History of the Jews in Venezuela
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The History of the Jews in Venezuela dates to the middle of the 17th century, when records suggest that groups of marranos (Spanish and Portuguese descendants of baptized Jews suspected of secret adherence to Judaism) lived in Caracas and Maracaibo. The Jewish community, however, did not become established in Venezuela until the middle of the 19th century. Today, tensions exist between the government of Nicolas Maduro and the Jewish community, and as much as half of the community has emigrated in recent years. When former president Hugo Chávez took power in 1999 there were approximately 22,000 Jews in Venezuela—today that number sits between 9,500 and 14,000. This has led leading the Jewish Community Educational System to close one of the two large Jewish schools in Venezuela, leaving only two in the country, one large, and one small orthodox school. Currently at the large school, in some elementary grades, there are only around 40 students, down from an average of 130 students per grade of years past.
At the turn of the 19th century, Venezuela were fighting against their Spanish colonizers in wars of independence and Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's liberator, found refuge and material support for his army in the homes of Jews from Curaçao. The Jewish Cemetery of Coro is the oldest Jewish cemetery in continuous use in the Americas. Its origin can be located in the 19th century, when Sephardic Jews from the Dutch colony of Curaçao began to migrate to the Venezuelan city of Santa Ana de Coro in 1824.
In 1907, the Israelite Beneficial Society, which became the Israelite Association of Venezuela in 1919, was created as an organization to bring the Jews who were scattered throughout the country together. Jewish prayer and holiday services took place in small houses in Caracas and towns like Los Teques and La Guaira. By 1917, the number of Jewish citizens rose to 475, and to 882 in 1926. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish community began to develop with the arrival of North African and eastern European Jews. Jewish immigration from Eastern and Central Europe increased after 1934 but, by then, Venezuela had imposed specific restrictions on Jewish immigration, which remained in effect until after the 1950s.
In 1939 the steamboats Koenigstein and Caribia left Nazi Germany and docked in Venezuela. One Jewish refugee commented in the Venezuelan newspaper, La Esfera, "Imagine our joy at being free and far from a land in which everything threatened us with death. It is such a holy occurrence given that we were expelled from Germany and you have embraced us." By 1950, in spite of immigration restrictions, there were around 6,000 Jewish people in Venezuela. The biggest waves of immigration occurred after World War II and the 1967 Six-Day War, when a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Morocco arrived and settled mostly in the capital of Caracas. The Jewish population in Venezuela peaked at 45,000, largely centered in Caracas, but with smaller concentrations in Maracaibo. Most of Venezuela's Jews are either first or second generation.
Venezuela was hospitable to Jewish life, and Jews "developed deep ties to the country and a strong sense of patriotism", acculturating and settling into a "comfortable 'live-and-let-live' rapport with the government". According to David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee:
- They have developed an impressive communal infrastructure built around a central umbrella organization, La Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), with which the American Jewish Committee signed an association agreement last year, fifteen synagogues (all but one Orthodox), and, perhaps most striking of all, a Jewish all-in-one campus, Hebraica. Combining Jewish nursery and day schools, a country club, cultural center, a verdant setting, and wide-ranging sports activities, Hebraica serves as the focus for much of the community.
- The results of these communal efforts speak for themselves. The community is close-knit, an overwhelming majority of Jewish children attend Jewish schools, the level of participation is high, identification with Israel is intense, and intermarriage rates are low compared to the United States or Britain.
- What is equally striking in talking with Venezuela's Jews, to the extent that generalizations are ever possible, is an obvious pride in being Venezuelan. Not only do they continue to appreciate the refuge the country provided—the Jews having come in search of safety and opportunity — but they also recognize the country's postwar record of tolerance and relative absence of anti-Semitism, as well as its support of the 1947 UN resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state.
David A. Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, writes "On the whole, Jews have done well in Venezuela—and for Venezuela. They have built successful careers in a range of fields and have served as government ministers and ambassadors."
