Antisemitism in Venezuela
Antisemitism in Venezuela has happened occasionally in Venezuela throughout the history of the Jews in Venezuela. However, under the presidencies of both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, allegations of antisemitism grew following actions and statements by the Venezuelan government, while also occurring in public incidents. The Jewish population also declined rapidly under the Bolivarian government according to the Algemeiner Journal, with an estimated population of 22,000 in 1999, falling to under 7,000 in 2015.
In 1827, a group of Jews moved from Curaçao and settled in Coro, Venezuela. In 1855, rioting in the area forced the entire Jewish population, 168 individuals, back to Curaçao. Assimilation of Jews in Venezuela was difficult, though small communities could be found in Puerto Cabello, Villa de Cura, Carupano, Rio Chico, Maracaibo, and Barquisimeto.
According to the Latin American Jewish Congress, Venezuela's Jewish community had an estimated 22,000 people when Chávez took office in 1999. In the first few years of the 21st century, the number of Venezuelan Jews emigrating to Israel was shown to have steadily grown. The Algemeiner Journal stated that the Jewish emigration from Venezuela occurred due to "the country’s economic crisis ... as well as the anti-Semitic rhetoric that has marked the left-wing regime’s support for Iran, Syria, and Palestinian Islamist organizations like Hamas" and that "first Chavez and now Maduro have found political uses for anti-Jewish rhetoric".
In 2007, it was reported that emigration had resulted in a drop of almost 20% of Venezuela's 20,000 strong Jewish population amid concerns of rising allegations of antisemitism. The Latin American Jewish Congress estimated that in 2007, only between 12,000 and 13,000 Jews still resided in Venezuela. By November 2010, more than 50% of Jewish Venezuelans had left the country since Chavez came to power, with some of those remaining behind complaining of "official antisemitism". By early 2013, only 9,000 Jews lived in Venezuela and in early 2015, it was reported that under 7,000 lived in the country.
In its 2002 report, the Stephen Roth Institute said a Venezuelan journalist in the U.S., Ted Cordova-Claure, "published an article in the privately owned, pro-democracy Tal Cual equating Sharon and Hitler". The Roth Institute also said that Frontera journalist Alfredo Hernandez Torres justified suicide bomb attacks against Israel, saying that "Sharon displays more hate than the Nazis had for the Jews." Torres called Sharon a "beast" and said that Israel engaged in "genocide in Jenin ... which would have embarrassed even insensitive Hitler". The Roth Institute reported that Venezuelan newspapers El Universal and El Nacional have accused Israel of genocide, with an editorial written by Maria de los Angeles Serrano in El Nacional stating Israeli Jews "are today strangulating, deporting, placing under closure and killing the Palestinian people with the same enthusiasm as that of their persecutors, the Nazis". According to the Roth Institute, when Últimas Noticias interviewed Lebanese-Venezuelan politician and Fifth Republic Movement leader Tarek William Saab and Franklin González, director of the School of International Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, both bemoaned that the United Nations had disappointed Palestinians, and that "the roots of the conflict lay in the creation of the State of Israel, in 1947".
The 2009 World Conference against Anti-Semitism claimed that anti-Jewish articles had been printed in the Chavez-sponsored media "an average of 45 pieces per month" during 2008 and "more than five per day" during the month-long January 2009 operation in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead).
According to the Antisemitism in Venezuela 2013 report by the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations (CAIV), "distorted news, omissions and false accusations" of Israel originate from Iran's Press TV and Hispan TV, are repeated by the Russia's RT News and Cuba's Prensa Latina, and Venezuela’s state media, including SIBCI, AVN, TeleSUR, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), Alba TV, La Radio del Sur, Radio Nacional de Venezuela (RNV), YVKE Mundial, Correo del Orinoco and Ciudad CCS. CAIV continues, stating that the media accuses Zionism of being a "predator movement", that "anti-Semitic authors pretend to establish differences between Jewish religion and the Zionist movement" and that the Venezuelan government's media uses anti-Semitic themes.
