Merely a decade ago, close to 20,000 Jews called Venezuela their home. Yet in these past ten years, during President Hugo Chavez extended tenure, their number has dropped to less than 9,000. This exodus intensified between 2008-2010, with over 5,000 leaving the country, mostly heading to Miami in the US.
If someone were to rank the most embattled Jewish communities in the world today, the Jewish community of Venezuela would certainly be high on the list. Yet this has not always been the case. Venezuela’s Jewish community is among the oldest in South America, dating back to the middle of the 17th century, when groups of Marranos (Spanish and Portuguese descendants of baptized Jews, which secretly continued to adhere to Judaism) lived in Caracas and Maracaibo.
In the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish community in Venezuela became fully established, with a majority of the Jewish population descending from a continuous influx of European and North African immigrants. Most settled in and around the capital city of Caracas, comprising a tightly knit community converging around the Club Hebraica, a large complex in the eastern part of the city.
Venezuelans always took pride in living in an ethnic and religious melting pot, and the country, unlike neighboring Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile, has no history of harboring Nazi fugitives. Before Chavez came to power in 1999, members of the Jewish community thus reported little animosity from either the government or the populace, and anti-Zionist rhetoric was relatively uncommon. Nor did Venezuela’s fifteen (mainly orthodox) synagogues experience much of the antisemitic vandalism common in other Latin American countries.
However, from the day that Chavez took office, antisemitic declarations grew exponentially. Government media outlets began to publish antisemitic tracts with increasing frequency; pro-Chavez groups turned to disseminating copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, aiming to “prove” that there is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy working against Chavez; prominent Jewish figures were repeatedly and publicly denounced for supposed disloyalty to the “Bolivarian” cause, and “Semitic banks” were accused of plotting against the regime. Citing suspicions of such plots, the Chavez government has even gone so far as to stage several raids on Jewish elementary schools, community centers and other places of meeting.
After years of deterioration, the delicate relationship between Venezuela’s Jewish minority and the widely Catholic majority broke apart, when Chavez said in a speech that “the descendants of those who killed Christ” and “the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here” had “taken possession of all the wealth in the world.” As a result, anti-Zionist and antisemitic government declarations spilled over into street-level antisemitism, leading to vandalized synagogues, racist violence and graffiti smears with a frequency and viciousness never before seen in the country.
The situation has worsened to such an extent that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the watchdog of the Organization of American States (OAS) accused the government of Venezuela of fostering an atmosphere of “political intolerance” and “a climate of insecurity hostile to the free exercise of dissenting political participation”. The Commission even went on to warn of a possible “threat to the life and physical integrity of the Jewish community in Venezuela”.
Over half of Venezuela’s Jews have now fled the country, and those who remain are in a state ranging from discomfort to fear. Meanwhile, antisemitism in Venezuela is both encouraged and sanctioned from above. It emanates from the president’s entourage, pervades government, and trickles into each and every corner of society. All the government’s declarations about being “merely” anti-Zionist – but not antisemitic – ring hollow. Venezuela’s Jews, together with all things “anti-revolutionary” have been turned into the scapegoat for Chavez’ dysfunctional administration and the economic crisis that is engulfing a country blessed with a variety of natural resources. We must beware of complacency: history shows that once antisemitism becomes an instrument of state policy, the possibility of violence can no longer be discounted.