In 2007, it was reported that emigration had resulted in a drop of up to a fifth of Venezuela's 20,000 strong Jewish population amid concerns of rising allegations of antisemitism. In the first few years of the 21st century, the number of Venezuelan Jews emigrating to Israel was shown to have steadily grown. By November 2010, more than half of Jewish Venezuelans had left the country since Chavez came to power, with some of those remaining behind complaining of "official antisemitism". In early 2013, leaked papers revealed that Venezuelan intelligence had been spying on the country's Jewish community.
Currently, some 9,000 Jews live in Venezuela, down from about 25,000 in the 1990s. The United States was the prime destination, particularly Miami, Florida. Others went to Israel, as well as to Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.
Accusations of anti-Semitism
In its 2002 report, the Stephen Roth Institute said a Venezuelan journalist in the U.S., Ted Cordova-Claure, "published an article in the privately owned, pro-democracy Tal Cual equating Sharon and Hitler". The Roth Institute also said that Frontera journalist Alfredo Hernandez Torres justified suicide bomb attacks against Israel, saying that "Sharon displays more hate than the Nazis had for the Jews." Torres called Sharon a "beast" and said that Israel engaged in "genocide in Jenin ... which would have embarrassed even insensitive Hitler".
The Roth Institute reported that Venezuelan newspapers El Universal and El Nacional have accused Israel of genocide, with an editorial written by Maria de los Angeles Serrano in El Nacional stating Israeli Jews "are today strangulating, deporting, placing under closure and killing the Palestinian people with the same enthusiasm as that of their persecutors, the Nazis".
The Roth Institute reported in 2002 that anti-Israel, Chávez supporters demonstrated wearing t-shirts with the inscriptions "Jerusalem will be ours" and "Israel out, solidarity with the Palestinian cause."
According to the Roth Institute, when Últimas Noticias interviewed Lebanese-Venezuelan politician and Fifth Republic Movement leader Tarek William Saab and Franklin González, director of the School of International Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, both bemoaned that the United Nations had disappointed Palestinians, and that "the roots of the conflict lay in the creation of the State of Israel, in 1947".
In its 2004 annual report, the Roth Institute said the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue was repeatedly attacked after a government-sponsored rally on May 16 in which the slogans "Don’t allow Colombia to be the Israel of Latin America", "Sharon is a murderer of the Palestinian People", "Viva the armed Palestinian people", and "Free Palestine" were written on city walls.
The 2004 Roth Institute report noted a number of incidents, including the armed raid carried out by security forces in November on the Jewish elementary and high school in Caracas, which it described as "perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community". It also stated that "Pro-Chavez supporters were responsible for numerous antisemitic manifestations, including repeated desecrations of the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue." According to a report, the Jewish population in Venezuela had dropped below 15,000, which it claims is "a result of severe instability in the country". The Miami Herald and Jewish Times reported emigration of Jewish people from Venezuela due to alleged concerns over anti-Semitism.
In August 2004, the United States Department of State said some incidents of anti-Semitism occurred during the presidential recall referendum. The pro-government newspaper VEA accused Jewish leaders of participating in the Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002. The U.S. State Department and the Roth Institute reported graffiti with slogans like "Jews go home", were carved into synagogues after a 2004 government-sponsored rally, signed by the Communist Youth and the Communist Party of Venezuela. On August 8, 2004 Chávez supporters chanted "Sharon is a murder. No to Israel", with the letter S shaped like a swastika. They also wrote, "Viva Chavez and Arafat" and "NO to Zionism". Communist Party members posted signs saying "Neither Orlando Urdaneta nor the super-terrorist Israelis will succeed with our people", "No to the Israeli commandos in Caracas", "No to the involvement of Israelis in our nation", "No to the Mossad and no to the CIA", and "Bush+Sharon=murderers".
