The crisis in Venezuela deepened this week in the aftermath of the beating of a rabbi, Friday’s attack on a synagogue and the growing exodus of Israelis from Caracas.
All of this comes a month after Venezuela expelled Israel’s ambassador and the embassy’s staff because of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. In New York Monday, more than 150 demonstrators shouting “Never Again” rallied outside the Venezuelan Consulate to protest the country’s failure to protect its Jewish citizens.
And in a letter this week to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signed by 19 members of Congress, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), the letter’s co-author, expressed fear that the synagogue attack could lead to more Jews fleeing Chavez’s hard-line rule.
“It’s difficult for me to say it was not government-instigated because nothing was stolen … except the hard drives from the computers,” Rabbi Isidoro Aizenberg, a former pulpit rabbi in Caracas who now lives in the U.S., said of the vandalism at Caracas’ oldest synagogue. “I tremble when I say it.”
Fred Pressner, a former president of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela, said in a conference call Tuesday that the up to 15 thieves — who broke into Tiferet Israel Sephardic Synagogue, held two guards at gunpoint and broke religious objects — had carefully planned the attack.
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. “They knew exactly what to write [on the walls] and what offices not to enter. For instance, they didn’t touch the office of the rabbi. And they extracted some sensitive data about members of the synagogue. We’re still worried about it.”
The graffiti they painted on the walls included the words: “We don’t want murderers,” and “Jews get out.” Cash they had found was left strewn around the synagogue.
Although Chavez condemned the attack in a televised speech Sunday, claiming it was the work of opposition leaders, Jewish leaders here and in Venezuela said frequent anti-Israel diatribes set the stage for the vandalism.
“When you keep putting the seeds of anti-Semitism in one place, sometimes trees grow,” Pressner said. “In newspaper, television and radio we have seen things go from bad to worse.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said anti-Semites felt “emboldened and empowered by the rhetoric and actions” of Chavez.
The organization added that the attack was “a modern-day Kristallnacht” and “reminiscent of the darkest days leading to the Shoah.”
Before the attack, the Maccabi Latin American Confederation had complained in an open letter Jan. 18 that since the Israeli assault in Gaza Dec. 27, “the present government of Venezuela has adopted an aggressive and dangerous tone never previously heard clearly inciting against the Jewish community.
The government’s supporters nationwide picked up on the government’s lead with clearly anti-Semitic expressions — with no effort whatsoever by the government to stop them.”
In addition, the government openly questioned Israel’s right to exist, anti-Semitic slogans were scrawled on public structures and, on Jan. 6, Chavez ordered the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and embassy staff and later called Israel “a genocidal government.”
Pressner said in a later interview that most of the Israelis in Venezuela left along with the Israeli Embassy staff.
“Maybe they felt endangered or they left in solidarity with the ambassador,” he said. “I don’t know their motivation. But the bottom line is they left.”
As a result, Pressner said the Jewish school at which many of the Israelis had worked is now short of teachers and the lack of an Israeli government presence makes it difficult to replace them with other Israelis.
“Israeli teachers teach Hebrew, Torah and history, and if you want to bring them to teach in your schools you have to ask for a visa [for them],” he said. “When diplomatic relations are broken, it makes life difficult.”
The Jewish community in Venezuela numbers nearly 13,000, and Pressner said there are about 1,300 children in the K-12 Jewish day school.
He pointed out that the rabbi who was attacked on Jan. 24 — six days before the synagogue attack — had been walking on Shabbat when he was accosted and beaten. He was rescued by a group of taxi drivers.
“I don’t know if it was the same thieves or an unrelated attack,” Pressner said. “But if you put the pieces together — people are afraid and fear for their own security. It would be helpful to have a clear message from the government to assure all of us that we will be safe and that we are a part of this country, as we have been for the last 100 years. If that message came out, it would calm people.”
“We want a right to live freely as Jews,” he added. “That means you can go to synagogue and feel safe and protected, and that you will get all the means necessary to teach your kids Judaism. … It is the right of any government to disagree with the policies of the Israeli government at certain times, but don’t expect me to criticize the State of Israel.”
Relations between Venezuela and Israel have been strained for many years and Chavez’s decision to cozy up to Iran, which calls for the destruction of Israel, has exacerbated tensions.
On the conference call, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Dina Siegal Vann, director the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute, said her office has been tracking the growing presence of Iran throughout Latin America.
“After 9/11, the focus was on the Middle East and it provided Iran with an opportunity to increase its clout in the region [Latin America],” she said.
At the rally outside the Venezuelan Consulate here on Monday, Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the JCRC, one of the event’s sponsors, held aloft large photos of the damage done to the desecrated synagogue’s ark.
Many of the protesters were South American Jews who held aloft the flags of Venezuela, the U.S. and Israel. After the demonstration began, someone in the Venezuelan Consulate moved a TV to the window that showed pictures of Chavez addressing a large crowd.
“People [there] are terrified of going out,” said one of the demonstrators from Venezuela, a 24-year-old who identified herself only as Karina. “The government should secure some protection for the Jewish community, which it has never done.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in The Bronx, said he believes congressional hearings are needed to spotlight Chavez’s actions.
“Some keep arguing that conditions in Venezuela are precarious and that public hearings could hurt,” he said. “But there must be public hearings because the more there is a public stance, the more the Jews in Venezuela are protected.”
But Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said the Jews in Venezuela are not clear whether hearings would “harm or help them.”
He told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview that in July he held a hearing on Venezuela that covered “three or four issues,” including conditions of the Jewish community.
“We did it as part of a larger hearing to send a message but not to jeopardize the community,” he said.
This week, Engel sent Chavez a letter signed by 19 members of his subcommittee that called the synagogue attack “a direct result of the dangerous environment of fear and intimidation against the Jewish community which your government has fostered.”
The letter supported that assertion with quotes from Chavez himself, including: “The Israelis have criticized Hitler but have done something worse.” And it noted that one-third of the Jewish community in Venezuela, which once numbered 25,000, “have already left for safer shores. We fear that given the recent attack on the synagogue, more will depart.”
At Monday’s rally in New York, Pablo, a 23-year-old Ecuadorian, said he has been living here for the past six years but that his family still lives in Ecuador.
“I’m afraid of what might happen in Ecuador, too,” he said, adding that he experienced anti-Semitic attacks as a child.
Kenneth Stern, director of anti-Semitism, hate studies and extremism at the American Jewish Committee, said he is “concerned about the vulnerability of the Venezuelan Jewish community. … The terrorization of the Jewish community there is emblematic of a lot of problems there.”