales’ 38 percent.

With his victory, Chavez gains another six years in power to pursue his Socialist-inspired policies.

In August, he drew fire for saying that Israelis “are doing what Hitler did against the Jews,” and that Israel is carrying out “a new Holocaust” against the Palestinians.

Critics have cited Chavez’s support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Reading Venezuela’s Enigmatic President


“There is no anti-Semitism in Venezuela, we don’t know what that is,” declared Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, in his recent two-day trip to Los Angeles to discuss his country’s Bolivarian Revolution and the changing political landscape of Latin America.

In the past, Venezuelan Jews would have agreed. However, events over the past few years have caused the local and international Jewish communities to revisit their opinion.

Two years ago, an unsubstantiated armed government search of a Jewish day school terrified parents and children. There were no accusations of anti-Semitism, but the Jewish community was on edge.

On Christmas Eve 2005, though, President Hugo Chávez made remarks that set off a furor.

“The world has an offer for everybody, but some minorities,” he stated, “the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones who threw out [South American liberator Simon] Bolivar … they took possession of all the planet’s gold … concentrated the riches in a few hands; less than 10 percent of the world population owns more than half of the riches of the world.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center immediately condemned the speech, demanding an apology for what it termed Chavez’s invocation of the “canard of the deicide and the association of Jews with wealth.”

Separately, about 250 Venezuelan intellectuals protested the remarks with a full-page ad in the major Venezuelan newspaper.

However, the major Jewish confederation, known by its acronym CAIV, supported by the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, issued its own statement — criticizing the Wiesenthal Center for jumping to conclusions and acting without consulting the local community: “You have interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community. You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don’t know or understand.”

Supporters of Chávez explained away the anti-Semitic interpretations of his comment by citing the president’s adherence to “Liberation Theology,” which views Jesus as a socialist and the elite classes responsible for his crucifixion. The result was utter confusion.

Traditional roles and relationships are changing in Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America. Two polarized camps are emerging, aggressively challenging the status quo: one aligned with the West and the other with the left. Meanwhile, local Jewish communities walk a tightrope, trying to balance patriotism, respect for their leaders and issues of security.

The backdrop for these developments is Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. To advance the revolution, Alvarez recently spoke at activist and former state Sen. Tom Hayden’s house in Los Angeles. He enthusiastically described the revolution to an eclectic crowd of about 30 people — mainly supporters. They were inspired by Chávez’s “new model” for the region, with its promise to overturn traditional inequalities, both on national and international levels.

This “new model,” asserted the ambassador, challenges the ineffectiveness of “neo-liberalism” and proposes to replace it with a “participatory democracy,” in which “what seemed like apartheid” and “social exclusion” will become things of the past.

At home, the approach entails the aggressive implementation of educational and health programs. Abroad, it means a direct challenge to the United States and the West in general, as it views “socialism as the only solution against U.S. imperialism.”

Overall, the approach is fueled by high oil prices and know-how from Chávez’s closest ally, Fidel Castro.

Critics complain about Chávez’s autocratic style, an erosion of civil liberties and property rights, as well as ineffectiveness of his economic policies. But it is his foreign policy that is causing more concerns.

In his backyard, Chávez is fostering ties with a growing number of like-minded countries in Latin America. The result is a virulent anti-American leftist bloc emerging in the region, aligning itself with foes of America and Israel. As an illustration of the tenor among this alliance, Evo Morales, the newly elected president of Bolivia, has vowed to be “Washington’s worst nightmare.”

Rallying solidarity around this anti-American sentiment, Chávez has been publicly preparing for what he states is an imminent U.S. invasion, threatening to cut oil exports at the first sign of aggression.

As Chávez advances his foreign policy goals, he is strengthening ties with his OPEC partners. In particular, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chávez — who warmly refers to Ahmadinejad as a “great ally of brothers” — are getting closer. The two leaders reportedly signed a commercial deal estimated at $1 billion, through which Venezuela has invited many Iranians to provide technical, scientific and economic support all around the country.

Recently, Venezuela added its voice to Syria’s and Cuba’s against a UN resolution to report Tehran to the Security Council for its violation of IAEA nuclear safeguards. For this, Ahmadinejad commended Chávez for his “brave and judicious decision.”

Further provoking concerns, Venezuela’s Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel recently announced that he would receive Hamas in Venezuela “with pleasure,” adding, “What’s the problem with that?”

Still, the government insists that Chávez wants good relations with all religious groups. Officially, its position has remained supportive of the local Jewish community. Ambassador Alvarez was emphatic: “The opposition is manipulating the situation, not out of true concern for Israel or anti-Semitism, but out of a desire to harass this government. There is no anti-Semitism in Venezuela. In fact, President Chávez was invited to and attended a Holocaust commemoration event.”

With regard to Venezuela’s ties to Iran and its president’s announced desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” Alvarez stated, “We have indeed had good relations with Iran for 40 years. However, we do not agree with those comments. We don’t believe in any type of exclusion, nor in terrorism of any kind.”

Julie Drucker, a language and marketing consultant for the Latin market, grew up in Venezuela and lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at juliedrucker@yahoo.com.

A Chilling Raid


 

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.”

 

Jews in Venezuela: A Vanishing Community?