The U.S. Department of State said, in its 2005 report on International Religious Freedom, that Venezuela is a "historically open society without significant anti-Semitism; however, the Government and its supporters occasionally demonstrated possible anti-Semitism".
2004 Jewish school raid
According to the U.S. State Department, in November 2004, after Venezuelan government prosecutor Danilo Anderson was assassinated, "the Government used satirical comments made by journalist Orlando Urdaneta on a U.S. television program to allude to possible Israeli participation in Anderson's killing". The Israeli Embassy denied any Israeli involvement, cautioning that the Government representations were misleading.
On November 29, 2004, at 6:30 a.m., as school children arrived at Colegio Hebraica, a Jewish grade school in Caracas, 25 members of the country's investigative police, DISIP, broke into the school, some of them armed and hooded, and locked the doors with the children inside, to search the school as part of the Anderson investigation. After a three-hour search, the children were freed; police later said the search was "unfruitful" and government officials confirmed nothing had been found.
The U.S. State Department said that newspaper accounts of rumors of Israeli involvement in Anderson's assassination might have been behind the investigation. Thor Halvorssen, writing in The Weekly Standard, said that the judge who ordered the raid claimed that "electronic equipment, arms, explosive devices, communications equipment and documents" connected to the bombing that killed politician Danilo Anderson were suspected of being inside the building, and that Mossad agents had been behind the bombing. According to the Stephen Roth Institute, the search of the school was based on one anonymous phone call. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) says the transfer of weapons and explosives from Club Magnum, a shooting club, to the Jewish school had been reported, but Club Magnum was not searched. Interior Minister Jesse Chacón said nothing was found in the school and, along with Communications Minister Andrés Izarra, denied that the raid was meant to intimidate the Venezuelan Jewish community.
The raid was condemned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, calling it an "antisemitic action, which seems more like a pogrom than a legal procedure under the rule of law". The Wiesenthal Center said, "By breaking into these Jewish institutions, it was insinuated that the entire Jewish community of Venezuela was associated with this crime and suggests the collective responsibility in which every Jew is endangered." According to the Roth Institute, media analysts claimed the raid was "a way of threatening the Jewish community and was linked to the government's ties to Arab countries and radical Islamic states. In fact, at the time of the raid, Chavez was visiting Iran for discussions on oil, an interest common to both these anti-American states".
Venezuela's chief rabbi condemned the raid's "economy of intimidation", noting that "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."
2007 Jewish club raid
According to the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations (CAIV, Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela), agents of the DISIP secret police agency conducted a pre-dawn raid on the Hebraic Social, Cultural and Sports Center (Centro Social Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica) the day of the 2007 constitutional referendum in which Chávez's proposed constitutional and term limit reforms were defeated. On the Tuesday following the Sunday, December 2, referendum, representatives from the CAIV published a letter saying that dozens of DISIP agents had forcibly entered the club at 12:40 a.m. on the day of the referendum, supposedly in search of weapons and drugs. According to the CAIV, the DISIP agents left after an exhaustive search, without finding any irregularities.
The CAIV emphasized that the Jewish community in Venezuela had a national presence of more than 200 years of peaceful and democratic cooperation, and said, "We denounce this new and unjustifiable act against the Venezuelan Jewish community, and we express our rejection and profound indignation." The Latin American Jewish Congress estimated that, due to many individuals moving away to other countries, Venezuela's Jewish community had shrunk to between 12,000 and 13,000, from the estimated 22,000 people when Chávez took office in 1999.
Accusations of Chávez anti-Semitism
The Simon Wiesenthal Center criticized President Hugo Chávez after he compared Spain's José María Aznar to Hitler. In late 2005, Rabbi Henri Sobel of Brazil, a World Jewish Congress leader, also accused Chávez of anti-Semitism.