Accusations of Chávez anti-Semitism
The Simon Wiesenthal Center criticized President Hugo Chávez after he compared Spain's José María Aznar to Hitler. In late 2005, Rabbi Henri Sobel of Brazil, a World Jewish Congress leader, also accused Chávez of anti-Semitism.
In 2004, after he overcame the referendum on his presidency, Chávez told the opposition not to let themselves "be poisoned by those wandering Jews. Don't let them lead you to the place they want you to be led. There are some people saying that those 40 percent [who supported his recall] are all enemies of Chavez." The next day he said on national television that "There are some − every day there are fewer − 'small leaders' [dirigencillos] who don’t lead anyone, they are more isolated every day, and wander around like the wandering Jew." The Roth Institute says that the Jewish community in Venezuela explains that the phrase 'wandering Jews' "was directed metaphorically at the leaders of the opposition parties" and is a common term in the Catholic world. Vice President José Vicente Rangel explained the meaning of the term the next day, and assured Jewish community leaders that it had been used inappropriately. The U.S. State Department also mentioned that "A few days after his electoral victory, President Chavez gave a speech in which he compared the opposition to 'wandering Jews'." Writing in The Weekly Standard, Thor Halvorssen says the United States Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor's "Report on Global Anti-Semitism" noted that "Anti-Semitic leaflets also were available to the public in an Interior and Justice Ministry office waiting room."
The Wiesenthal Center criticized as anti-Semitic statements made by Chávez during a celebration of Christmas 2005, at a rehabilitation center. Referring to the December 2005 speech, the Miami Herald said, "It's not the first time Chávez has made comments deemed anti-Semitic. In 2005, Chávez stated that "[t]he world is for all of us, then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolívar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia. A minority has taken possession all of the wealth of the world."
According to the JTA, Venezuelan government sources, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Jewish leaders in Venezuela said the quote omitted the reference to Bolívar, stated that Chávez was referring to Jews, and denounced the remarks as anti-Semitic by way of his allusions to wealth. According to an article published at Forward.com, Venezuelan Jewish community leaders accused the Simon Wiesenthal Center of rushing to judgment with the anti-Semitic remarks, saying that Chávez's comments had been taken out of context, and that he was actually referring to "gentile business elites" or the "white oligarchy that has dominated the region since the colonial era". However, according to the American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise in their Jewish Virtual Library, the Venezuelan Jewish communities and organizations refrained from criticizing Chavez's statements so they would not draw negative publicity and for security reasons.
According to pro-Chavez website Venezuelanalysis.com, Chávez denied the accusations, saying to the National Assembly, "Anti-liberal I am, anti-imperialist even more so, but anti-Semitic, never, that's a lie. It's part of an imperialist campaign, I am sure." Chávez said he thought the attack was, "an offensive of the empire". He dismissed the accusations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as propaganda and said he hoped that former Prime Minister Sharon would recover from his stroke. In a nationally televised speech, Chávez accused the Wiesenthal Center of working with Washington. "It's part of the imperialist campaign", Chávez said, according to the JTA. "It's part of this political battle." The Wiesenthal Center's representative in Latin America replied that Chávez's mention of Christ-killers was "ambiguous at best" and that the "decision to criticize Chávez had been taken after careful consideration".
Critics point to Chávez's professional relationship with Norberto Ceresole. Halvorssen says that, "Chavez first ran for president on a reform platform, winning in a landslide. What few understood then was that Chavez planned to revolutionize the country following a plan masterminded by his longtime friend Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian writer infamous for his books denying the Holocaust and his conspiracy theories about Jewish plans to control the planet." Holocaust denier Ceresole calls the Jews of Venezuela the greatest threat to Chavismo in his Caudillo, Ejército, Pueblo (Leader, Army, People). Chávez denies receiving advice from Ceresole, who was evicted from Venezuela a few months after Chávez reached power; later, Clarin.com said that José Vicente Rangel described Ceresole's book as disgusting and despicable.
An article in The Boston Globe discussed a Jewish filmmaker who "fled the country, fearing for his life" in January 2006. According to the article, the hosts of a government television program accused him of being part of a "Zionist conspiracy against Chávez"; the next day, Chávez called for laws to block the production of films that "denigrate our revolution".
