Venezuelan Community on Edge After Police Raid Jewish School

By Marc Perelman

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When scores of armed police showed up early on Monday, November 29, at the Hebraica community center and Jewish school in Caracas to search for evidence related to the murder of a prosecutor, several years of quiet anguish over the deteriorating situation of Jews in Venezuela finally boiled over.

Venezuelan and American Jewish leaders blasted the government of firebrand President Hugo Chavez for forcing the evacuation of some 1,500 children and for appearing to link the Jewish community to a high-profile murder. The raid, which was ordered by a judge on the suspicion that explosives and documents related to the killing of the prosecutor might be hidden in the center, eventually proved “fruitless,” police said.

A local Jewish leader said that while this was the first time the Chavez administration had acted directly against the 18,000-member Jewish community, the climate had in fact been steadily worsening in the past several years, with anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli rhetoric appearing in the pro-government media and demonstrations.

“This has been growing, little by little,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “Even though we cannot draw a direct line to the government, there is an obvious tolerance towards aggressive attitudes towards the Jewish community.”

While the mainstream media and various politicians quickly protested after the police operation, the administration was slow to react publicly. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel contacted two community leaders to voice his opposition to the raid, adding that the decision was made solely by the investigating judge. But no official statement came until the next Monday, when Communication and Information Minister Andres Izarra said “emphatically” that the operation should not be seen as aimed at the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, unnamed government officials were quoted as saying the operation showed that no one was “untouchable” in Venezuela. Several days before the raid, an article in the pro-government daily VEA said that the method used in the murder was similar to one used by Israeli security forces to eliminate Palestinian leaders, prompting rumors of possible Mossad involvement.

The slain prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, was killed November 18 in a car bombing. At the time, he had been looking into the opposition’s role in an aborted 2002 coup against Chavez. The killing prompted a national outcry and vows by the Chavez administration to hunt down the culprits.

Venezuela, with 24 million people, is South America’s fifth most populous nation and has a tradition of stable democracy.

Chavez, first elected in a landslide in 1998, is a fiery leftist and anti-globalist at odds with the business community and with much of the hemisphere’s leadership. Government leaders regularly express solidarity with the Palestinians, most recently issuing a laudatory statement after the death of Yasser Arafat. Chavez himself was visiting Iran at the time of the school raid.

Anti-American sentiments have run high since the Bush administration appeared to support the short-lived 2002 coup. Recently declassified CIA documents show that Washington knew about coup planning by opposition leaders and disgruntled military officers but shared little with Chavez.

More recently, Chavez won a recall referendum last August. Several Jewish observers said that some government resentment was fueled by the perception that a sizable number of Jews sided with the opposition.

Local Jewish leaders now describe a rash of harshly anti-Israel and sometimes antisemitic articles published by far-left media outlets since the vote. Antisemitic and anti-Israeli graffiti were scrawled on the walls of the main Sephardic synagogue in Caracas during pro-government demonstrations this year and last. Groups connected to Chavez signed several of the slogans, according to pictures seen by the Forward.

More disturbingly, Jewish officials said that suspected casing of several Jewish institutions had been caught on tape by security cameras over the past several years –– some predating the Chavez era.

For the past few months, communal officials refused to go public, arguing that since the community’s relations with the government had not reached the stage of confrontation, airing accusations could prompt retaliation.

They changed their stance after the school incident. The main Jewish representative body, the Confederacion de asociaciones israelitas de Venezuela, issued a statement voicing indignation about the raid. American Jewish groups quickly followed suit. B’nai B’rith International sent a letter to the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, asking for an explanation and assurances that such acts would not reoccur.

Venezuelan Jewish leaders privately fret about lack of government oversight in crucial areas such as immigration. They note that the son of the Ba’ath Party representative in Venezuela now is the deputy head of the immigration department. The man, Tarreck al Assimi, is a former student leftist leader affiliated with Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

An American official said those security lapses were causing fears of potential abuse by terrorist organizations. Over the last decade, particularly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, American officials have warned about the presence of Islamic terrorist cells in Venezuela, especially in the free-trade zone of Isla Margarita. As relations with Chavez soured, U.S. officials have questioned Venezuela’s commitment to fighting terror, at times implying possible cooperation between the far left and Islamic radicals.

Some observers say that the strained relations between Washington and Caracas have seriously reduced America’s leverage over the Chavez government.

“The American Jewish Committee is dismayed by the fact that there is not a strong and coherent U.S. policy towards Venezuela that makes very clear to Chavez that there are certain lines he can’t cross,” said Dina Siegel Vann, AJCommittee’s Latina American affairs director.

The State Department did not return calls.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel:
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war?
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah:
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.