In 2004, after he overcame the referendum on his presidency, Chávez told the opposition not to let themselves "be poisoned by those wandering Jews. Don't let them lead you to the place they want you to be led. There are some people saying that those 40 percent [who supported his recall] are all enemies of Chavez." The next day he said on national television that "There are some − every day there are fewer − 'small leaders' [dirigencillos] who don’t lead anyone, they are more isolated every day, and wander around like the wandering Jew." The Roth Institute says that the Jewish community in Venezuela explains that the phrase 'wandering Jews' "was directed metaphorically at the leaders of the opposition parties" and is a common term in the Catholic world. Vice President José Vicente Rangel explained the meaning of the term the next day, and assured Jewish community leaders that it had been used inappropriately. The U.S. State Department also mentioned that "A few days after his electoral victory, President Chavez gave a speech in which he compared the opposition to 'wandering Jews'." Writing in The Weekly Standard, Thor Halvorssen says the United States Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor's "Report on Global Anti-Semitism" noted that "Anti-Semitic leaflets also were available to the public in an Interior and Justice Ministry office waiting room."
The Weisenthal Center criticized as anti-Semitic statements made by Chávez during a celebration of Christmas 2005, at a rehabilitation center. Referring to the December 2005 speech, the Miami Herald said, "It's not the first time Chávez has made comments deemed anti-Semitic. In 2005, he attacked 'some minorities, the descendants of the people who crucified Christ, [who] seized the riches of the world'." Chávez stated that "[t]he world is for all of us, then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolívar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia. A minority has taken possession all of the wealth of the world."
According to the JTA, Venezuelan government sources, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Jewish leaders in Venezuela said the quote omitted the reference to Bolívar, stated that Chávez was referring to Jews, and denounced the remarks as anti-Semitic by way of his allusions to wealth. According to an article published at Forward.com, Venezuelan Jewish community leaders accused the Simon Wiesenthal Center of rushing to judgment with the anti-Semitic remarks, saying that Chávez's comments had been taken out of context, and that he was actually referring to "gentile business elites" or the "white oligarchy that has dominated the region since the colonial era".
According to Venezuelanalysis.com, Chávez denied the accusations, saying to the National Assembly, "Anti-liberal I am, anti-imperialist even more so, but anti-Semitic, never, that's a lie. It's part of an imperialist campaign, I am sure." Chávez said he thought the attack was, "an offensive of the empire". He dismissed the accusations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as propaganda and said he hoped that former Prime Minister Sharon would recover from his stroke. In a nationally televised speech, Chávez accused the Wiesenthal Center of working with Washington. "It's part of the imperialist campaign", Chávez said, according to the JTA. "It's part of this political battle." The Wiesenthal Center's representative in Latin America replied that Chávez's mention of Christ-killers was "ambiguous at best" and that the "decision to criticize Chávez had been taken after careful consideration".
Critics point to Chávez's professional relationship with Norberto Ceresole. Halvorssen says that, "Chavez first ran for president on a reform platform, winning in a landslide. What few understood then was that Chavez planned to revolutionize the country following a plan masterminded by his longtime friend Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian writer infamous for his books denying the Holocaust and his conspiracy theories about Jewish plans to control the planet." Holocaust denier Ceresole calls the Jews of Venezuela the greatest threat to Chavismo in his Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo (Leader, Army, People). Chávez denies receiving advice from Ceresole, who was evicted from Venezuela a few months after Chávez reached power; later, Clarin.com said that José Vicente Rangel described Ceresole's book as disgusting and despicable.
An article in The Boston Globe discussed a Jewish filmmaker who "fled the country, fearing for his life" in January 2006. According to the article, the hosts of a government television program accused him of being part of a "Zionist conspiracy against Chávez"; the next day, Chávez called for laws to block the production of films that "denigrate our revolution".
