Trying Times for Venezuela’s Beleaguered Jewish Community

by Steven Gruzd on 30 August 2011

in Articles, Visiting Speakers

Over the past 15 years, Venezuela’s Jewish community has dwindled from about 30,000 at its height to just a third of that size, through a combination of assimilation and, much more concerning, growing state-sponsored anti-Semitism under the oil-fuelled Hugo Chávez regime. Steven Gruzd interviewed Sammy Eppel, a journalist and one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Caracas by telephone on 21 July 2011, in advance of his trip to South Africa to speak at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Conference, entitled “The Jewish Global Citizen” on 27-28 August 2011.

See an episode of SABC’s  “Simcha: A Celebration of Life” where Sammy Eppel is interviewed

Sammy Eppel speaks at the SAJBD National Conference

Q: Can you briefly sketch a picture of Jewish communities in Latin America?

A: At one point, in the late 1960s, it was estimated that there were about 1 million Jews in Latin America, with large populations especially in Argentina and Mexico. Today, it’s about half a million or so, mainly due to assimilation, inter-marriage and emigration, including to Israel, to other countries in South America or to the United States. Argentina at once stage had 400,000 Jews – it’s now probably between 160,000 and 180,000. It has always been the major Jewish centre in Latin America, housing institutions like the Latin American Jewish Congress, a branch of the Simon Weisenthal Centre and so on. In general, Latin American culture is very tolerant and accepting. Brazil is legendary for the total mixing of races, and used to be very similar in Venezuela.

Q: What about the Jewish communities in Venezuela in particular?

Jews came in waves from different countries. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, quite a number moved to Holland and then on to Dutch colonies, including the Antilles in the Caribbean. The first Jews in Venezuela came from the Dutch colony of Curaçao in the Antilles, some 300 years ago. There is still a beautiful old shul in Curaçao, completed in 1732 on the site of an even older synagogue. We also have a mixture of Sephardim from Morocco and from neighbouring South American states, as well as Ashkenazim, from Romania, former Czechoslovakia and Poland, who moved here before and after World War II. We were very well integrated, and you would have found Jews in every walk of life – in the arts, theatre, television, academia, business, politics. In general, it was a very strong Zionist community, although not particularly “religious”.

We were always a tiny minority – Venezuela has around 27 million people – but we have clearly dwindled.  At its height, we had about 30,000 Jews in Venezuela, mainly in the capital Caracas and the coastal city of Maracaibo (where I was born), with much smaller communities in small towns and the interior. Today, it stands at about 9,800 people or so. Fifteen years ago, we had 2,400 children of all ages in our Jewish school system; now it’s down to 920. We built big communal institutions – a large school equipped for 3,000 pupils, synagogues, old aged homes, cemeteries, the very large Hebraica Club, with sports fields and a swimming pool. Even a hospital that was later opened for the general public. Going forward, we may not have the critical mass of Jews to support these intuitions.

Q: Is this decline connected to the political rise of Hugo Chávez?

A: Undoubtedly. This crisis can be traced back over the last 12-13 years or so, close to the time when Hugo Chávez showed up. Overall, about 2 million citizens have left the country since he came to power. But not only since he’s been in power. The story actually begins in 1992, when he led a bloody attempted coup d’état and was jailed for two years, and his supporters attempted another even bloodier coup a few months later, with planes and bombs and the works. Venezuela had been democratic since 1958, with peaceful elections, alterations of power. It was a nice-looking liberal environment, where the Jewish population, often into its second, third and fourth generation, could thrive, and did.

Chávez was released in 1994 and launched a political campaign, but it had little traction among the population; he was seen as a blood-thirsty, militant person, uneducated, uncultured, he had hardly travelled (he had only once gone for military training in Peru), and hailed from a small town in the interior.

Then he took two key trips, on the invitation of communists in Cuba, and fascists in Argentina. There he met the very influential figure of Norberto Ceresole – an ideologue who had been a communist and then a fascist, and was an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier and had embraced and converted to Islam, and became an itinerant ambassador for Hezbollah. He was smart, articulate and seems to have profoundly influenced the impressionable Chávez, who spent two years with him. He convinced him that the right person could fuse the ideologies of the extremities – communism on the left, fascism on the right – and that Chávez could be that man. It had many similarities with Adolf Hitler. The Jewish community started to get concerned.

Then in the 1998 elections, with opposition parties splintered, Chávez won the election, and soon things started to get ugly. His leftist tendencies began to undermine and attack liberal democratic institutions and private enterprise, until we had a “democratic dictatorship” – institutions exist in name, but they don’t work and have no power. He will announce on TV that so-and-so deserves 30 years in jail. Soon he will be arrested and probably receive a long jail sentence!

Q: Was there a turning point for the Venezuelan Jewish community?

A: Yes. In 2004, the community was blind-sided. Our Jewish school was raided in a massive operation by heavily armed policemen early on a Monday morning, when parents were dropping off their children. The spent several hours looking for weapons and explosives, when no-one could leave or enter the school. Of course, they found nothing, and when we eventually got a meeting with the Minister of the Interior, he said it was based on an anonymous phone tip-off, and that he would do it again if necessary. The children, teachers and parents were traumatised and shocked.

Q: Was this an isolated incident?

A: Slowly, slowly, these started escalating. We were not prepared – we had never ever experienced anything like this in the country before. Over the next few years, we started seeing swastikas appearing in graffiti, shuls being desecrated, but there was no personal violence.

