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March 15, 2013     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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March 15, 2013
 

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 15, 2013 PAGE 11A By Gil Shefler CARACAS, Venezuela (JTA)--Students at the Ma'or HaTorah yeshiva in Caracas knew something was afoot Tuesday [March 5] afternoon when bodyguards driving bullet-proof vehicles started showing up unexpectedly at the gate, whisking teenagers from wealthy families to the safety of their homes. "After the second and third came, we realized this was serious," Aron Misadon, a 16-year-old student at the school, told JTA on March 6. "At that point they closed the school and we all ran home." That something was the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had been gravely ill for months and had recently returned from months-long treatment in Cuba. The announcement sent many in Caracas into panic mode, fearing that the death of this larger-than-life figure--alternately loved or reviled by millions in his country--might lead to chaos in the streets. Stores were shuttered, meetings were canceled and Venezuelans braced them- selves. As the government an- nounced a seven-day national mourning period, Jewish schools and the Jewish com- munity center in Caracas all On Caracas streets, fear and eerie quiet as Venezuela mourns Gil Shefler/JTA A businessman in Caracas watches the coffin of the late president Hugo Chavez paraded through the city on March 6 elan Vice President Nicolas Maduro's accusation that Venezuela's enemies had "inculcated" Chavez with his cancer, as unnamed foes had done to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, sent shiv- ers down the spines of many Venezuelan Jews. "We are very worried that his followers might decide to 'avenge' his death," said Sammy Eppel, a local journal- ist who is Jewish. But two days after his death, an eerie calm had taken hold. Driving down the four-lane highway connecting Simon Bolivar International Airport with downtown Caracas, Da- vid Bittan noted how quiet closed. The only activity in town seemed to be at the mili- tary academy, where Chavez's coffin lay in state. He was to be buried last Friday. The scheduled opening Sunday of a new Sephardic synagogue was likely to be postponed. The new shul, a multimillion dollar edifice, had been built to replace an older one in a part of town that had become unsafe. Under Chavez's rule, Caracas has acquired one of the world's highest murder rates, and violent crime is an omnipres- ent threat. In the early hours after Chavez's death, the fear was of the unknown. Venezu- things were. "So far, nothing has hap- pened," said Bittan, the Jew- ish owner of a car service company whose cousin, also named David Bittan, is the head of CAIV, Venezuela's Jew- ish umbrella group. "I don't think there's any reason to worry right now. I think they are focusing on his funeral on Friday." At one point during the drive, Bittan noted a group of Chavista motorcyclists wearing red shirts and fly- ing Venezuelan flags driving besides his SUV in a long line. "They're on their way to attend the procession of Chavez's coffin," he said. That massive procession on March 6, which culminated in a huge rally at the mili- tary academy, was attended by Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales and was broadcast live on all five state-owned TVstations. Ven- ezuelans of all stripes, both supporters and opponents of the late president, gathered around TV screens at gas sta- tions, restaurants and bars to watch the proceedings. "Our son, brother, teacher, revolutionary," gushed a TV anchor, eulogizing Chavez. "His light will shine on." One woman interviewed during the broadcast said she would be forever grateful Gil Shefler/JTA A Hugo Chavez supporter flying a Venee flag on his bike in Caracas. to Chavez for implementing a program that gave her a house for free. "He was better than all of us," she said. "This should not have happened. I will always have him in my heart." At a downtown hotel cater- ing to businessmen located a few metro stops away from the military academy, the spectacle was received very differently. "All the supporters are gov- ernment employees," said one woman dismissively. "They are not forced to go, but they feel under pressure to show up. They might lose their job if they don't." By nightfall on March 6, the streets of Caracas had emptied out--even more so than usual. "I don't like being out on a night like this," Bittan said uneasily. Vendors at a supermarket in the Altamira neighborlmod said they ran out of water bottles as locals rushed to stock up on basic foodstuffs. Nearby, a large poster of Chavez, one of many around town showing the leader known as El Comandante in various outfits and poses, depicted a youthful Chavez in a red beret and olive-green military uniform, raising his right fist alofL The sign reack "Complete the mission." Long the bane of Venezuelan Jews, Chavez is gone. Now whaO By Uriel Heilman (JTA)--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, al- legedly 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 community. While Chavez never ex- plicitly 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 eco- UN Photo/Mark Garten Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Copenhagen attending the U.N. Confer- ence on Climate Change, December 2009. nomic turmoil. For another, Chavez played such a com- manding 