As Chavez Goes Authoritarian, Venezuela Jews Fear for Future

Venezuelans heading to the polls in a little less than three weeks will be voting on some rather drastic changes to the nation’s constitution.

The amendments that are expected to pass will abolish presidential term limits, allowing President Hugo Chavez to be re-elected indefinitely, and give Chavez’s government total control over Venezuela’s Central Bank, many private schools and other institutions. They also will allow him the power to handpick vice presidents without voter consent.

Protesters in Caracas and other cities already have begun clashing with police in the lead-up to the Dec. 2 referendum, driving the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, to a black-market low of 6,800 to the dollar.

Venezuela’s 12,000 or so Jews mostly are unhappy with where the oil-rich country is heading, but there seems little they can do about it except leave.

"There’s a crisis here, though I wouldn’t say it’s a special crisis for the Jewish community," said Rabbi Pynchas Brener of La Union Israelita, a large Orthodox synagogue in Caracas. "I think it’s similar to what all people from the same socioeconomic situation are facing."

Without criticizing Chavez by name, Brener noted an increase within the last year of "anti-Semitic expressions by people who are close to the government," as well as on state-owned radio and TV stations.

Yet Brener, who’s been the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Caracas since 1967, emphasized that the Jewish community doesn’t get involved in politics.

"I don’t think people can express what they want nowadays," he said, indicating phone lines are being tapped. "Of course people are cautious. We’re very concerned with what’s going on. We live here."

The increasingly grim political situation, the nation’s economic instability and Chavez’s warm embrace of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have driven many Venezuelan Jews to consider their options abroad.

"A lot of people are leaving the country, but not only because they’re Jewish," said Robert Bottome, publisher of VenEconomy Weekly in Caracas and an outspoken critic of the Chávez government. "It’s because they feel the country is going down the drain. "The opportunities to invest and grow have been severely curtailed by the Chavez regime. And if Chavez aligns himself with Iran, it’s normal that Jews would start worrying about his intentions. I don’t blame them for being nervous."

"Just about everyone you meet who’s middle or upper class is thinking of other options,” said Will Recant, the assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sent a top-level delegation to Caracas two weeks ago to assess the situation. “Will they stay, and if so, for how long? If not, where will they go? Israel is always the first option, and the Jewish Agency is working with them on this."

Nearly a third of the community has left the country over the past three years, and the number of Jews in Venezuela has dropped to 12,000 from about 17,000 in 2004, Recant said.

Many have gone to Israel or the United States. Some have emigrated to Costa Rica, Panama and other Spanish-speaking countries.

"The JDC is not involved at all with those who are leaving,” Recant said. “We’re mostly involved with the community that’s there, and how to keep it viable for those who remain, as well as helping with any kind of emergency plans.”

Jewish community officials say the situation is volatile.

That’s partly why community members were so upset when Israeli Knesset member Effi Eitam declared two weeks ago after a visit to Caracas that Israel should help Venezuelan Jews make aliyah immediately.

"They’re asking for help," Eitam told Israel’s daily Ma’ariv upon returning from his visit. "The Jews there are confused and frightened, and very much want Israeli help to organize. Some already have evacuated their family members to other places, such as Miami or Panama. Every family has an emergency evacuation plan."

With ties between Israel and Venezuela already strained, one Washington-based official with close ties to the Venezuelan Jewish community said Eitam’s comments were irresponsible and unhelpful, casting the country’s Jews as disloyal to Venezuela.

"Anti-Semitism is being expressed in the official media, and the Jews — along with many other Venezuelans — fear the changes the government might impose over the next few months,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “But it’s up to the community and individual Jews to decide if they want to stay in Venezuela or leave. I don’t think going into the panic mode helps in any way.”

In August 2006, the Venezuelan government downgraded its relations with Israel in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. Chavez recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv after criticizing Israel for employing "Hitler’s methods" against Lebanese civilians.

Likewise, Israel’s envoy in Caracas, Shlomo Cohen, was recalled by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but returned a few months later.

"It’s a very delicate situation," the Washington-based official said, "and the Jewish community continues to be concerned."

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