For more than a decade, Venezuelan Jews have been holding their breath, subject to the whims of a mercurial president who used his bully pulpit to intimidate, rail against Israel and embrace Iran.
There was the police raid of a Caracas school in 2004, allegedly to search for evidence in the high-profile murder case of a prosecutor. There were the demands by President Hugo Chavez when war broke out between Israel and Hamas in December 2008 that his country’s Jews rebuke Israel for its conduct in Gaza. There was Chavez’s warm alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was the use of state radio to spread anti-Semitic canards.
Most recently, there were revelations that Venezuela’s intelligence service, SEBIN, was spying on the country’s Jewish communty.
While Chavez never explicitly threatened the Jews of Venezuela, his frequent harassment and staunchly anti-Israel positions kept them continually on edge. Afraid to criticize their president, the Jewish community found itself in a predicament that took on a frightening resemblance to the one faced by Jews in another staunchly anti-Western, anti-Zionist country: Iran.
But even with Chavez gone, felled by an undisclosed cancer at age 58 just weeks into his fourth term, Venezuelan Jews aren’t quite ready to exhale.
For one thing, Chavez leaves behind a country wracked by violent crime and mired in economic turmoil. For another, Chavez played such a commanding role in Venezuelan life and politics that nobody is quite sure what will happen to the country.
Perhaps most notably for Venezuela’s Jews, far fewer of them are still around to find out.
Over the past 14 years, Venezuelan Jews have been leaving the country in droves. When Chavez was elected in 1999, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Venezuela. Today the community is estimated to have fallen to less than half that number.
During the more challenging years of Chavez rule, Jewish organizations even developed a plan in concert with local Jews for the evacuation of the country’s Jewish community should the need arise. The plan is still on the shelf.
Jews were not the only ones to take flight from the Chavez regime. Hundreds of thousands of upper- and middle-class Venezuelans left during the Chavez years, seeking to escape Venezuela’s anti-business climate, the government’s nationalization of private companies, economic crises and a soaring crime rate. Jews left for many of the same reasons, with anti-Semitism by all accounts taking a back seat to concerns for economic and physical security.