The JTA said in 2006 that Jews in Venezuela were increasingly fearful of Chávez's vehement criticism of Israel during Israel's 2006 Lebanon War with Hezbollah. They said his rhetoric was "fanning the flames of anti-Semitism", and that the recent anti-Semitic behavior was not typical for Venezuela. They indicated concern about "the government's incendiary comments about Israel and Jews". Chávez has been accused of anti-Semitism several times by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which wrote to Chávez asking him to consider how his statements might affect Venezuela. The southern area director of the ADL accused Chávez of "distorting history and torturing the truth, as he has done in this case, it is a dangerous exercise which echoes classic anti-Semitic themes". The president of the Miami-based Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens said in 2006 "That's what you expect from someone who surrounds himself with the dregs of the world. He seeks out terrorists and dictators. It's predictable that he wouldn't defend a democratic country like Israel." Jewish-Venezuelan community leaders in Caracas told El Nuevo Herald that Chávez's statements have created a situation of "fear and discomfort ... The president is not the president of a single group but of Venezuelan Jews as well." The Federation of Israeli Associations of Venezuela in 2006 condemned "attempts to trivialize the Holocaust, the premeditated and systematic extermination of millions of human beings solely because they were Jews ... by comparing it with the current war actions".
The Wikileaks Cablegate in 2010 revealed that members of the CAIV had raised concerns with US diplomats regarding what they felt was the increasingly hostile environment created for Venezuelan by the government of President Hugo Chávez, saying they see a "dark horizon" for their community. They feared the Chavez government's growing ties with Iran, and the language chosen by Chavez to protest against Israeli policies. "While Chavez's rhetoric once clearly differentiated criticism of Israel from that of the Venezuelan Jewish community, since 2004 they believe he has merged his anti-Zionist views with anti-Semitic ones", US Political Counselor Robin D. Meyer quoted the leaders as saying.
In January 2013, 50 documents were leaked by the "right-leaning" Analisis24 showing that SEBIN had been spying on "private information on prominent Venezuelan Jews, local Jewish organizations and Israeli diplomats in Latin America". Some info that was gathered by SEBIN operations included office photos, home addresses, passport numbers and travel itineraries. The leaked documents were believed to be authentic according to multiple sources which included the Anti-Defamation League, that stated, "It is chilling to read reports that the SEBIN received instructions to carry out clandestine surveillance operations against members of the Jewish community".
The Roth Institute reported in 2002 that anti-Israel, Chávez supporters demonstrated wearing T-shirts with the inscriptions "Jerusalem will be ours" and "Israel out, solidarity with the Palestinian cause."
In its 2004 annual report, the Roth Institute said the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue was repeatedly attacked after a government-sponsored rally on May 16 in which the slogans "Don’t allow Colombia to be the Israel of Latin America", "Sharon is a murderer of the Palestinian People", "Viva the armed Palestinian people", and "Free Palestine" were written on city walls.
The 2004 Roth Institute report noted a number of incidents, including the armed raid carried out by security forces in November on the Jewish elementary and high school in Caracas, which it described as "perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community". It also stated that "Pro-Chavez supporters were responsible for numerous antisemitic manifestations, including repeated desecrations of the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue." According to a report, the Jewish population in Venezuela had dropped below 15,000, which it claims is "a result of severe instability in the country". The Miami Herald and Jewish Times reported emigration of Jewish people from Venezuela due to alleged concerns over anti-Semitism.
In August 2004, the United States Department of State said some incidents of anti-Semitism occurred during the presidential recall referendum. The pro-government newspaper VEA accused Jewish leaders of participating in the Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002. The U.S. State Department and the Roth Institute reported graffiti with slogans like "Jews go home", were carved into synagogues after a 2004 government-sponsored rally, signed by the Communist Youth and the Communist Party of Venezuela. On August 8, 2004 Chávez supporters chanted "Sharon is a murder. No to Israel", with the letter S shaped like a swastika. They also wrote, "Viva Chavez and Arafat" and "NO to Zionism". Communist Party members posted signs saying "Neither Orlando Urdaneta nor the super-terrorist Israelis will succeed with our people", "No to the Israeli commandos in Caracas", "No to the involvement of Israelis in our nation", "No to the Mossad and no to the CIA", and "Bush+Sharon=murderers".
