The Synagogue of Caracas, congregation Tiferet Israel, was attacked the night of Friday January 31. It was done during the Shabbat, it was done by an expert team who knew exactly what to do, what to take and what to desecrate. This was not an improvised operation lead by some ideologically drunk group of Chavez supporters.
What should we make of this attack?
Whomever ordered the attack wanted to make sure the congregation’s Torah would be desecrated and that the safes would be broken into to obtain all the necessary lists of the Jewish community in Caracas, from their personal addresses to whatever they were giving to the temple or the diverse charities sponsored by the very active CAIV (Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela). This takes place just as Chavez as thrown his lot behind Hamas, to the point of breaking relations with Israel completely, one of the rare countries to do so.
For those who are new to Venezuela it is important that you know that like US, Venezuela is a country of immigrants and immigrant children. Be they from Europe or from Latin America or from Holocaust survivors, a third or more of us have at least a grand parent not born in Venezuela. Venezuela has not suffered prejudice as European, or North American, or even some Latin American countries suffered. Sure, there was some of it, some racism, some class difference. But Venezuela is a country as integrated as Brazil is, with its respective small ethnic islands which until 1998 managed quite well. We even had Middle Eastern immigration dating from the times of the Turkish Empire, which left us with the word “Turco” to describe pretty much any one from Middle Easter Origin and Muslim religion.
But all this changed in 1998 when Hugo Chavez was elected president for the first time. Since then a language of class division, old grudges and racism has slowly but surely emerged as a tool of rule. The “it is us or them” mantra has been very useful for Chavez political ambitions, in particular to identify all of his political opposition as willing slaves of the evil Empire, namely the US, working conjointly with other countries at convenience, such as Mexico, Peru or Colombia.
Such language carries its own inner mechanics and under the impulse of a primitive anti-US attitude, sucked directly from Fidel Castro, Chavez became friendly to undesirable regimes of the Arab World. He visited Saddam Hussein and now is in a close alliance with the mullahs of Iran. As a result, anti-Semitism, until now inexistent in Venezuela, started showing its ugly head in some speeches of high-ranking officials, including Chavez himself, who once referred to the “those who killed Jesus”.
The Jewish community of Venezuela comes from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic worlds. It started in Venezuela as early as the first half of the XIX century when some Jewish families who settled in Dutch Curaçao (after escaping Spain’s Inquisition) moved to Coro. The Dictionary of Venezuelan History of the Polar Foundation tells us that the relationship between the natives and the new immigrants were not always easy but eventually the new arrivals settled and even had their own Jewish cemetery in Coro.
The Jewish community in Venezuela might have reached up to 75,000 people, mostly in Caracas and some main cities. As such, there were never enough Jews outside Caracas to percolate anti-Semitism, and Caracas was simply too cosmopolitan to bother with prejudice. The Caracas Synagogue is a prominent building, in a highly trafficked area, a testament to how comfortable Jews were in Venezuela, at least until Chavez came to power. The Hebraica School was a confessional school of excellent reputation and even a cultural beacon of Caracas society.
Truly, until 1998 anti-Semitism in Venezuela was relegated to very few sick minds and perhaps some rare extremist Muslims. But then the new government had among its original advisors a certain Argentinean, Norberto Ceresole, notorious for his Jew hatred. Though he was eventually expelled form the country, we have good reason to believe that his words did not fall in deaf ears.
There are some of us that were expecting a brash anti Jewish moment. In 2004 the Hebraica was searched while students were inside; declarations against Israel were frequent and not very clear as to the meanings of Jew, Israeli or Zionist. But we never imagined that a specialized commando would desecrate a place of prayer. After all, until now attacks against the Catholic Church in opposition to Chavez had been limited to the occasional canister of tear gas dropped at the doorstep.
Why now? Can we speculate that the Chavez relationship with the rogue regime of Iran demanded such a gesture? Is chavismo entrapped in its own logic that it must up the ante in supporting Hamas? We must note that for all Chavez’s bellicose language, he is not applying any economic pressure to the main supporter of Israel: the United States.
Or is it simply an action related to the difficult electoral situation in which Chavez has put himself in the position of seeking (probably) to run for office as long as he wishes? We cannot rule out that a sector within chavismo is getting tired of Chavez antics and thus is the sponsor of the attack.
Still, there is something positive out of this scandal: all the thinking bodies of Venezuelan society have expressed an unequivocal support for the Jewish community of Venezuela. The outpouring of support has been so strong that by the end of the week we heard a more assertive Chavez on the issue, probably as he realized the damage he suffered overseas from that attack.