Jewish reps oppose House resolution supporting Venezuelan Jews

A U.S. congressional resolution responding to a January 2009 attack on a Caracas synagogue -- its replacement being built is shown here -- and the Venezuelan government's treatment of the Jewish community was withdrawn last week.  (Jasmina Kelemen)

A U.S. congressional resolution responding to a January 2009 attack on a Caracas synagogue — its replacement being built is shown here — and the Venezuelan government’s treatment of the Jewish community was withdrawn last week. (Jasmina Kelemen)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Jewish members of the U.S. Congress opposing a resolution expressing solidarity with the Jewish community in another country is rare, perhaps unprecedented. But it happened last week in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee — at the urging of the Jewish community of Venezuela.

Several Jewish congressmen came out against a measure criticizing the Venezuelan government’s treatment of its Jewish citizens.

In explaining their position, the lawmakers cited the view of Venezuelan Jewish leaders that such legislation — introduced and subsequently withdrawn by Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) — was ill timed and could be counterproductive.

“There are times we can do the right thing, and there are times that our good intentions can do more damage,” said Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) at the May 20 mark-up hearing, citing conversations he had with Venezuelan Jews, international Jewish organizations and others familiar with the situation.

Klein was joined by several other Jewish lawmakers — Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — in expressing concern about the resolution, which was opposed by the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela (CAIV), the country’s main umbrella group of Jewish organizations.

In a statement to a Latin American Jewish news service, CAIV Vice President David Bittan said the timing of the resolution was wrong because the Venezuelan government has been addressing the Jewish community’s complaints while noting that the number of anti-Semitic articles in the Venezuelan media had dropped by 60 percent in recent weeks.

Mack’s amendment, which was attached to the foreign aid authorization bill, called on the Venezuelan government to “protect the rights of the Jewish Venezuelan community, irrespective of their political views.”

The resolution comes after a series of attacks and other harassment of Jewish institutions in Venezuela in recent years, including the desecration of a Caracas synagogue in late January. Eleven men, including eight police officers, have been charged with the crime.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez condemned the Caracas synagogue attack, but observers have accused him of fomenting an increase in anti-Semitism in the country with his harsh criticism of Israel regarding the Gaza invasion and his cozying up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Though he pulled the amendment recently, Mack told JTA that he plans on “actively pursuing every opportunity to further this resolution,” which he also introduced as stand-alone legislation before the full House in mid-May.

“I don’t think there’s ever a good time to threaten a group of people, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Venezuela,” Mack said. “Be silent and hope it goes away — history shows that does not work.”

In a phone interview with JTA, Fred Pressner, a past president of CAIV, emphasized that the biggest problem with the resolution was its “bad timing.”

“All of our institutions are protected by the police — we cannot complain about that,” said Pressner, noting that “the government reacted well” to the earlier attacks. He added that the Jewish community has recently had some “informal communications with some top level officials of the government.”

Things could turn around, he acknowledged, but said at this point such a resolution is unnecessary.

CAIV representatives met with members of the House committee to convey those feelings, said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin America Institute. AJC opposed the resolution, and Siegel Vann said it was important not to second-guess the local community. 

“If the community is telling you something, you cannot say we know better,” she said.

Not everyone agrees.

Adriana Camisar, assistant director of Latin American affairs for B’nai B’rith International, said she believes that the Jewish community in Venezuela is divided on the issue, with some placing more trust in the government than others. B’nai B’rith did not have a formal position on the legislation, but Camisar noted that the B’nai B’rith Venezuela office had “not spoken against the resolution.”

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a pulpit rabbi in Washington who has been a vocal critic of Chavez, went further, charging that CAIV did not properly represent Jewish feelings in the country and citing the backing of the resolution by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Pinchas Brenner, who also met with House committee members.

The 12,000-person Venezuelan Jewish community is about equally split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

Herzfeld, vice president of AMCHA-the Coalition of Jewish Concerns, traveled to Venezuela in March and said his feeling was that the “majority” of those he met with wanted to adopt Brenner’s approach.

Pressner said Brenner is a friend of his and “his opinion is valuable,” but that the community had come to a consensus. He also praised Mack for his “very good intentions.”

“We do need sustained and continued help and support from all American institutions, congressmen and senators,” Pressner said. But, he added, it’s “very important to have it well timed.”

NEXT STORY