(JTA) — Even before an attack on a Caracas synagogue in which Torah scrolls were thrown to the floor and "death to the Jews" was painted on synagogue walls, the Jews of Venezuela were feeling threatened.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s rhetoric linking the country’s Jewish community to Israel’s military operation in Gaza caused the Jewish community to step up security a few weeks ago, according to reports. And on Jan. 24, in a harbinger of the attack six days later, a community rabbi walking on Shabbat was beaten by a group of attackers before being rescued by taxi drivers.
In the Jan. 30 incident, up to 15 people attacked the Tiferet Israel Sephardic synagogue, throwing the scrolls and damaging some, and painting the epithets on the walls, according to reports.
The synagogue’s guard was 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 last month, as was the Israeli Embassy. 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.
"We condemn the actions on the synagogue of Caracas," Chavez said in a televised speech. "It must be asked … who benefits from these violent incidents. It is not the government, nor the people, nor the revolution."
Chavez suggested Sunday that political opponents plotted the attack to reduce his chances in a Feb. 15 referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay in office after his term ends in 2013.
Chavez and local media had stepped up their criticism of Israel in the past week, with Chavez going so far as to tell his fellow citizens that they should speak to their Jewish neighbors in order to make Israel stop its assault on Gaza, a Latin American observer told JTA.
The observer said the attack on the Caracas synagogue "crossed more red lines" than in any other country. He said the scene inside the synagogue could be described as a "pogrom."
"The community is scared," the observer said.
On Jan. 6, three days after Israel began its ground assault in Gaza, Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador to Caracas and seven embassy staff members.
That day, Chavez called on Venezuelan Jews to denounce Israel’s operation.
“A Palestinian community lives here with us which we adore and love, and there are also Jews that live here who we love as well, but I wish the Jewish community would declare themselves against this barbarism," he said. "Do it. Don’t you strongly denounce any act of persecution and the Holocaust? What do you think we are looking at [in Gaza]? Put your hand on your heart and be fair.”
With the embassy closed, international Jewish organizations working in Venezuela such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress are the Jewish community’s only link to some government officials.
"A few days ago we had an emergency meeting with leaders of the Caracas Jewish community, who shared with JDC their grave concerns about the rapidly escalating situation," Steve Schwager, JDC’s executive vice president, said in a statement issued to JTA. "In an immediate response, JDC’s staff in Latin America stepped up its urgent work with the Jewish community in Venezuela. We increased and intensified our staff presence in Venezuela to assist the community in expediting its readiness in response to the new threatening reality."
Schwager said that the JDC referred the Caracas Jewish leadership to the appropriate defense and advocacy Jewish organizations.
During a meeting last August with leaders of the World Jewish Congress, Chavez promised to condemn “all forms of anti-Semitism,” according to a JTA report. Under Chavez’s rule, however, the Venezuelan Jewish community has declined by about a quarter, according to the WJC. Approximately 9,000 to 14,000 Jews now live in Venezuela.
Chavez reportedly maintains close ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has intimated that he wants to see Israel eradicated. The Venezuelan leader had upset the Jewish community in 2005 when he said the people who killed Christ took over the world’s riches. Relations have spiraled downhill ever since.
While American-based international Jewish groups have expressed concern over the attack and blamed Chavez for creating an atmosphere of hate in Venezuela, observers say it is unlikely that their condemnation will have an effect on the Venezuelan president.
They say, however, that if a leader Chavez admired, such as Fidel or Raul Castro of Cuba, called on him to back off of his verbal attacks on the Jewish community, it would have more of an effect.
"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, in a statement released by the organization.
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, it said in a news release.
"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, according to an ADL statement.
Chavez, Foxman said, "must ensure that his government quickly brings the perpetrators to justice."