Venezuelan Jews brace for rash of hate crimes after synagogue attack

caracas, venezuela   |  With President Hugo Chavez intensifying his anti-Israel campaign, some Venezuelans have taken action, threatening Jews in the street and vandalizing the largest synagogue in Caracas.

Now many in Venezuela’s Jewish community fear the worst is yet to come.

Chavez has taken care not to criticize Israelis or Jews while accusing Israel’s government of genocide against the Palestinians. He vehemently denies inciting religious intolerance or violence.

But Venezuela’s Jewish leaders, the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department say Chavez’s harsh criticism has inspired a growing list of hate crimes.

A Jan. 30 invasion of Caracas’ largest synagogue, Tiferet Israel, immediately raised concerns, but the robbery and vandalism have since been determined to be an inside job rather than a hate crime, according to Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news service.


Outside of Caracas’ main synagogue, Venezuelans hold up their ID cards during a Feb. 5 rally against mounting anti-Semitism. photo/ap/ariana cubillos

A police officer who worked as a bodyguard for a local rabbi and a security guard are among the suspects, Venezuela’s justice minister, Tareck El Aissami said this week. The bodyguard had stopped working for the rabbi in December, when he joined the Caracas police force.


El Aissami said that one of the two security guards on duty during the attack helped intruders by cutting electricity cables feeding an electric fence surrounding the building and deactivating the alarm.

Some 15 people then vandalized the synagogue, shattering religious objects and spray-painting “Jews, get out” on the walls, along with other anti-Semitic messages. The assailants also stole a computer database with names and addresses of Jews living in Venezuela.

The security guard was among 11 people, including eight police officers, who were arrested last weekend, El Aissami said. Authorities are searching for additional suspects, he said.

El Aissami said the vandals were trying to implicate the Chavez government several weeks after he broke off diplomatic relations with Israel.

Before that fact was known, dozens of protesters, many bearing the flags of Israel and Venezuela, gathered Feb. 5 outside the synagogue.

“We do not talk politics in these premises,” said Elias Farache, president of the Venezuelan-Israelite Association,  explaining what happens at a synagogue. “Here we meet, we pray, we gather … We pray for you, for Venezuela. For this reason, we feel outraged and devastated. An attack against a temple is outrageous.”

According to an El Universal report, a group of Chavez supporters harassed the demonstrators by shouting pro-Palestine slogans.

Some Jewish leaders say the socialist president’s harsh criticism of the Israeli government and its military offensive in the Gaza Strip have inspired anti-Semitism.

Chavez responded Feb. 10 by accusing Venezuela’s opposition and privately owned media of attempting to incite “a religious war” by unjustly accusing his government of fomenting anti-Semitism.

Chavez railed against opposition leaders for suggesting that his criticism has provoked anti-Semitism, and in a nationally televised address he challenged them to publicly retract their statements.

He said his political adversaries and private media outlets critical of his government are involved in a “criminal attempt to try to unleash a religious war in Venezuela.”

One week before the invasion, a Chavista columnist named Emilio Silva posted a call to action on Aporrea, a pro-government Web site, describing Jews as “squalid” — a term Chavez often uses to describe his opponents as weak — and exhorting Venezuelans to confront them as anti-government conspirators.

“Publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park,” wrote Silva, a 35-year-old mathematics professor at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, “shouting slogans in favor of Palestine and against that abortion: Israel.”

Silva called for protests at the synagogue, a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, seizures of Jewish-owned property, the closure of Jewish schools and a nationwide effort “to denounce publicly, with names and last names the members of powerful Jewish groups present in Venezuela.”

Aporrea later replaced the column with an apology describing Silva’s posting as anti-Semitic.

Chavez, meanwhile, phoned Farache last week in a conversation broadcast live on state television and vowed to guarantee the safety of Venezuela’s 15,000 Jews. He condemned the synagogue attack, but he also suggested that it might have been an inside job, and demanded that Jewish leaders publicly recant accusations against his government.

An attorney general’s statement Feb. 6 did not report on its progress investigating a list of more than a dozen threats against Jews that the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations submitted a week before the synagogue attack.

The group said one threat involved a rabbi who was leaving a Jewish school in Caracas when two men, one wielding a broken bottle, shouted: “Jew, we are coming for you!” A nearby taxi driver offered refuge and sped him away. Other Jews have stopped wearing yarmulkes while walking to temple on Friday evenings.

Venezuela’s Jews include many survivors of World War II, as well as families that have been Venezuelan for two centuries. In the past, Chavez’s enthusiastic support of Iran and other enemies of Israel has done little to threaten their coexistence in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles–based Simon Wiesenthal Center, believes Chavez’s rhetoric “has encouraged this atmosphere of hatred which is now being directed against Jews.”

Hier said Chavez’s “hostility against the state of Israel has a ripple effect. Those who support him, and listen to his words, are disposed to dislike Jews.”