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

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.