The U.S. Department of State said, in its 2005 report on International Religious Freedom, that Venezuela is a "historically open society without significant anti-Semitism; however, the Government and its supporters occasionally demonstrated possible anti-Semitism".
2004 Jewish school raid
According to the U.S. State Department, in November 2004, after Venezuelan government prosecutor Danilo Anderson was assassinated, "the Government used satirical comments made by journalist Orlando Urdaneta on a U.S. television program to allude to possible Israeli participation in Anderson's killing". The Israeli Embassy denied any Israeli involvement, cautioning that the Government representations were misleading.
On November 29, 2004, at 6:30 a.m., as school children arrived at Colegio Hebraica, a Jewish grade school in Caracas, 25 members of the country's investigative police, DISIP, broke into the school, some of them armed and hooded, and locked the doors with the children inside, to search the school as part of the Anderson investigation. After a three-hour search, the children were freed; police later said the search was "unfruitful" and government officials confirmed nothing had been found.
The U.S. State Department said that newspaper accounts of rumors of Israeli involvement in Anderson's assassination might have been behind the investigation. Thor Halvorssen, writing in The Weekly Standard, said that the judge who ordered the raid claimed that "electronic equipment, arms, explosive devices, communications equipment and documents" connected to the bombing that killed politician Danilo Anderson were suspected of being inside the building, and that Mossad agents had been behind the bombing. According to the Stephen Roth Institute, the search of the school was based on one anonymous phone call. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) says the transfer of weapons and explosives from Club Magnum, a shooting club, to the Jewish school had been reported, but Club Magnum was not searched. Interior Minister Jesse Chacón said nothing was found in the school and, along with Communications Minister Andrés Izarra, denied that the raid was meant to intimidate the Venezuelan Jewish community.
The raid was condemned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, calling it an "antisemitic action, which seems more like a pogrom than a legal procedure under the rule of law". The Wiesenthal Center said, "By breaking into these Jewish institutions, it was insinuated that the entire Jewish community of Venezuela was associated with this crime and suggests the collective responsibility in which every Jew is endangered." According to the Roth Institute, media analysts claimed the raid was "a way of threatening the Jewish community and was linked to the government's ties to Arab countries and radical Islamic states. In fact, at the time of the raid, Chavez was visiting Iran for discussions on oil, an interest common to both these anti-American states".
Venezuela's chief rabbi condemned the raid's "economy of intimidation", noting that "there is not a single Jewish family in Caracas that was not affected. Many of us have children in the school, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—or friends. An attack on the school is the most effective way of jolting the entire Jewish population."
2007 Jewish community center raid
According to the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations (CAIV, Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela), agents of the DISIP secret police agency conducted a pre-dawn raid on the Hebraic Social, Cultural and Sports Center (Centro Social Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica) the day of the 2007 constitutional referendum in which Chávez's proposed constitutional and term limit reforms were defeated. On the Tuesday following the Sunday, December 2, referendum, representatives from the CAIV published a letter saying that dozens of DISIP agents had forcibly entered the community center at 12:40 a.m. on the day of the referendum, supposedly in search of weapons and drugs. According to the CAIV, the DISIP agents left after an exhaustive search, without finding any irregularities.
The CAIV emphasized that the Jewish community in Venezuela had a national presence of more than 200 years of peaceful and democratic cooperation, and said, "We denounce this new and unjustifiable act against the Venezuelan Jewish community, and we express our rejection and profound indignation."
2009 Israel conflict and synagogue attacks
Following the onset of the 2009 Israel-Gaza conflict, the Venezuelan government expressed disagreement with Israel's actions. On 5 January, President Chávez accused the United States of poisoning Palestinian president Yasser Arafat in order to destabilize the Middle East. He also described the offensive by Israel as a Palestinian "holocaust". Days later, the Venezuelan foreign ministry called Israel's actions "state terrorism" and announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and some of the embassy staff. Following the order of expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, incidents targeting various Jewish institutions occurred in Venezuela. Protests occurred in Caracas with demonstrators throwing shoes at the Israeli Embassy while some sprayed graffiti on the facility. At the Tiféret Israel Synagogue, individuals spray painted "Property of Islam" on its walls. Later that month, the synagogue was targeted again.
