Op-Ed: Time for congressional action on Venezuela

WASHINGTON (JTA) — On March 11, I traveled to Caracas as part of a rabbinic delegation in a gesture of solidarity toward the Jews of Venezuela.

What we saw and heard in Caracas convinced our delegation that the Jewish community needs to mobilize at once on behalf of our brethren in Venezuela. We should demand immediate hearings in the U.S. Congress, as well as legislation to require the Venezuelan government to cease its anti-Semitic activity or face economic sanctions.

Although the Venezuelan government denies responsibility for the recent anti-Semitic attacks in Venezuela, we should not be satisfied with their deflections. Congress has the ability to call for hearings and undertake its own investigation.

While the threat against the Jewish community grows by the day, Congress is dragging its feet. More than a year ago Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) requested a report from the U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom on the state of anti-Semitism in Venezuela. That report still has not been published. We are quickly running out of time, as the attacks are escalating in a very serious manner.

On the night of Jan. 30, attackers broke into the Tiferet Israel synagogue of Caracas, vandalized Torah scrolls, stole community information and wrote “Death to the Jews” on the wall.

This attack came in the wake of a steady barrage of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements from President Hugo Chavez. On the day we arrived in Venezuela, the state-run newspaper in Caracas had a picture of a concentration camp on the cover with an Israeli flag flying in the background. The caption read “Under New Administration.”

We should not be appeased by the fact that the Venezuelan government talks out of both sides of its mouth and has condemned the attack on Tiferet Israel. Chavez’s government was directly responsible for the attack, which involved 19 people and used advanced technology to penetrate the building and crack the synagogue safe.

In a meeting in Washington on Feb. 3 with Angelo Rivero-Santos, the chief of Venezuela’s diplomatic mission to the United States, Rivero-Santos condemned the attack but suggested to me that he believed that the Catholic Church might be behind it. [Editor's note: Rivero-Santos' office denied that he made any such suggestion.]

I did not realize how truly offensive this was until we met with Cardinal Jorge Urosa in Venezuela. Immediately upon learning of the attack on Tifereth Israel, Urosa characterized the attack as an assault upon all religions, and he called Jewish community leaders to express his solidarity with them. He, too, told us he believed the attack was the work of government bandits.

Despite Chavez’s claim that he would investigate the attack and protect Venezuela’s Jews, on Feb. 26 a hand grenade was thrown into the Beit Shmuel synagogue in Caracas.

The world needs to hold Chavez directly responsible for these attacks. Let us also remember that his government has tried openly to intimidate Jews on other occasions.

On Nov. 29, 2004, which is International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Venezuelan police raided Hebraica, the main Jewish school in Venezuela. The police chose to enter the complex just as the school’s 1,300 students were arriving in the morning. Ostensibly they were looking for weapons, but more likely the police were looking for places to plant weapons. Chavez happened to be visiting Iran that day.

A second raid took place on Dec. 1, 2007, on the eve of an important referendum in which Chavez attempted to expand his powers. The police told the heads of the school, “The next time we will find what we are looking for."

More than a year ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., asked Engel to hold hearings on the state of Venezuelan Jewry. Such hearings would be a helpful way of demonstrating to Chavez that if he acts in this manner he will be branded as an anti-Semite, and that we are not accepting his lies.

Inexplicably, Engel still has not held hearings. In doing so, he not only is defying his own constituent, he also is ignoring the pleas of the Venezuelan Jewish community, since Chavez may be vulnerable to public pressure on this matter.

The Venezuelan Jewish community is living under state-sponsored anti-Semitism and a government that openly embraces Iran and Hezbollah. This is a recipe for disaster that should spur us to aggressive action.

“We are limited by what we can say,” we were told by Venezuela’s Jews, “but you must speak out on our behalf.”


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