CARACAS, Venezuela (JTA) — On a balmy tropical evening in early December, a few hundred families, mostly of Moroccan descent, gathered to inaugurate the first phase of what eventually will be a grand, two-story marble shul located in a wealthy Caracas neighborhood.
Among them, Claudio Benaim’s family beamed as Benaim stood with Rabbi Isaac Cohen as he recited a prayer into a microphone and affixed a mezuzah on the synagogue’s doorpost. Others admired the new flat-screen TVs listing daily prayer times.
Outside, young men in khakis bearing walkie-talkies scrutinized everyone entering the new shul, called Tiferet Israel del Este. After another synagogue was attacked in early 2009, a police van was stationed there around the clock, monitoring those entering the building’s usable areas. But the police van was canceled months ago – one tangible sign that this community is breathing easier after a nadir for the Venezuelan Jewish community following Israel’s war in Gaza two years ago.
“We feel OK as Jews,” said Benaim, a father of three. “As can be seen throughout the diasporas, the community remains and endures.”
Whether the Venezuelan Jewish community will endure is still an open question in a country where the population is dwindling rapidly due to aging and emigration. But the main challenge to the community in the last couple of years — a notably hostile tone from the government of President Hugo Chavez – appears to have subsided.
During and immediately after the Gaza war of two years ago, local Jews felt in the crosshairs as government denunciations of Israeli military actions grew virulent. Chavez demanded that the community rebuke Israel for its conduct in Gaza, expelled Israeli diplomats from the country, and reached out to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Against that backdrop, vandals attacked the largest and oldest synagogue in Caracas, Tiferet Israel Mariperez, and defaced it with anti-Semitic graffiti. Jews here were shocked by the attack, unusual for a country not known for anti-Semitism. The sophistication of the attack, coupled with two police raids on the community’s hub, Club Hebraica, ostensibly in search of a weapons cache, prompted many Jews here and elsewhere to point their fingers at the government.
Observers also blamed Chavez for unleashing a surge in anti-Semitic expression among his supporters on state-sponsored media. The president repeatedly called Israel a genocidal state, darkly warning in one speech that Israel was supporting the Venezuelan opposition and sending Mossad agents to assassinate him. Government-sponsored media equated Zionism with Nazism and called on local Jews to publicly denounce Israeli actions or risk boycotts.
Over the last few months, however, Chavez has shifted his tone, recently saying that anti-Semitism has no place in Venezuela.
"Revolutionaries cannot be anti-Semites,” Chavez said during a rally for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela just prior to legislative elections in late September.
Community members ascribe the change to an interview that Fidel Castro, the one-time leader of Cuba and one of Chavez’s Communist heroes, gave to an American reporter in September in which he made statements rejecting anti-Semitism. A few days after the interview was published, Chavez requested a meeting with the main Jewish community organization in the country, the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations. Until then, Venezuela’s foreign minister had acted as a liaison with the Jewish community — stoking concerns that Jews were viewed as foreigners rather than as Venezuelan citizens.
At the meeting, held Sept. 16, the Jewish confederation presented the president with a detailed list of anti-Semitic statements made on state-sponsored TV channels in 2010 and requested that he make clear that his remarks criticizing Israel should not be interpreted as an attack against Jews. They also asked for a restoration of ties between Venezuela and Israel.
“For us, not having relations with Israel is a major problem, not a minor problem,” said Salomon Cohen, president of the Jewish confederation. “Israel is our spiritual center.”
Chavez said he would consider the requests, according to those present at the meeting, but he has yet to offer a formal response. However, anti-Semitic expressions in state-sponsored media have subsided.
“Chavez himself publicly rejected anti-Semitic manifestations, and from this moment, the situation has ‘improved,’ with anti-Semitism remaining at a relatively lower level; in the written press and websites, we see a decrease in regards to the quantity,” said a recently published Jewish confederation report that tracked anti-Semitism in Venezuela from January to October 2010.
“I hope that this calm that we are experiencing now lasts,” Cohen said.
However, there remain concerns that events in the Middle East easily could cause anti-Semitism to resurface, the report said.
Aside from the political rumblings, daily Jewish life persists without discrimination. The community’s religious and social institutions operate freely and security is provided by the state when requested. Club Hebraica, the community’s most visible symbol of Jewish life, runs a wide variety of educational, cultural, religious and social activities, offering K-12 education, athletics clubs for all ages and cultural events for the wider community.
But while Venezuelan Jews may not feel threatened by anti-Semitism, they are threatened by general violence in the country. The number of violent civilian deaths in Venezuela in 2009 was almost four times higher than in Iraq, according to the Venezuela Observatory of Violence.
That’s one of the main reasons that Venezuela — a country that once offered shelter to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler and beckoned others as a land of opportunity — has seen its Jewish community decline by half, to approximately 10,000, over the past 10 years. That time also coincides with Chavez’s presidency, when rising crime, a deteriorating economy and the growing pitch of anti-Semitic statements in government-sponsored media convinced many it was time to leave.
Now, Jewish community leaders say that emigration and aging are proving to be this community’s real challenges.
“Our numbers are getting smaller, and we’re getting older,” Cohen said.
Violence is often cited as the primary reason for emigration.
“Anti-Semitism, as such, is not the community’s main problem,” said Max Sihman, a Jewish business owner who held economic posts in previous administrations. “The main reason for families in the community emigrating is insecurity. Kidnappings are becoming more intense with each day. Many families have already sent their children abroad.”
Sihman left Venezuela last year, moving to Costa Rica.
While the population has dwindled, it is still large enough to sustain a palpable sense of community, according to Abraham Levy Benshimol, director of the Center for Sephardic Studies in Caracas.
Benshimol, 77, said that the most important indicator of a continuing Jewish presence here is the number of students enrolled at the school in Hebraica. Offering a rare glimmer of hope, he said that after years of consecutive declines, the number of students seems to have stabilized.
“We don’t know what the future will bring,” he said. “The next five years will be crucial.”