Protesters in N.Y. point finger at Chavez in Caracas attack

Demonstrators protested an attack on a Venezuelan synagogue outside the country's New York City Consulate.  (Ben Harris)

Demonstrators protested an attack on a Venezuelan synagogue outside the country’s New York City Consulate. (Ben Harris)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Ruben Kliksberg awoke Saturday morning questioning everything he had once assumed about the security of the Jewish community in his native Venezuela.

The Caracas-born, American-educated hedge fund employee says the country’s Jews, like their American counterparts, are well integrated and contribute “massively” to their society. His father was awarded a government honor for his work combating poverty.

“I woke up on Saturday morning and all of that had changed in six hours,” Klisberg told JTA.

The six hours in question had begun late the night before, on Jan. 30, when 15 armed men invaded the Tiferet Israel Synagogue in the Venezuelan capital Caracas. In an apparently well-organized operation, they overpowered the synagogue’s security before proceeding to scrawl hostile messages to the Jewish community on the walls and desecrate religious objects.

Kliksberg, now a New York resident, spoke during a rally Monday opposite the Venezuelan Consulate here. Like several American Jewish groups, he pointed a finger at the government of Hugo Chavez, accusing the Venezuelan president of imperiling the Jewish community with rhetoric that has fostered an atmosphere of intimidation.

Both Kliksberg and American Jewish leaders said they were alarmed about the possibility of future attacks because the intruders stole computers and administrative documentation.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, sounded a vague warning about the intentions of the vandals.

“They wanted information from the synagogue about the Jewish community,” Harris said in his speech at the rally. “They wanted names and addresses. Why? Why? Why in 2009 would people seek that information? You know and we know, and we have to say ‘no’ by our presence and by our voices.”

Kliksberg said the Venezuelan Jewish community feels lonely and its members no longer trust the government to protect it. Many believe they are being presented with a choice: their religious heritage or their country.

“For the first time in their lives in Venezuela, they are being asked to decide,” Kliksberg said. “And that’s not fair.”

On Sunday, Chavez condemned the attack, suggesting it was orchestrated by his political opponents. But the president’s attitude toward Venezuela’s tiny Jewish community — estimated at approximately 12,000 in a country of about 28 million, and steadily on the decline since his 1998 election — has been a source of concern since at least 2005.

That year, Chavez warned that “descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ” are in control of the world’s wealth. The speech was widely derided as anti-Semitic, though some, including the umbrella organization of Venezuelan Jewry, said Chavez was misinterpreted.

Since then, the community’s position has grown increasingly precarious. Last month, a rabbi reportedly was attacked in Caracas. Several synagogues have been vandalized. And even a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was threatened with a boycott, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has produced two reports on rising anti-Semitism in Venezuela.

Chavez also has forged a close alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and denounced Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza in terms more strident than many Arab countries.

In the weeks since Israel launched its attack on Hamas in late December, Jewish community leaders in Venezuela have complained about the heated rhetoric from government officials. Chavez called Israel’s government “genocidal” and the government media accused Israel of “imperialistic arrogance,” according to a presentation delivered last month to the plenary of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem.

WJC officials met with Chavez in Caracas in August. Following the meeting, the president of the Latin American Jewish Congress, Jack Terpins, described Chavez as “a great friend.” As of Tuesday, the WJC had remained mum on the synagogue attack, but its secretary-general, Michael Schneider, had told JTA on Monday that he was heading for Caracas that day to confer with local community leaders.

Other Jewish communal officials were not so reticent. In news releases and appearances at the New York rally, they fingered Chavez as responsible for the synagogue attack and urged him to bring those responsible to justice.

“We have a message for the president of Venezuela,” veteran activist Rabbi Avi Weiss intoned at the rally. “When you create an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, when your language is a language which is anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, you create the climate that makes these attacks possible. And to the president of Venezuela we proclaim, we hold you accountable.”

As video footage of Chavez played on a video screen and a bust of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar stared out at the crowd from behind the consulate’s glass windows, several hundred protesters decried the attack and chanted “Never Again” in English and Spanish.

Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) was asking colleagues to sign a letter to Chavez that accused the president of a “calculated campaign of fear and intimidation” against the Jewish community in Venezuela. 

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