The JTA said in 2006 that Jews in Venezuela were increasingly fearful of Chávez's vehement criticism of Israel during Israel's 2006 Lebanon War with Hezbollah. They said his rhetoric was "fanning the flames of anti-Semitism", and that the recent anti-Semitic behavior was not typical for Venezuela. They indicated concern about "the government's incendiary comments about Israel and Jews". Chávez has been accused of anti-Semitism several times by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which wrote to Chávez asking him to consider how his statements might affect Venezuela. The southern area director of the ADL accused Chávez of "distorting history and torturing the truth, as he has done in this case, it is a dangerous exercise which echoes classic anti-Semitic themes". The president of the Miami-based Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens said in 2006 "That's what you expect from someone who surrounds himself with the dregs of the world. He seeks out terrorists and dictators. It's predictable that he wouldn't defend a democratic country like Israel." Jewish-Venezuelan community leaders in Caracas told El Nuevo Herald that Chávez's statements have created a situation of "fear and discomfort ... The president is not the president of a single group but of Venezuelan Jews as well." The Federation of Israeli Associations of Venezuela in 2006 condemned "attempts to trivialize the Holocaust, the premeditated and systematic extermination of millions of human beings solely because they were Jews ... by comparing it with the current war actions".
The 2009 World Conference against Anti-Semitism claimed that anti-Jewish articles had been printed in the Chavez-sponsored media "an average of 45 pieces per month" during 2008 and "more than five per day" during the month-long January 2009 operation in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead).
The Wikileaks Cablegate in 2010 revealed that members of the CAIV had raised concerns with US diplomats regarding what they felt was the increasingly hostile environment created for Venezuelan by the government of President Hugo Chávez, saying they see a "dark horizon" for their community. They feared the Chavez government's growing ties with Iran, and the language chosen by Chavez to protest against Israeli policies. "While Chavez's rhetoric once clearly differentiated criticism of Israel from that of the Venezuelan Jewish community, since 2004 they believe he has merged his anti-Zionist views with anti-Semitic ones", US Political Counselor Robin D. Meyer quoted the leaders as saying.
2009 attack on synagogue
During the night of January 31, 2009, following Israel's incursion into Gaza, an armed gang consisting of 15 unidentified men broke into Tiferet Israel, the synagogue of the Israelite Association of Venezuela, the oldest synagogue in the Venezuelan capital Caracas and occupied the building for several hours. The gang tied and gagged security guards before destroying offices and the place where holy books were kept; this happened during the Jewish shabbat. They daubed the walls with anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli graffiti that called for Jews to be expelled from the country. Nicolás Maduro, who was the acting Foreign Minister at the time, condemned the act as a "criminal act of vandalism". The Information Minister Jesse Chacón also condemned the attack and denied it had any connection with the government. US politicians have called on the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to protect the country's Jews following the outbreak. Sixteen Republicans and Democrats wrote a letter demanding an "end to the intimidation and harassment of the Jewish community." In February 2009 the Venezuelan authorities arrested 11 suspects, including two associated with the synagogue, for robbery. According to the opposition daily El Universal, the CICPC's report stated that one of ten arrested defendants, Edgar Alexander Cordero, a bodyguard for a rabbi at the synagogue and officer of the opposition-led Metropolitan police, asked the rabbi for loan which he refused to give. Cordero decided to rob the synagogue of money, which he believed was locked in its safes.
Further antisemitic incidents
On November 28, 2012, in Mérida, a variety of anti-Semitic imagery, including swastikas, was found painted throughout the city.
Throughout the 2013 presidential campaign one of the two leading candidates, Maduro, continued a use of anti-American rhetoric ad motifs similar to those used by Chávez in the past. In this vein, he accused his opponent, Capriles, of being supported by the power of “Zionist capitalism.” Maduro claimed that Capriles acted against the interests of Venezuela, in favor of Israel, and on behalf of the “Jewish Lobby." During this time there were also frequent references to Capriles' Jewish roots in an effort to harm his campaign.
- Polish Venezuelan; mainly about Polish Jews immigrating to Venezuela
- List of Venezuelan Jews
- Israel-Venezuela relations
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