Hacham Yom Tov Yedid Last Chief Rabbi of Halab
By: Dave Gordon
The story has a familiar ring to it, seen countless times in modern history: an erstwhile stable country changes for the worse virtually overnight.
Hugo Chávez-era Venezuela is a recent example of a country collapsing and falling into chaos.
Government takeovers, political upheaval, economic disintegration, rising crime rates, and implosion of social services have brought the country to its knees. All this hascombined with virulent anti-Semitism to spur a massive flight of Jews from the capital city, Caracas, to other Latin American countries, Panama, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Canada, and Israel.
Caracas’ once-thriving Jewish community of nearly 30,000 has dwindled in just a decade-and-a-half to a quarter its original size. The exodus continues as conditions are exacerbated by the sudden departure of foreign investment and international corporations.
The lucky ones see Soviet-style, hours-long supermarket lineups, while the unlucky see bare food shelves. The country reportedly has the worst inflation rate on the planet, in some sectors upwards of 700 percent. The World Bank in 2015 rated Venezuela roughly on par with South Sudan and Libya as the “worstcountry in the world for doing business.”
For most Jews, the primary reasons to leave are economy and crime, with anti-Semitism usually within the top five, according to those interviewed for this article.
Campaign of Intimidation
Venezuela was among thefirst countries to recognize Israel, and in 1991 it supported revoking the infamous 1975 United Nations resolution comparing Zionism to racism. Jews have lived in relative peace there for hundreds of years, until the last decade.
In May 2004, Tiféret Israel, the oldest synagogue in Caracas, was vandalized after demonstrators at a government-sanctioned protest wrote graffiti on city walls, including offensive slurs such as “Viva the armed Palestinian people” and “Free Palestine.”
In November of that year, armed and hooded state policemen broke into the Colegio Hebraica, a Jewish grade school in Caracas. During the three-hour sweep of the premises, conducted under the pretext of weapons searches, the doors were locked and bolted with children inside. Agents found nothing of interest.
Venezuela’s Chief Rabbi condemned the raid as community “intimidation.” The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism – a research institute at Tel Aviv University in Israel – reported that the intrusion was “perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community.”
Three years later, in December 2007, Venezuela’s secret police raided the Hebraic Social, Cultural and Sports Center, again under the pretextof a search for weapons and drugs, of which they found none.
In 2008, the Chávez-sponsored media published an average of
45 anti-Israel hit pieces a month. In 2009, there were more than five per day, according to the 2009 World Conference against
anti-Semitism. Newspapers El Universal and El Nacional accused Israel of genocide, according to the Stephen Roth Institute.
During Operation Cast Lead –the war waged by Israel on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 in response to incessant rocket attacks on its cities – a chain reaction of incidents unfolded, beginning with Chávez expelling the Israeli ambassador from Caracas. Later, in a public broadcast, Chávez said: “From the bottom of my soul, I damn you Israel. You are a criminal and terrorist state that is openly exterminating the Palestinians.” The President went on to accuse Israel of “Nazi-like atrocities.”
Simultaneously, the Venezuelan foreign ministry dubbed Israel’s actions “state terrorism.” On television, government officials were seen wearing kaffiyehsand waving Palestinian flags in the streets at an anti-Israel march said to have been organized by Chávez himself.
On a Friday night in January, 2009, armed men broke into Tiféret Israel, and gagged and bound security guards. The thugs ransacked offices and left anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, calling for the expulsion of Venezuelan Jews. Religious objects in the sanctuary were destroyed and defaced, and the database list of the country’s Jews was stolen.
The next month, in February, 2009, the Beit Shmuel synagogue was the target of a homemade bomb that shattered windows and damaged a nearby car.
The country’s main Jewish organization, La Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, said that more than four thousand anti-Semitic incidents occurred in 2013.
As recently as this year, Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN, Rafael Ramirez, rhetorically asked in a speech at UN headquarters in New York whether Israel was “trying to impose a ‘final solution’ on the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Little of this is shocking to Moises Brunstein, an ex-pat now living in Toronto, Canada.