What really worries me is that in contemporary Venezuela, for the first time, we see all the different historical expressions of anti-Semitism coming together – religious, racial, political, economic, European, Islamic, from the left and from the right. Vastly opposed ideological incompatible forces seem to agree on one thing – the Jews and their state, Israel, are to blame.

Q: To what extent is the media utilised?

A: Especially from 2006, we started seeing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli articles in government-owned media – that Jews were part of an international conspiracy, and were not really loyal to Venezuela. Government has a large media empire, with about 750 government-owned or –aligned outlets – television and radio stations, newspapers and websites. Today, there are regular programmes on TV and radio where they spew hatred, sometimes daily. When the community began to complain, including through the courts, there was a shift towards anti-Israel propaganda and away from Jews per se. This became awful during the Gaza incursion in 2008-2009, when the Israeli Ambassador was expelled and the hate speech intensified.[1] The same happened during and after the Gaza flotilla in 2010, where Chavez publicly branded Israel a terrorist state, an enemy of the revolution and claimed the Mossad was plotting to kill him.[2] The Jewish community is called on to denounce Israel in public, a tactic used in Iran as well.

Q: Can you give some examples of how the media is used?

A: I can give you hundreds – photos, cartoons, articles.[3] On 20 January 2009, Emilio Silva Chapellin, a professor of the Bolivarian University, and prominent member of Chávez’s PSUV party, published a “blueprint” for attacking Jews in Venezuela on the internet. Ten days later, the main shul in Caracas was desecrated. He was never investigated, but was paraded on government media as a “hero of the revolution.”

Then this year, on 4 April 2011, Cristina Gonzalez, the director of one of the main Venezuelan government-owned radio stations, dedicated almost her entire her daily programme to recommending that listeners read and study The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that notorious fake anti-Semitic text claiming to be a plan for Jewish global domination. She asserted that its contents were approved by the 1897 Zionist Congress in Basel, and attributed all the past and present ills of the world to a Jewish conspiracy. The case went to the Attorney-General, and she was supposedly fired. But she’s resurfaced as an advocate for Palestinian causes, and was never punished, merely reshuffled.

Q: What about Chávez’s international links and alliances?

Chávez has strong and growing links with the Islamic world, especially those who want to be enemies of the US and Israel, most notably with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya’s Colonel Mummar Qaddafi. He has provided help to Iran in their nuclear weapons ambitions, including financially – a detail that often gets overlooked. The EU embargoed an Iranian bank in Venezuela for nuclear links. Because this country was not on international black lists, it was able to transport materials to Iran. At one point, there were weekly direct flights from Caracas to Tehran. You could not book a seat and whoever got on or off these planes did so in buses with blacked-out windows.

Today, there are no US or Israeli ambassadors in Caracas – relations are at an all-time low. He almost wants or needs to have a big enemy. It’s all portrayed as a big war, with evil capitalists waiting to pounce on Venezuela’s oil. Of course, that does not stop him selling a million barrels of oil a day to the evil capitalists.

Chávez has made a big push in Africa – there are embassies in over 20 countries in Africa now, fuelled by money from oil, which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every single day. He has a lot of cash that he spends freely on propaganda. One of his big heroes is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. A few years ago, he was a privileged guest of the government here and received the Sword of Bolivar, the highest honour that can be paid to a foreigner. His actions are trumpeted and praised in our media.

Q: How do you try to counter this onslaught?

A: Personally, I have become a fighter. I am a proud Venezuelan and hate what has happened in my country, and in my own small way, I want to do something about it. I have written over 600 articles on the subject (see, mostly in Spanish), and I have started educating myself about the issues. Since 2006, I have been very active to make the case in a serious way internationally – in many forums. I have presented on state-sponsored anti-Semitism frequently, in Spanish and English, including at the Global Forum Jerusalem, Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism (ICCA) meetings in London and Ottawa, the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA), Tel Aviv University, Stephen Roth Institute in Budapest and Paris, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Israeli Presidents’ Conference.

As a community, we have prioritised building a monitoring system. For a shrinking community with many needs, we have invested a lot to get five full-time professionals to monitor all media – internet, newspapers, radio and television. Through that we are able to get early warnings, generate statistics and establish patterns.

We have also received moral support from other Venezuelans, such as the evangelical Christian community, especially on the anti-Israel actions. When Chávez damned Israel on TV, he got a lot of pressure from them – the Bible says he who damns Israel will be damned. Frankly, most of the population does not support him, and we get sympathy – or at least lip-service – when there are particularly nasty attacks. There is so little ant-Semitism outside government, which is why this has been labelled “the first government-sponsored anti-Semitism in a Western country in recent history.”

Q: What can people in South Africa do to assist?

A: Whenever I am asked this, I say they should talk to anyone who will listen, and try to put pressure on their own governments when it comes to dealing with Venezuela. Make some noise – Chávez is desperate to be seen as a world leader, on the front page. Voice your disagreement to your government, stay in touch, and show solidarity with us – what more can we ask?

I also urge you to be vigilant in your own society, and do not ignore these things when they surface, do not give anti-Semitism a free pass, because it grows monstrous if you do not do something about it. Now it may seem harmless, but who is behind this? Who is paying for this? When you dig deep, you’ll find the financing often comes from anti-Semitic sources in Islamic countries, or indeed, Venezuela.

See an episode of SABC’s  “Simcha: A Celebration of Life” where Sammy Eppel is interviewed

See some YouTube clips on Venezualan Jewry:

Steven Gruzd
Steven Gruzd is the Senior Researcher & Diplomatic Liaison at the SAJBD’s National Office in Johannesburg.

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