A break-in at a Caracas synagogue on Jan. 31 heightened the concerns of the country’s Jews.
February 13, 2009
Venezuela’s Jews, Already Uneasy, Are Jolted by Attack
By SIMON ROMERO
CARACAS, Venezuela — This country’s small Jewish community was already on edge when vandals painted anti-Semitic epithets on the walls of Jewish institutions and businesses last month after President Hugo Chávez cut ties with Israel and called on Jews here to support his description of Israel’s leaders as a “government of assassins.”
But another episode, the break-in and desecration of a Sephardic synagogue on Jan. 31, intensified the uncertainty among Jews here. Officials are also putting pressure on Jewish leaders to retract criticism of Mr. Chávez regarding the attack and to accept the government’s explanation of it as a simple robbery by corrupt members of the intelligence and municipal police forces.
“The atmosphere of intimidation is terrifying,” said Rabbi Pynchas Brener, 77, a prominent Ashkenazi leader and an outspoken critic of Mr. Chávez’s government. “We do not know when this pressure will start to ease up.”
The government’s handling of the episode has also sown confusion. Mr. Chávez has denounced the attack and other forms of anti-Semitism and proclaimed his friendship with Venezuela’s Jews. But he has also asserted that unidentified opponents of his attacked the synagogue to cause disarray before a referendum this Sunday to decide whether Mr. Chávez can run for re-election indefinitely.
“Some sectors of the oligarchy want to overshadow the advances of the revolution with acts of violence,” Mr. Chávez said shortly after the attack.
When the Interior Ministry seemed to contradict his assertion that the attack was an effort to weaken his rule, arresting 11 people and saying robbery was their motive, Mr. Chávez shifted his position. He attacked critics who claimed he had created a political atmosphere in which anti-Semitism could flourish, accusing them of harboring the “criminal intent to unleash a religious war in Venezuela.”
Commentators on state media and pro-Chávez Web sites have taken up with relish Mr. Chávez’s initial position that the attack was a plot by his opponents. “The synagogue case seems to us like a media show assembled by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad,” said Hindu Anderi, a pro-Chávez journalist, in comments published by the government’s Bolivarian News Agency.
Meanwhile, Mario Silva, the host of a program on state television, issued a menacing call for the rabbi of the desecrated synagogue to express gratitude publicly for a swift investigation.
“I still have not seen the first declaration from the rabbi of the synagogue saying, ‘Sirs, I am thankful to the government,’ ” Mr. Silva said Monday night.
Mr. Silva appeared to get his wish on Thursday in the form of an impromptu ceremony broadcast on state television in which the foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, appeared at the synagogue to meet with Jewish leaders.
Elías Farache, a leader of Venezuela’s Sephardic community, read a statement at the ceremony thanking Mr. Chávez and Mr. Maduro for prioritizing the investigation. “We hope the legal process will shed new light on the motivations behind this case,” Mr. Farache said.
Despite the government’s efforts to put the controversy to rest, a sense of dread still lingers among Venezuela’s 12,000 to 14,000 Jews. That number is down from as many as 20,000 in the 1990s because of emigration.
Mr. Chávez and his government have long been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism, at least since his association with Norberto Ceresole, an Argentine with anti-Semitic views who advised Mr. Chávez in the 1990s.
Mr. Chávez later distanced himself from Mr. Ceresole but recent statements have led to renewed criticism from Jewish leaders — including one by Venezuela’s ambassador to Russia, who said last year that the brief coup against Mr. Chávez in 2002 included “many Mossad snipers, who were Venezuelan citizens but Jews.”
The warm welcome that Mr. Chávez has extended to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has also troubled Jews.
The tensions intensified last month when Mr. Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador to protest the war in Gaza, and senior officials attended a rally at the Sheik Ibrahim Mosque here in Caracas. “Our revolution is also the revolution for a Free Palestine,” Tareck El Aissami, the interior minister, said at the rally.
On the sidelines of the televised rapprochement on Thursday at the synagogue, one observer, León Benaim, summed up his view of the attack and the government’s reaction to it.
“The motive was simple,” said Mr. Benaim, 73, a Moroccan Jew who moved to Venezuela three decades ago. “It is to threaten and frighten the Jewish community so that we leave.”
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.