These are sad days for the Jewish community in Venezuela as many begin to question whether this country, once so hospitable to Jewish life, can still be called home.

As the country faces nearly its sixth week of a devastating strike calling for early elections or the resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venzuela’s economy, already set to shrink by 6 percent this year, has been hurled into utter chaos. Poverty levels are estimated at 80 percent — a tragedy for one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in Latin America.

The economic deterioration that began with the Latin America debt crisis of 1983 and has continued unabated is now coming to a head under the rule of Chávez. A former army officer and ex-coup leader, Chávez has initiated a self-styled "revolution" marked by fiery, anti-wealth rhetoric and little action. His close ties to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and leftist policies have deeply polarized the country, with two entrenched camps on both sides of the strike — neither of which is showing any signs of backing down. After a month of paralysis, more people are armed, food and supplies are growing scarce, and oil production has ground to almost a halt. The nation is on the brink of chaos, and anything could happen.

Venezuela’s present predicament is particularly disappointing. Once viewed as a beacon of democracy in a region dominated by military dictatorships, Venezuela had enjoyed nearly a half-century of stability and economic growth — thanks largely to its great reserves of oil. The resulting opportunities drew substantial numbers of Jews to Venezuela.

Although Jews began immigrating to Venezuela at the beginning of the 19th century, it was not until after World War II that most Jews arrived and formed a strong and vibrant community. The Jewish population received yet another boost after the Six-Day War in 1967, when a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Morocco arrived and settled mostly in the capital of Caracas.

At the peak of the boom years, the ’60s and ’70s, it was estimated that affiliated Jews numbered approximately 30,000, split evenly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Middle-to-upper-class professionals and business owners established associations, schools, synagogues and community centers. They developed deep ties to the country and a strong sense of patriotism. They acculturated and settled into a comfortable "live-and-let-live" rapport with the government — the government welcomed the community and the Jewish community kept a low profile.

A snapshot of the Jewish community at present shows a different picture. On the economic front, many Jews, just as the population at large, are slowly being squeezed out of the middle class. Once lucrative professions now barely pay enough to make ends meet. An experienced university professor, for example, now makes approximately $200-$300 a month. This forces professionals to become small entrepreneurs, or leave.

Dr. Marcko Glijenschi, founding member of the Confederation of Israeli-Venezuelan Associations, an umbrella organization that organizes the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Venezuela, reports a notable increase in assistance recipients. An average caseload prior to Chávez was around 100 cases; it now is approximately 400. In addition, the requests are changing from items such as matzah and candles to staples, such as soap or toothpaste.

Another telling event is the recent closure of one of the campuses of the well-established day school in the old Jewish neighborhood of San Bernardino in Caracas. The 450-student school was under financial strain. Its capacity to provide aid to an increasing number of families requesting scholarships, or enrolling their children and not keeping up with payments, became impaired by the simultaneous reduction in donations.

All this may seem reminiscent of Argentina. But according to Venezuelan community leaders, the Jewish community’s present predicament is not the same. Argentina’s social structure was different, with a large Jewish proletariat class. By contrast, Venezuela’s Jews are mostly middle to upper class. Argentina has seen a full quarter of its Jewish population slip into poverty, while in Venezuela, the Jewish community’s economic problems are, so far, small enough to be handled locally, within the community. Resources are strained, however, and time is running out. The red flags have been raised, prompting a visit from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to instruct community leaders as to what to do if the situation deteriorates.

Although these events are alarming, the greatest current threat to the community is widespread emigration. Since the 1980s, Jews have been gradually emigrating due to worsening economic conditions. Under Chávez, the trend has become dramatic. Glijenschi comments that prior to Chávez’s election in 1998, the population of affiliated Jews numbered 20,000; now, it has shrunk to 14,000.

The custom of sending college-age children abroad — often to the United States — to get a university education and then return to settle in Caracas, is now turning into a slow emigration pattern. Children are no longer encouraged to return. In addition, many Venezuelans are physically leaving the country, but still keeping business ties. Finally, young professionals facing an unpromising future are being forced to leave. Just recently, for example, 250 professional Jewish Venezuelans met in Miami to discuss prospects for immigration to the United States and a new life. Understandably, the mood has become bleak and pessimism prevails. Will the community survive?

Rabbi Pynchas Brener, head rabbi of La Unión Israelita, a large modern Orthodox temple that also runs a day school and community center for approximately 1,500 families, sees three potential scenarios, all linked to the outcome of the present conflict: If Chávez stays in office, and continues present policies, Jews will continue to emigrate at the rate of 2 percent to 3 percent a year, slowly but systematically shrinking the community; if Chávez succeeds in his Castro-style "Bolivarian Revolution" and implements extreme leftist policies, 50 percent of the community would leave rapidly; and, if Chávez loses the present conflict and resigns, the community would be invigorated by the return of 30 percent to 50 percent of the recent emigrants.

Ena Rotkopf, director of the Venezuelan Federation of Jewish Women, agreed: "If the situation changes, I have no doubt that those who emigrated will return because our community is very united, the country is beautiful, and the Jews who left have very deep ties. Our present leaders are all graduates of our day schools, they love their community, they love their country."


Julie Drucker, a language and marketing consultant for the Latin market, grew up in Venezuela and lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at JulieDrucker@yahoo.com.