One of the first points of tension was the April 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. Michael Penfold-Becerra, a political scientist at Caracas’s institute of superior administrative studies, said that among some government officials, suspicions against Jews were fueled by the alleged support of prominent rabbi Pinchas Brenner for the authors of the short-lived coup, as well as by the perception that Israelis and Jews were active in the arms business.
The first raid, in 2004, heightened the tensions, especially since it took place early in the day when hundreds of children were on their way to school.
The tensions escalated again during the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, when Chavez accused Israelis of behaving like Nazis. He recalled the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Tel Aviv, and Israel, in turn, called back its ambassador. Although the Israeli diplomat returned to Caracas a month later, and Venezuela sent a low-level envoy to Tel Aviv, the relationship remains fraught.
The Jewish community turned to Argentina’s government to intercede with Chavez, and last January the self-described “Bolivarian” leader agreed to meet with CAIV following a request by Nestor Kirchner, then president of Argentina.
Through it all, Benshimol and others have stressed that there has been no instance of physical violence against Jews in the country. And they have, on occasion, defended Chavez against accusations of antisemitism aired by such American Jewish groups as the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But the atmosphere has worsened lately, first and foremost because of Chavez’s increasingly inflammatory talk about Israel and its supporters. A television program called “The Razor,” broadcast on a state-owned channel, has featured lengthy rants about the presence of Mossad agents allegedly in the country working to unseat the Chavez regime with the support of the United States and opposition forces in Venezuela. The host of the show has also questioned the loyalty of leading Jewish figures to their home country. Despite repeated complaints by CAIV, the authorities have taken no action.
In March 2007, there were no government officials in attendance at the 40th-anniversary celebration of CAIV. Benshimol said that the government has had no official ties with his organization for the past year.
The deteriorating atmosphere has prompted a sizable exodus of Jews from Venezuela. While precise numbers are hard to come by, the number of children attending the school at the Hebraica center has dropped some 37% in the past decade, while membership at the club has slipped 30%.
Kind of scary, but at least there's been no substantial violence... yet.
Mona Charen wonders why the world Jewish community isn't speaking up about this more.
You might expect an outcry from other Jews around the world -- and there has been some. But within the U.S., many of the leaders of large Jewish organizations are seeking to stifle those, like Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, who are urging members of Congress to hold hearings on the matter. Weiss reports that Rep. Elliott Engel (D., NY) was willing to call a hearing but was dissuaded by the Conference of Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations.
Dina Siegel Vann, speaking of behalf of the American Jewish Congress, published an op-ed in the Miami Herald scolding those who want to make as public a protest as possible. "Shouting and screaming from the safety of the United States may feel good to some," she wrote, "but the goal of the exercise is not to satisfy their needs; rather it's to ensure the safety and well-being of thousands of Venezuelan Jews . . ." Her title: "Let's use diplomacy, not public protests."
Well, diplomacy has its place, but this isn't it. When the Soviet Union was denying exit visas to Jews wishing to emigrate and persecuting those who sought to leave, only the loud and persistent protests of Jews in the United States and elsewhere (combined with congressional action) caused the Soviets to relent. Bill Buckley quipped at the time that he hoped the Soviets would release every Jew who wanted to emigrate except one -- to keep alive the Jewish pressure that was so helpful in the larger Cold War. The Venezuelan Jews themselves have asked for such international pressure. They believe Chavez is very sensitive about international opinion. It would be naive to place faith in diplomacy alone.
Charen is correct that diplomacy can only go so far, but you do need to strike a balance when you're dealing with a very vulnerable population whose fate can rise or fall at the whim of a totalitarian government (or in this case, dictator). Calling Chavez out to treat his country's Jews better does no good if it makes their lives even worse.
On the plus side, the Forward says that Venezuela's Jews are getting sick of Hugo's crap and are starting to stand up for themselves.
When two dozen heavily armed policemen came to search the Hebraica community center in the Venezuelan capital one night last month, the Jewish community here finally snapped.
The government officers who entered the sprawling, country club-like complex were ostensibly looking for a stash of weapons and for evidence of “subversive activity.” They found neither. In the subsequent days, the Venezuelan Jewish community’s umbrella organization, the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela, fired off a statement denouncing the raid as an “unjustifiable act” aimed at creating tensions between the community and the government of socialist President Hugo Chavez.
This would not be remarkable in the United States, where Jewish groups routinely state their views with little trepidation. But their counterparts abroad have tended to be less confrontational, especially in countries with small communities and a volatile political environment. In Venezuela this has been the case until recently, despite a long series of problems that includes an earlier raid on the Hebraica center, antisemitism on state-controlled media and anti-Israel pronouncements by Chavez. The calculated quiet ended with last year’s December 1 raid.
“We’re facing the first anti-Jewish government in our history,” Simon Sultan, president of Hebraica, told the Forward in an interview in his office, located in a tony Caracas neighborhood.
The December operation took place on the night preceding a crucial referendum on proposed constitutional reform that would have granted Chavez broad powers and the possibility to run indefinitely. The reform was rejected by a thin margin.
“It seems that the only interpretation is that this was an intimidation by the government,” Abraham Levy Benshimol, president of CAIV, told the Forward....In the end, though, it was not the immigration but the raid that convinced the community to speak up. The operation was led by the equivalent of the FBI, whereas the more recent raid was done by officers from a police force under the control of the Interior Ministry and, as such, closely tied to the presidency. While there is no evidence that Chavez himself ordered the latest raid, the all-powerful Interior Ministry is one of his strongest levers.
...Jewish communal leaders also believe that another element might be at work. Sultan noted that Tarek al Assaimi, a former far-left 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 and, as such, could have been involved in initiating the raid.
A few days after the raid, Sultan and Benshimol went to the interior and justice ministries to meet with a prosecutor who opened a probe into possible irregularities surrounding the police operation, which was ordered by another prosecutor. A previous probe into the 2004 incident never produced any official outcome — and neither leader expressed much optimism that the outcome would be different this time.
I know biting our tongues and letting other people take the reins isn't really the forte of American Jews, but maybe the American Jewish community would do better to ask the Jews in Venezuela how we can help them HELP THEMSELVES rather than try to take everything onto our shoulders, regardless of what result it will bring.