Chavez Era Remembered as Perilous Time for Venezuelan Jewry

March 12, 2013 9:40 am 0 comments

Hugo Chavez (in healthier days) with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Michel Hausmann, a Jewish freelance theater director now living in New York, in 2009 was the producer of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” in Caracas, Venezuela. Suddenly, the state-sponsored Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho Orchestra refused to work.

“We receive financial aid from the government, and given the current situation vis-a-vis Venezuela´s President Hugo Chavez’s statements [on the Israel-Hamas war], we prefer not to participate in a play that has Jewish content,” an orchestra spokesperson said at the time, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. That year, when Israel responded militarily to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, Chavez had told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Israel launched a “genocide” against the Palestinians.

The “Fiddler on the Roof” boycott represented “a microcosm of what was going on in Venezuela” for Jews under Chavez, Hausmann told JNS.org.

Chavez died March 5 at age 58 following a two-year battle with cancer. Before he came to power, Venezuelan Jews were an integral part of the country’s society.

“On Yom Kippur we always had a prominent figure come to a synagogue, sometimes even the president himself,” Hausmann said.

But when Chavez came to power, anti-imperialist and anti-American rhetoric immediately surfaced. “That eventually translated to an anti-Israel stance,” Hausmann said. Venezuelans started seeing “graffiti in the streets [saying] ‘Jews kill Arabs’” and similar things. Soon, the anti-Semitism began “to permeate into the voice of those around the government,” particularly the Venezuelan media, which aired open discussions on fabricated Jewish conspiracies.

Two other incidents signaled a turn for the worse for Venezuelan Jewry. One morning in 2007, Jewish parents came to drop off their children at the Hebraica Moral Y Luces Herzl-Bialik, the Jewish school of the alliance of Jewish communities in Caracas. Suddenly, SWAT forces entered the school and began to search for ammunition. “This was the first time there was something official going on, and that really scared us,” Hausmann recalled.

Then in 2009, a break-in occurred at the Sephardic Caracas synagogue, Tiferet Israel. Torah scrolls were found on the floor and graffiti messages were sprayed on the walls. Vandals stole all of the synagogue’s computer hard drives, and the Jewish community suspected the government was involved. “That marked a very scary moment,” Hausmann said.

In last year’s presidential election, Chavez defeated Henrique Capriles (Radonski), a Catholic opposition candidate who is also the grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors. His Jewish heritage came out strongly in Chavez’s campaign against him and in state-sponsored media reports describing him as “Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie,” among other slurs.

Chavez in 2006, during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, was the first head of state to condemn Israel’s actions. In reaction to the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which nine militants who attacked Israeli soldiers were killed, Chavez shouted, “Damn you, State of Israel!” Finally, during the IDF’s fall 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, Chavez said, “Another attack on the Gaza Strip began. Savage. Savage. Israel again bombing the Gaza Strip. Reasons? What reasons? Because [Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted once again he will ask for Palestine to be included as a member of the United Nations.”

Meanwhile, a Jewish community in Venezuela that was thriving only two decades ago is now disappearing, diminished by more than half since Chavez came to power, according to Hausmann.

Among those Jews still living in Venezuela, there is no official stand regarding Chavez, and they are much less vocal on the issue in comparison to such US Jewish organizations as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) or the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It’s a matter of fear,” Hausmann said. Furthermore, he said the problem was never solely about Chavez, as officials working under him often behaved much more aggressively.

“I can’t imagine it will get better [with Chavez gone because] ‘Chavismo’ is now an ideology which is at odds with Israel and the Jewish community,” Hausmann said, referring to the political ideology named after Chavez.

Jewish groups have expressed similar concern for the future of Venezuela’s Jewish community following the death of Chavez.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is “analyzing the situation” in Venezuela following the president’s death, said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC Latino and Latin American Institute, who explained that the death of a political leader is “often an opportunity for change, for the better or for the worst.” She noted the positive Israel-Venezuela relationship pre-Chavez, compared with the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism and Venezuela’s close ties to Iran during his time.

“We would hope that the new leadership would take a look at those issues and would want to change [Venezuela] in the right direction,” Siegel Vann told JNS.org.

“The passing of Chavez brings Venezuela to a crossroads,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman told The Jerusalem Post. “Will the country continue with the Chavista policies of repression, political manipulation and alliances with Iran, or will there be a new openness and true participatory democracy for the people of Venezuela?”

In January 2012, Chavez—who befriended Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—mocked the U.S. for warning the world to avoid close ties with Iran.

“They’re not going to be able to dominate this world,” Chavez said of Iran. “Forget about it, [President Barack] Obama, forget about it. It would be better to think about the problems in your country, which are many. We are free. The people of Latin America will never again kneel, dominated by the imperial Yankee. Never again.”

On March 6, Ahmadenijad reacted to Chavez’s death by calling him a “martyr” who fell to a “suspect illness,” the Lebanese Daily Star reported.

Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told The Jerusalem Post, “Jewish communities worldwide have two main concerns with the Venezuelan government: One, more symbolic, is the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, something the Jews from Venezuela see as very meaningful. The second one, more essential, is its relationship with Iran.”

“For the Jewish world, President Chavez leaves a mixed legacy. He broke off diplomatic relations with Israel and fostered close ties with the Iranian regime,” said Latin American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress presidents Jack Terpins and Ronald Lauder, who expressed hope that the Venezuelan leadership “would continue its dialogue with the Jewish community in order to improve the difficult situation of Jews in the country and internationally.”

The AJC has partnered with the CAIV (Confederacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela or Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela) Jewish umbrella organization for several years in Venezuela and has traveled there many times. Siegel Vann was part of a delegation to the country in 2009, the year the Tiferet Israel synagogue was vandalized.

Moving forward, the AJC hopes the Venezuelan people “will come together as one to address the different challenges” facing them, including in the economic sector, Siegel Vann told JNS.org.

B’nai B’rith International, in a similar vein, told JNS.org in a statement that it “hopes for a positive democratic outcome and for peace for the people of Venezuela in the wake of the death of Hugo Chavez.”

But looking back, as far as Chavez himself is concerned, he “will probably be remembered as the one who made Venezuelan Jews feel that for the first time they were not welcome in their own country, a chilling reminder of past tragedies,” Sammy Eppel, director of the Human Rights Commission of B’nai B’rith Venezuela, told JNS.org columnist Ben Cohen in January.

—With reporting by Jacob Kamaras

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