Venezuela has undergone a dramatic political transformation since the 1998 general elections, which has had a negative impact on the Jewish community. The new administration's cool stance toward the community and toward Israel has encouraged anti-Semitism, evidenced particularly in the mainstream press.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Venezuela's Jewish community numbers about 22,000 out of a total population of nearly 22 million. Most of the Jews live in the capital Caracas, while the second largest community is located in Maracaibo. Jews began settling in Venezuela in the early nineteenth century and were later joined by small numbers of twentieth-century immigrants from North Africa, Lebanon, Syria, the Balkans, and from Central and Eastern Europe. The community grew from some 6,000 Jews in 1950 to its present size through arrivals from Egypt, Hungary, Israel and from other Latin American countries.
The Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV) embraces four organizations: Asociación Israelita de Venezuela (Sephardi), Unión Israelita de Caracas (Ashkenazi), the Zionist Organization and B'nai B’rith. All but one of the 15 synagogues are Orthodox and over 75 percent of school-age children attend Jewish schools. The community publishes the newspaper Nuevo Mundo Israelita.
ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE POLITICAL ARENA
Extreme changes in the political arena have occurred in Venezuela since the general elections held in late 1998, which resulted in the victory of Hugo Chavez and his coalition of new political forces (Polo Patriotico). This transformation has been characterized by a strengthening of the presidency, backed by the military, a weakening of the parliament and judiciary, and a new constitution. In a dramatic gesture to protest the undermining of Venezuelan democracy, the president of the Supreme Court, Cecilia Sosa, resigned soon after the elections.
Since the elections, an increase in anti-Semitism has been noted, influenced by the cool stance of the new administration toward the Jewish community. The administration's attitude stems partly from the fact that many Jews supported Chavez's rival Henrique Salas Romer. Some observers also point to the president's close relations with Libya, Iraq and Iran, which would serve to explain his hostility toward Israel as well. It should be mentioned that one of the president's closest advisers is the well-known Argentinean anti-Semite Norberto Ceresole.
An increase in anti-Semitism has been noted, particularly in articles and commentaries appearing in the mainstream press, but also in occasional incidents. A fire in July 1999 which broke out at the Shomrei Shabbat Synagogue in a neighborhood of Caracas was being investigated for possible anti-Semitic motives. A phone call warning of a bomb planted at a Jewish school was received by the Hebraica Club, which turned out to be a false alarm. Also, crosses were daubed on two Jewish homes in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas in November 1999.
After the election, the anti-government magazine Zeta predicted that Dr. Miriam Korenblith, a member of the National Electoral Committee who publicly confronted the shortcomings of the Chavez government, would shortly leave her post because she was Jewish.
The regional newspaper El Oriental frequently publishes anti-Semitic and anti-Israel articles. On 20 June 1999, an article, apparently inspired by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, referred to an alleged world Jewish conspiracy. Stating that organized corruption had its roots in an international sect called Zionism, which planned to control the world, it explained that Zionism had infiltrated Venezuela in order to corrupt it and that it was responsible for the country’s economic crisis.
Anti-Semitic articles appeared, too, in mainstream newspapers. The most widely distributed newspaper in Venezuela, El Universal, published an article by the philosopher Professor Luis Castro Leiva, entitled “Before the Walls of Jerusalem,” which questioned the patriotism of Venezuelan Jews. Other anti-Semitic articles appeared in El Nacional, the second most widely circulated newspaper, which printed “Dios y sus fieles” (God and his Flock -- 29 September 1999) by Carlos J. Source, and “Quince siglos de turismo mistico” (Fifteen Centuries of Jewish Mysticism -- 2 December 1999), by Rubén Monasterios. The Jewish community reacted to all these occurrences by writing protest letters to the newspapers concerned and complaining to their directors.