A first generation Venezuelan, his Romanian parents sailed to Venezuela on a Red Cross boat in 1941, after having been prisoners in Nazi-occupied France. With no command of the language and no money, Brunstein’s father worked his way up to become president of the local hydro authority.
“We lived a very nice life,” recalled Moises. That is, until Chávez came to power. Twelve years ago, at age 29, he felt it was time to go. He left behind all his books, furniture, currency, with just four suitcases in tow.
Some cousins remain, but his father’s side has left for Florida, Australia and Spain, while his mother’s side settled in Canada.
It is his belief that the state is trying to squeeze the Jewish community out of Venezuela. “In 2010 and 2011,” he painfully relates, “the main building where Jews had stores was extricated by the government. My mother, a lawyer, saw her offices taken over. Everything changed when the government aligned themselves with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. The Palestinian flag flew in the Venezuelan congress.”
Brunstein last visited Caracas in 2009 for a cousin’s wedding, and found that security was unusually high. “You don’t wear yarmulkes in public,” he warns.
The reason why many still remain is a complicated set of circumstances, he explains. The elderly aren’t necessarily mobile and have no command of a second language. Those with businesses in Venezuela find it hard to leave and face financial uncertainty.
Brunstein mails his mother basic foods, medicine and personal hygiene products, as well as a Passovercare package.
Economy “in a Coma”
Meanwhile, Freddy Steiner, an ex-pat living in New York, still runs his apparel and clothing business in Caracas, called Componix Clothing, from the U.S., with his visits back home steadily declining.
In 2000, about a year after the Chávez revolution, Freddy moved his family from Caracas to Miami.
“Pure safety, the number one issue. The kidnappings were starting to rise, and the security was deteriorating. More and more people leave each year, knowing how much this is affecting the next generation.”
Caracas, he notes, is consistently ranked among the ten most dangerous cities in the world, with medical services next to
non-existent – except for the wealthy.
“The entire economy is in a coma, shut down,” he says. “Since early spring, malls and restaurants shut down at 7pm, there’s no electricity and no water.”
According to Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun of the Sky Lake Synagogue in North Miami Beach, which has a very large Venezuelan membership, many Venezuelans express their concern about family members who remain there, and the possibility of bringing them to the US is a popular topic of conversation.
Abraham Levy Benshimol, former president of the CAIV (Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela) and AIV (Ascociación Israelita de Venezuela), told Communitythat in addition to the difficulties experienced by all Venezuelans, Jews are facing increased challenges because of the exodus. “You still have the same number of schools, but you don’t have the same number of contributors. So that’s a big problem.”
“Wait and See”
Chaya Perman, rebbetzin of Rabbi Moshe Perman, director of Venezuela’s Chabad Center, takes a pragmatic approach.
“I don’t think anti-Semitism is a problem,” she says. “It’s no different than any other country. The recent anti-Zionism is part of what is going on internationally.”
According to Mrs. Perman, “nearly every Jewish family is affiliated in some way,” with nine-tenths of Jewish children attending Jewish day school. Kosher meat and kosher bread products are still available, as is kosher pizza. However, she adds, because of the circumstances, houses of worship are using up their financial reserves to keep afloat, though “not yet at the point where they think they need help from wealthy Jewish communities.”
Mrs. Perman has two married children with their husbands, and
15 grandchildren, remaining in Venezuela. They, much like the rest of thecommunity, don’t know whether tomorrow will be better or worse. But there’s always hope. “It’s a wait and see attitude,” Mrs. Perman says.
Sadly, the story of Jewish Venezuela is one which has repeated itself numerous times throughout our nation’s long history of exile. A country where Jews found a comfortable and inviting home was suddenly transformed into a hotbedof hostility. Gradually, the Venezuelan Jewish community is coming to terms with the harsh reality that probably sooner rather than later, they will be forced to find a new home where they can again enjoy peace, security and the freedom to live the kind of meaningful Jewish lives that we all seek for ourselves and our families.