Venezuela Jews rebuild after synagogue attack

A new synagogue being built in Caracas to replace a 50-year-old Sephardic synagogue that was attacked in January 2009. (Jasmina Kelemen)

A new synagogue being built in Caracas to replace a 50-year-old Sephardic synagogue that was attacked in January 2009. (Jasmina Kelemen)

CARACAS (JTA) — The quiet on a residential street in this eastern Venezuelan city is shattered by construction crews as workers perched on a scaffolding place panels of marble on the external wall of a two-story synagogue.

The construction occurs under the watchful eye of local police, who monitor the street around the clock. From their post on the corner, the police van has kept surveillance over the site since late January, when an older synagogue in the rundown Mariperez district of Caracas was attacked and desecrated.

Committed to their future here, the city’s Jews are building a new synagogue to replace the 50-year-old Sephardic synagogue that was attacked.

They must do so under police protection.

On Jan. 30, more than a dozen assailants invaded Tiferet Israel, overpowering two security guards and disabling the surveillance system. They desecrated holy objects, stole a computer database with the congregation’s personal information and put this city’s Jews on edge.

“It’s something that is really shocking and that has never been seen before in Venezuela. Never ever,” said Federica Palomero, who curates a small museum at Tiferet Israel. “In Venezuela there’s a tradition of coexistence, tolerance, respect and mutual admiration.”

Synagogue members say that anti-Semitic graffiti began to appear on the temple’s exterior walls in January, after President Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country to protest the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.

As Chavez ratcheted up his rhetoric against Israel, calling it a genocidal state, the official media followed suit, calling for a boycott on local Jewish businesses unless they publicly denounced Israel.

Venezuelan Jews, who first arrived here in the 1700s, say an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitism has followed.

“People are being taught to hate,” said Venezuelan Chief Rabbi Pynchas Brener. “Venezuela has never seen anything like this before.”

“We’ve never had any kind of political or social problems in Venezuela,” he went on. “Venezuelans are extremely tolerant; they accept differences.”

Other attacks and outbursts of hostility followed the Tiferet Israel attack. In February, unknown assailants lobbed a small explosive into a Caracas Jewish community center.

A local production of “Fiddler on the Roof” was even caught in the maelstrom after the orchestra chairman pulled out of the musical, possibly because of the play’s Jewish content.

The play’s producer, Michel Hausmann, said Manuel Torres, who had performed in "Fiddler" in the past, felt that to do so this year would be politically offensive and threaten his financial support from the state.

Torres refused to comment about the case when reached by JTA via telephone. But in an interview several days earlier with a local daily, the chairman denied being pressured and said the orchestra was concentrating on other events.

For its part, the government has been erratic in its response to the attacks on the Jewish community.

At first, Chavez and other members of his government denounced the attack on Tiferet, promising the assailants would be quickly apprehended. But Chavez also blamed government opponents for the raid and told the Jewish community not “to allow themselves to be manipulated.”

Then the Interior Ministry arrested 11 people, saying robbery was their real motive and that it simply was disguised as a bias crime.

While local Jewish leaders have publicly expressed their gratitude toward the government for prioritizing the investigation, many in the community quietly express doubt that the real perpetrators of the attack will be brought to light.

As Tiferet’s Palomero guides a visitor through a small exhibit of pictures showing the destruction caused by the attack, she says the attack does not reflect the attitudes of Venezuelans toward Jews "but rather those of a small group” that is “small, but active, dangerous and supported.”

Like many Jews here, Palomero declined to say who she believes is behind the attacks. But Jewish leaders from overseas have made clear who they believe is to blame.

“Now that I’ve been here and seen this with my own eyes, I have no doubt that direct responsibility for the attack on the Tiferet Israel synagogue goes directly to the door of Hugo Chavez,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Congregation Ohev Sholom in Washington after a recent visit to Caracas.

“The attack couldn’t have happened without the permission of Chavez,” he said, noting the technical sophistication used to break into the synagogue and crack safes inside.

Herzfeld, who was part of a four-person delegation from North America, said he is pressing U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House or Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, to assemble a congressional commission on religious freedoms in Venezuela.

Israel also is using its diplomatic muscle to keep the spotlight on Venezuela’s treatment of the Jewish community. Its Foreign Ministry has asked 15 countries with ties to Venezuela to bring up the issue with Chavez, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

“There has been a significant outbreak of anti-Semitism there, and we wanted to send messages to Venezuela’s president through several different channels in order to clarify the gravity with which we view the situation,” a senior government source told the paper.

Locally, the Jewish community has not been directly outspoken against Chavez. Its members say they need to continue with their lives as before.

“Life goes on and one has to keep working,” Palomero said. “The Jews are Venezuelans just like the Muslims, the Protestants and the Catholics. We’re Venezuelans and we’re Jewish.”

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