During the night of January 31, 2009, an armed gang consisting of 15 unidentified men broke into Tiféret Israel Synagogue, the synagogue of the Israelite Association of Venezuela, the oldest synagogue in the Venezuelan capital Caracas and occupied the building for several hours. The gang tied and gagged security guards before destroying offices and the place where holy books were kept; this happened during the Jewish shabbat. They daubed the walls with anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli graffiti that called for Jews to be expelled from the country. They had also stolen a database that listed Jews who lived in Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro, who was the acting Foreign Minister at the time, condemned the act as a "criminal act of vandalism". The Information Minister Jesse Chacón also condemned the attack and denied it had any connection with the government. US politicians called on President Hugo Chávez to protect the country's Jews following the outbreak. Sixteen Republicans and Democrats wrote a letter demanding an "end to the intimidation and harassment of the Jewish community."
In February 2009 the Venezuelan authorities arrested 7 police officers and 4 civilians, with two individuals were associated with the synagogue, for robbery. According to the El Universal, the CICPC's report stated that one of ten arrested defendants, Edgar Alexander Cordero, a bodyguard for a rabbi at the synagogue and a Metropolitan police officer, asked the rabbi for a loan which he refused to give. Cordero decided to rob the synagogue of money, which he believed was locked in its safes. According to Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami, anti-semitic vandalism had merely been a tactic, "First, to weaken the investigation, and second, to direct the blame toward the national government."
Shlomo Cohen, Israel’s ambassador in Caracas received a call from the Venezuelan government on 6 February that all Israeli embassy staff had 72 hours to leave the country. The next day on 7 February, President Chávez organized an anti-Israel march saying that Israel was committing "Nazi-like atrocities" in Gaza. On Venezuelan television, Venezuelan government officials were seen wearing kaffiyehs, Palestinian flags were waved in the streets and images of praying Muslims in mosques were shared. Shortly after Israeli consul Danny Biran was called in to assist with the dismantling of the embassy, President Chávez broke diplomatic ties with Israel and all Israeli diplomats lost their diplomatic immunity and were deemed illegal aliens. Consul Biran called for help from others in Buenos Aires, Panama, New York and Miami and on arrival, all of them were intercepted at the airport, held for 9 hours, then escorted to the embassy by Venezuelan army personnel. Venezuelan troops monitored the Israeli diplomats closely, taking photographs and interrogating those who entered the embassy. Consul Biran stated that the military personnel were under the direct orders of President Chávez and two officers, one with alleged ties to Hezbollah. On 22 February, the flag of Israel and the embassy sign was taken down and the Israeli Embassy in Caracas was closed.
Four days later on the evening of 26 February, a homemade bomb was thrown into the Orthodox Beit Shmuel in Caracas. Whilst there were no injuries, damage was caused to windows and a car. The explosive was believed to be a grenade or pipe bomb.
Other antisemitic incidents
In 2013, over 4000 anti-semitic incidents occurred in Venezuela according to Venezuela's main Jewish organization, CAIV. Throughout the 2013 presidential campaign one of the two leading candidates, Maduro, continued a use of anti-American rhetoric ad motifs similar to those used by Chávez in the past. In this vein, he accused his opponent, Capriles, of being supported by the power of “Zionist capitalism.” Maduro claimed that Capriles acted against the interests of Venezuela, in favor of Israel, and on behalf of the “Jewish Lobby." During this time there were also frequent references to Capriles' Jewish roots in an effort to harm his campaign.
On December 30, 2014, individuals sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the AIV del Este Sephardic synagogue in Caracas. The graffiti included a swastika and a Celtic cross, symbols used by neo-Nazi organizations. The number "6,000,000", the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust, was also written with question marks. The Anti-Defamation League condemned the actions and reminded President Nicolas Maduro along with his government that he was "responsible for the safety and well-being of Venezuela’s Jewish community".
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