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, Ven- ezuelan 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 challeng- ingyears 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 gov- ernment'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. With Chavez gone, there is an opportunity for change. But it's far from clear things will improve for the Jews of Venezuela, at least in the short term. Venezuela's constitution ap- pears to require new elections be held within 30 days. In his final months, Chavez made clear his preference that his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, take over Chavez's so-called Bolivarian revolution. The likeliest opponent to Maduro, who has echoed Chavez's anti- Western rhetoric, is Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez by an 11-point margin in elections held last October. Capriles, who identifies as a Catholic, also happens to be the grandson of Holocaust survivors--a fact Chavez exploited in launching anti- Semitic attacks against him. During the 2012 presiden- tial campaign, state-run media urged Venezuelans to reject "international Zionism" and vote against Capriles, describ- ing him as having "a platform opposed to our national and independent interests." Chavez also said the Mossad, Israel's secret service, was out to kill him and accused Israel of financing Venezuela's op- position. Government media described Capriles as "Jewish- Zionist bourgeoisie." The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wi- esenthal Center condemned Chavez for his rhetoric. The campaign was typical Chavez, only the latest in a long series of episodes that left Jews feeling deeply unsettled in a country that before Chavez had remarkably little anti- Semitism. The first signs of trouble under Chavez came during the years of the second inti- fada, when the government sponsored rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. After one such rally in May 2004, the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas was attacked. But itwasn't until November of that year that Venezuelan Jews felt directly targeted by the government, when security forces carried out an armed raid on a Jewish school in Caracas, the Ven- ezuelan capital. The incident was described in a report by Tel Aviv University's Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism as "perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community" in Venezuela. Chavez kept up his anti-Is- rael and anti-Western rhetoric throughout the 2000s, calling U.S. President George W. Bush a devil during a 2006 speech at the United Nations and linking Israeli and American "terror- ist" policies. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Chavez accused Israel of perpetrating a "new Holocaust" and usingNazi-like methods to kill Lebanese and Palestinians. Meanwhile, Chavez nur- tured an ever-closer relation- ship with Iran. The seem- ingly incongruous friendship between Chavez, a secular socialist, and Ahmadinejad, president of an Islamic theoc- racy, was built around shared hostility to the United States, the West and Israel. The two leaders sharply increased bilat- eral trade, inaugurated weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, and frequently visited each other. As the size of the Iranian diplomatic presence in Ven- ezuela grew, Western security experts accused Venezuela of providing Iran with a Latin American base for illicit activi- ties, including arms trading. Venezuela's final breakwith Israel came in 2009, during the three-week Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began in late De- cember 2008. Chavez severed diplomatic ties with the Jew- ish state, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestin- ians. Chavez also insisted that the Jews of Venezuela rebuke Israel for its actions. Chavez's constant linkage of Venezuelan Jewry with Israel seemed to give presidential sanction to anti-Semitism, even if Chavez himself said he "respected and loved" Jews. Anti-Semitic graffiti ap- peared in Caracas, equating the Jewish Star of David with the swastika. Broadcasters on state radio recommended the anti-Semitic forgery "The Protocols of the Eiders of Zion" as an insightful read. Jewish institutions and hmmes of worship in Venezuela were attacked. "People are being taught to hate," n-V RabbiBrenertoidJTA in early 2009. / has never seen anything like this before: But Chavez was no Hitler. Venezuelan Jews were fre to come and go as they pleas and even many of those who emigrated returned fre- quently to visit including Brener, who has since moved to Florid To some extent, Chavez watched over the country's Jews. In 2009, the govern- ment gave round-the-dock police protection to the site of a Caracas synagogue that had been attacked. But Venezuelan Jews also felt that Chavez was watching thenv-a suspicion vindicated by the publication early this year of documents showing that the SEBIN secret service was spying on Venezuelan Jews. The documents, which were obtained by thearggnlin- ian media outlet Amlises?A, included intelligence reports, clandestinely recorded photos and videos. For now, it's tmclearwhetl* or for how long the anti-Jewish atmosphere Chavez allowed to take root in Venezuela will survive him. Butaffer 14 years of polities that prompted more than half of Venezuela's Jews to pick up and leave and with Venezu- cia's economic and security problems now compounded by political turmoil--it's hard to imagine very many of the Jewish emigres are hurrying back.