Esther Benchimol de Roffe arrived in Venezuela as a young bride, leaving northern Morocco more than 50 years ago to meet her groom in a prosperous foreign land.
The young couple fit in easily in a country where, as Spanish-speaking Sephardim, they already were familiar with the language and the Jewish community was established. Her husband built a successful business, and Benchimol raised a family and earned international renown singing the ancient Sephardic hymns she had learned as a child in Alcazarquivir.
“It was a rich country, there were a lot of opportunities,” reminisces Benchimol, now 74. “We had many friends and there was a real sense of brotherhood. There was never any racism against us.”
Her tone changes, however, when she considers the futures of her grandchildren and whether she would advise them to stay in Venezuela.
“I wouldn’t stay here,” Benchimol said. “I’m speaking as a grandmother.”
It’s not anti-Semitism that causes her to fear daily for the safety of her grandchildren but “la inseguridad” – insecurity. It’s the general term Venezuelans use now to describe an unrelenting crime wave that cuts across the country’s economically and ideologically polarized society. The issue consistently tops surveys here as Venezuelans’ biggest concern.
Venezuelan Jews say that as citizens of a state in which many have lost faith in the police and judicial system, they fear random violence far more than anti-Semitic attacks. They consistently cite crime as their main source of anxiety.
Last year, Foreign Policy magazine called Caracas the murder capital of the world, tallying the homicide rate at 130 per 100,000 residents. Official statistics are hard to come by because the government has stopped providing details.
In order to gauge crime, journalists rely on the city morgue in Caracas to report how many bodies arrived over the weekend as the result of violence, publishing their tally in newspapers on Monday mornings. In one wave of weekend violence in early October, 56 people were reported murdered in this city of just over 4 million people.
In addition to murder, kidnappings for ransom – a source of high anxiety for the city’s wealthier inhabitants – are said to be on the rise. Jews say they feel at particular risk due to the perception that the Jewish community can pony up a large ransom for a kidnapped Jew.
Yair Rosemberg, a 28-year old theater producer, is less than a month away from getting married. Where crime was once regarded as something he read about in the papers, now it has touched a growing number of his acquaintances, he said.
He and his fiancee probably will move to Israel after they are married; the couple recently returned from a trip there to explore their options. Rosemberg cited it as his main reason for wanting to leave.
That fear, combined with President Hugo Chavez’s verbal broadsides against Israel and still fresh memories of a shocking assault last January against the community’s main synagogue, Tiferet Israel, is prompting many Jews here to consider whether there is a future for them in Venezuela. Over the past decade, the Jewish community has fallen from a high of about 20,000 members to the oft-cited figures of 13,000 to 10,000, according to local Jewish activists.
Throughout his decade in power, Chavez has referred to the United States as imperialist and belligerent. Following Israel’s incursion into Gaza last winter, Chavez severed diplomatic ties with Israel and ratcheted up his rhetoric against the Jewish state. He refers to Israel as a genocidal state. Once he referred disparagingly to Colombia as the region’s “Israel” while voicing his displeasure at an agreement to allow the U.S. military access to Colombia’s military bases.
Meanwhile, he’s built friendships with and welcomed the presidents of Iran and Libya, part of what he has described as his efforts to build a counterweight to U.S. “hegemony.”
Venezuelan Jews say there is a wide gap between the president’s anti-Israel rhetoric and the attitudes of the Venezuelan people toward Jews. Venezuela has not seen the anti-Semitism that exists in some other Latin American countries.
“I would rather be a Jew here than in Spain,” said Paulina Gamus, a local political commentator and outspoken critic of Chavez, responding to a question about whether Venezuela is still safe for Jews.
“There, anti-Semitism is among the people. Here, with all of the government’s hostility, the people aren’t hostile.” she adds. “There isn’t a personal sense of anti-Semitism.”
Gamus is the only Jew to have served in Venezuela’s National Assembly.
While Gamus insists that her home is in Venezuela, the younger generation of her family has mostly left the country. All of her children, nieces and nephews live abroad to escape the security situation, she said.
While not explicitly anti-Semitic, local Jews fear Chavez’s constant barrage of anti-Israeli discourse could breed hostility towards their community, adding another layer of stress in a city where many citizens already feel helpless coping with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
“There’s a lot of fear that there could be an attack against the community,” said Camila Roffe de Levy, a 51-year old biologist in Caracas and Benchimol’s daughter.
“No one has attacked us,” she explained. “It’s not the people, nor your neighbor nor the guy who lives down the street from you. But what scares us is this anti-Israeli discourse that could be wrongly interpreted by people who don’t know any better.”
A lawyer who divides her time between Miami and Caracas says there is a general breakdown of trust toward the government, which she feels both as a Venezuelan citizen and even more so as a Jew.
She requested anonymity due to her work promoting human rights in Venezuela.
Since the synagogue attack last January, authorities have stepped up protection at Jewish houses of prayer. Many said they were pleased with the security provided during Yom Kippur.
But that day, while many Jews were in synagogue, Chavez praised Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi and invited him to speak on national television in a ceremony that all of the nation’s public channels were forced to broadcast.
“With this man [Chavez] you just never know,” said Benchimol. “It’s not something you can understand. It’s unpredictable.”