Two dozen heavily armed special police from the Venezuelan Interior Ministry searched the Hebraica community center in Caracas last month, ostensibly looking for weapons or evidence of “subversive activity.” There were no arrests or seizure of property. The Venezuelan Jewish community’s umbrella organization, the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela (CAIV), protested the raid as an “unjustifiable act” aimed at creating tensions between the community and the government of President Hugo Chávez. “It seems that the only interpretation is that this was an intimidation by the government,” CAIV president Abraham Levy Benshimol told New York’s Jewish weekly The Forward, noting that the raid came on the eve of the referndum on Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform. “We’re facing the first anti-Jewish government in our history,” added Hebraica president Simon Sultan.
According to The Forward, the raid has sparked an open break between the Chávez government and the Jewish community after years of growing tension. Suspicion was aimed at the community after the April 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, when prominent rabbi Pinchas Brenner was named in the press as a supporter of the putsch. The first raid of the Hebraica, in 2004, heightened tensions—especially since it took place early in the day when hundreds of children were on their way to the center’s school.
Tensions again escalated during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, when Chávez accused Israelis of behaving like Nazis. He recalled the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Tel Aviv; Israel responded by calling home its ambassador in Caracas. The Israeli diplomat returned a month later, and Venezuela sent a low-level envoy to Tel Aviv.
The Jewish community turned to Argentina’s government to intercede with Chávez, and last January the leader agreed to meet with the CAIV following a request by Nestor Kirchner, then president of Argentina.
Jewish leaders have stressed that there has been no instance of physical violence against Jews in Venezuela. They have even defended Chavez against accusations of anti-Semitism from American Jewish groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But now they say the atmosphere is rapidly deteriorating. A pro-Chávez TV program called “The Razor,” broadcast on a state-owned channel, has featured lengthy rants about the supposed presence of Mossad agents in the country working to destabilize the government. The host of the show has also questioned the loyalty of leading Jewish figures. Despite repeated complaints by the CAIV, authorities have taken no action.
In March 2007, no government officials attended the 40th-anniversary celebration of CAIV. Benshimol said that while there is no evidence that Chávez himself ordered the latest raid, the fact that this time it was carried out by Interior Ministry officers indicates it emerged from the top levels of power. Sultan pointed out that Tarek al-Assaimi, a former student leader whose father was the representative of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Venezuela, is the deputy Interior and Justice minister in charge of internal security.
After the raid, Sultan and Benshimol visited the Interior and Justice ministries to demand an investigation of the incident. A previous probe into the 2004 incident never produced any official outcome.
The Forward says that Venezuela’s Jewish community has declined from about 16,000 to 12,000 since Chávez was elected in 1998, with the exodus picking up pace in recent months. Asked about the possibility that the bulk of the community might choose to go to Miami, Madrid or Tel Aviv for good, Benshimol said: “We want to live here, but we want to live in dignified conditions.” (The Forward, Jan. 16)