(JTA) — International Jewish groups expressed concern after an attack on a Caracas synagogue and blamed Hugo Chavez for creating an atmosphere of hate in Venezuela.
Up to 15 people attacked the Tiferet Israel Sephardic synagogue late Friday night, throwing Torah scrolls on the floor and damaging some, according to reports. They also painted epithets such as "death to the Jews" on the synagogue’s walls.
The synagogue’s guard had been held at gunpoint and was found on the floor of the building by members on Saturday morning, the Jerusalem Post reported.
It is not the first such attack on Jewish institutions in the country, which broke off diplomatic relations with Israel over the Gaza military operation, according to The New York Times. In response, Israel expelled the Venezuelan envoy and his embassy staff last week.
The same synagogue was vandalized early last month. The Israeli embassy was also vandalized. A Jewish community center was raided in 2007 in a search for illegal weapons. None were found.
The government of President Hugo Chavez decried the attack, the Times reported.
Chavez and local media have been increasingly critical of Israel in the past week.
"The total disrespect of a Jewish house of worship reflects the escalating climate of hostility towards Jews in Venezuela," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Harris also said, "There are strong indications that what we are witnessing is a state-sponsored campaign of anti-Semitic persecution, spurred by both Venezuela’s alliance with the Iranian regime and the surge of anti-Israel rhetoric during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas."
Harris called on the international community to declare its solidarity with Venezuela’s Jewish community.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center also blamed Chavez’s demonization of Israel and the Jewish community as the catalyst for the synagogue attack and called on world leaders to denounce it.
"This was no mere hate crime from the margins of society, but a reflection of President Chavez’s campaign to demonize Israel and her supporters,"said Rabbis Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean, and Abraham Cooper, its associate dean, in a statement. "It is frightening to watch the inevitable consequences of Iran’s chief ally in the Americas promotion of hatred of the Jewish people escalate into an attack, more reminiscent of Nazi Germany in 1938, than a democracy in 2009. The fact that the members of this synagogue stayed away from services this Friday night out of fear that the anti-Israel campaign had generated says it all."
B’nai B’rith International has asked the U.S. State Department to investigate the attack.
"This has got to stop," said B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Daniel Mariaschin. "It is unacceptable for a government to incite hatred. Chavez has cultivated an environment where his followers feel comfortable threatening Jews."
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called on Chavez to protect his country’s Jewish community.
"Sadly, this is not a random event in Venezuela; it is directly related to the atmosphere of anti-Jewish intimidation promoted by President Chavez and his government apparatus," Foxman said.
Chavez, Foxman said, "must ensure that his government quickly brings the perpetrators to justice."