International Jewish groups expressed concern after an attack on a Caracas synagogue, blaming President Hugo Chavez for creating an atmosphere of hate in Venezuela.
Up to 15 people attacked the Tiferet Israel Sephardic synagogue the night of January 30, throwing Torah scrolls on the floor and damaging some of them, according to reports. They also painted epithets such as “Death to the Jews” on the synagogue’s walls.
The synagogue’s guard was held at gunpoint and found the next day on the floor of the building, The Jerusalem Post reported.
It is not the first such attack on Jewish institutions in the country, which broke off diplomatic relations with Israel January 6 over its Gaza military operation, three days after Israel began its ground assault there. In response, Israel expelled the Venezuelan envoy and his embassy staff.
The same synagogue was vandalized early in January, as was the Israeli embassy. A Jewish community center was raided in 2007 in a search for illegal weapons. No weapons were found.
Chavez’s government decried the January 30 synagogue attack.
“We condemn the actions on the synagogue of Caracas,” Chavez said in a televised speech. “It must be asked… who benefits from these violent incidents?
“It is not the government, nor the people, nor the revolution.”
Chavez suggested two days after the synagogue attack that political opponents plotted it to hurt his chances for a February 15 referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow him to extend his term past 2013.
But Chavez and local media have also been increasingly critical of Israel and, on occasion, have implicated the local Jewish community in the controversy.
On January 6, the same day he broke off relations with Israel, Chavez called on Venezuelan Jews to denounce the Jewish state’s operation. “A Palestinian community lives here with us which we adore and love, and there are also Jews that live here who we love, as well, but I wish the Jewish community would declare themselves against this barbarism,” he said. “Do it. Don’t you strongly denounce any act of persecution and the Holocaust? What do you think we are looking at [in Gaza]? Put your hand on your heart and be fair.”
American Jewish leaders reacted swiftly to the synagogue attack.
“This has got to stop,” said B’nai B’rith’s executive vice president, Daniel Mariaschin. “It is unacceptable for a government to incite hatred. Chavez has cultivated an environment where his followers feel comfortable threatening Jews.”
B’nai B’rith International has asked the U.S. State Department to investigate.
During a meeting last August with leaders of the World Jewish Congress, Chavez promised to condemn “all forms of antisemitism,” according to a JTA report. Under Chavez’s rule, however, the Venezuelan Jewish community has declined by about a quarter, according to the WJC. About 9,000 to 14,000 Jews now live in Venezuela.
Chavez reportedly maintains close ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has declared his desire to see Israel liquidated as a Jewish state. The Venezuelan leader had upset the Jewish community in 2005 when he said the people who killed Jesus Christ took over the world’s riches. Relations have spiraled downhill ever since.
Observers say it is unlikely that condemnation from American Jews will have an effect on the Venezuelan president. They say, however, that a call to Chavez from a leader he admires, such as Fidel or Raul Castro of Cuba, to back off on his verbal attacks on the Jewish community would have more of an effect.