Venezuelan Jews Hoping for Economic, Regime Change

Since the emergence of the so-called 'Chavismo' at the end of the 1990s, the number of Jews has fallen dramatically, with members opting to pack their bags and leave.

Damian Pachter
Damian Pachter
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A man wearing a Venezuelan flag protests anti-Semitism outside the UN’s local office in Caracas.
A man wearing a Venezuelan flag protests anti-Semitism outside the UN’s local office in Caracas.Credit: Ariana Cubillos, AP
Damian Pachter
Damian Pachter

Venezuela’s Jewish community has found itself at the center of a new battle following the economic crisis that’s beset the South American country. Harassment, emigration and a sense of hopelessness are just some of the issues facing its members.

There’s not much left of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution — a socialist political process that began in 1999, headed by then-President Hugo Chávez.

Endless food lines, a severe shortage of basic goods and an annual inflation rate estimated at 160 percent became the standard image of a country long considered a “petrostate.” But with the price of oil as low as $35 a barrel recently, it’s long been on its way to total collapse.

Inside a country of over 33 million people, there’s a small Jewish community sporting less than 10,000 members. But since the emergence of the so-called “Chavismo” at the end of the 1990s, the number of Jews has fallen dramatically, with members opting to pack their bags and leave.

“The Jewish community was reduced by more than half, but not because of anti-Semitism,” Venezuelan psychoanalyst and journalist Fernando Yurman tells Haaretz.

Forty years ago, Yurman — now 71 — was a left-wing activist against the military junta in Argentina. But shortly after the 1976 coup, he fled to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where he has lived most of his life.

“The Venezuelans are not anti-Semitic at all,” he states.

“What they do have is a government that, as a result of geopolitical concerns and probably legitimate criticism against Israel, unleashed a very confused thing that mixed it all up. It’s a left that became fascisized,” he says.

A while back, Yurman was booked in for surgery at a Venezuelan hospital. However, it was then forced to cancel the operation due to a lack of medical supplies. Shortly afterward, Yurman bought another one-way ticket, this time bound for the Promised Land.

“There’s nothing especially aimed against the Jews there, nor fear of pogroms. The fear [Jews] have is the same one as shared by everyone else: It is a very repressive and violent government,” he says.

Yurman rejects any descriptions that depict the Jewish community as an elite opposition group. “The whole of society is anti-Chavista,” he says.

Rabbi Pynchas Brener, 85, served as Venezuela’s chief rabbi for more than 40 years. He knows the Caribbean country and its people very well, having also been present during the days before the Bolivarian Revolution.

Brener concurs that the Jewish community is facing the same socioeconomic problems as the rest of the country: Business difficulties and a forex shortage that’s hurting imports.

“The Venezuelan people always had its doors open, long before the Jews [arrived]. I was there a month ago, having breakfast at my son’s place with the Venezuelan cardinal, the apostolic nuncio and the president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference,” Brener says, by telephone from the United States.

“The relationship could not be better and I never felt one drop of anti-Semitism,” he says. However, he also recognizes the Venezuelan government’s extreme anti-Israeli attitude, “which ‘splashes’ on the Jewish community,” he says.

According to the rabbi, local Jews are against the government because they are part of the middle class. However, Brener also recalls a detail that many prefer to forget regarding Chávez’s early days in power. “A lot of the Jews thought a military man will bring order, so they supported him — including some very important businessmen I know,” he says.

The taking of Caracas

With the people calling for a referendum and the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, opposition parties are preparing themselves for another round of massive protests in the country’s capital.

“They will know the true revolution,” warned lawmaker and vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello, during a press conference last Monday.

Meanwhile, the arrangements continue, despite fears of clashes between the two sides.

Paulina Gamus, 79, is a Jewish political figure who worked as lawmaker and senator for the Democratic Action party.

She retired from politics shortly after the heavy electoral defeat against Chávez in 1998, who claimed 56.2 percent of the vote.

Although she is critical of the current government, Gamus admits there is one thing in Maduro’s favor: “He has been much less violent and aggressive against the Jews and Israel than his predecessor.”

Like her fellow citizens, Gamus rejects the existence of an anti-Semitic culture in Venezuela. She says she “never felt discriminated against for being Jewish, nor a woman. The people have more important things to think about.”

The Jewish community in Venezuela undoubtedly shares the same fate as the rest of society there. Their difficulties are economic and related to a general shortage of goods, a problem affecting all of the country.

Despite that, it’s indisputable that the community’s numbers have fallen by half since the arrival of Chávez and Maduro, the latter in office since 2013.

And diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Israel reached a low point following Chávez’s decision to expel the Israeli ambassador in Caracas following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, in the winter of 2008-2009. Since 2009, there has been no official Israeli representation there.

Yigal Palmor, director of public affairs and communications at the Jewish Agency for Israel, denied that a large wave of Jews had immigrated to Israel as a result of the situation in Venezuela.

He argues that many of them prefer other locations closer to their homeland. “I don’t see a dramatic rise,” he says. “The numbers are small.”

Haim Stein, a 64-year-old biologist from Caracas, expresses a pessimistic view regarding the future of Jews in the Latin American country. “If there is not a change of government in the short term, it is a community in risk of extinction,” he warns. “Only the oldest and most marginal will stay — or those who see emigration as a worst option.”

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