Moises Brunstein now lives in Toronto, but he still has family in Venezuela. (photo from Moises Brunstein)
Political upheaval, economic disintegration, rising crime rates and the implosion of social services have brought Venezuela to its knees. The lucky ones see Soviet-style, hours-long supermarket lineups; the unlucky see bare shelves in a country said now to have the worst inflation rate on the planet, in some sectors upwards of 700%. The chaos, combined with rising antisemitism, has spurred a massive flight of Jews.
Caracas’ once-thriving Jewish community of nearly 30,000 has dwindled in just a decade and a half to a quarter its former size. The exodus continues in conditions exacerbated by the sudden departure of foreign investment and international corporations.
Interestingly, Venezuela was among the first countries to recognize Israel and, in 1991, supported revoking the 1975 United Nations resolution comparing Zionism to racism. Jews have lived in relative peace there for hundreds of years, until the last decade.
In May 2004, Tiféret Israel – the oldest synagogue in Caracas – was vandalized after demonstrators at a government-sanctioned protest graffitied on city walls slurs such as “Sharon is a murderer of the Palestinian people,” “Viva the armed Palestinian people” and “Free Palestine.”
In November of that year, armed and hooded state policemen broke into the Colegio Hebraica, a Jewish grade school in the city. During the three-hour sweep of the premises, under the pretext of a weapons search, the doors were locked and bolted with the children inside. Agents found nothing of interest.
Venezuela’s chief rabbi condemned the raid as community “intimidation.” The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism – based at Tel Aviv University in Israel – reported that the intrusion was “perhaps the most serious incident ever to have taken place in the history of the Jewish community.”
In December 2007, Venezuela’s secret police raided the Hebraic Social, Cultural and Sports Centre, again under the pretext of searching for weapons and drugs, of which they found none.
Coincident with the Gaza War (Operation Cast Lead, December 2008-January 2009), a number of incidents occurred, beginning with then-president Hugo Chávez expelling the Israeli ambassador.
Later, in a public broadcast, Chávez said, “From the bottom of my soul, I damn you Israel. You are a criminal and terrorist state that is openly exterminating the Palestinians,” and he accused Israel of “Nazi-like atrocities.”
At the same time, the Venezuelan foreign ministry dubbed Israel’s actions “state terrorism” and government officials were seen wearing keffiyahs and waving Palestinian flags in the streets at an anti-Israel march said to have been organized by Chávez himself.
On a Friday night in January 2009, armed men broke into Tiféret Israel and gagged and bound security guards. The thugs ransacked offices and left antisemitic slogans on the walls, including a call for the expulsion of Jews from Venezuela. Religious objects in the sanctuary were ruined, and a list of the country’s Jews was stolen.
In February 2009, Beit Shmuel Synagogue was the target of a bomb that shattered windows and damaged a nearby car.
According to the 2009 World Conference against Antisemitism, the average of 45 anti-Israel articles published a month in 2008 jumped to five a day during January 2009, and there were newspapers that accused Israel of genocide.
And the situation didn’t improve much after the Gaza War. For example, the country’s main Jewish organization, La Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), reported more than 4,000 antisemitic incidents in 2013. And, as recently as this year, the Venezuelan United Nations ambassador, Rafael Ramirez, asked in a speech at UN headquarters in New York whether Israel was “trying to impose a ‘final solution’ on the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Little of this is shocking to Moises Brunstein, an expat now living in Toronto.
A first-generation Venezuelan, Brunstein’s Romanian parents arrived in Venezuela by Red Cross boat in 1941, after having been prisoners in Nazi-occupied France. With no command of the language and no money, Brunstein’s father worked his way up to become president of the local hydro authority.
“We lived a very nice life,” Brunstein told the Independent. That is, until Chávez came to power. Twelve years ago, at age 29, it was time to go, Brunstein said. With only four suitcases, he came to Canada, leaving behind all of his books, furniture and currency. Some cousins remain in Venezuela, but his father’s side has left for Florida, Australia and Spain; his mother’s side for Canada.
It is his belief that the state is trying to squeeze the Jewish community out of Venezuela. “In 2010 and 2011, the main building where Jews had stores was extricated by the government,” he said. “My mother, a lawyer, saw her offices taken over.
“Everything changed when the government aligned themselves to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. The Palestinian flag flew in the Venezuelan congress.”
Brunstein last visited Caracas in 2009 for a cousin’s wedding, and found security to be unusually high. “You don’t wear yarmulkes in public,” he warned.
There are various reasons why many Jews remain in the country, he said. The elderly aren’t necessarily mobile and have no command of a second language; those with businesses find it hard to leave.
Brunstein mails his mother basic foods, medicine and personal hygiene products, as well as a Passover care package.
Meanwhile, an expat living in New York, Freddy Steiner, runs his apparel and clothing stores in Caracas – Componix Clothing – from the United States, but his visits back home have steadily declined.
In 2000, about a year after the Chávez revolution, Steiner moved his family from Caracas to Miami.
“Pure safety, the number one issue,” he explained. “The kidnappings start[ed] to rise, the security was deteriorating. More and more people leave each year, knowing how much this is affecting the next generation.”
Caracas, he noted, consistently is ranked among the 10 most dangerous cities in the world, with medical services next to non-existent, except for the wealthy.
“The entire economy is in a coma, shut down,” he said. “Since early spring, malls and restaurants shut down at 7 p.m., there’s no electricity and no water.”
According to Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun of Sky Lake Synagogue in North Miami Beach, which has a sizeable Venezuelan membership, many of his congregants express concern about family who remain in Venezuela.
Abraham Levy Benshimol, former president of CAIV and of the Ascociación Israelita de Venezuela, said that, in addition to the difficulties experienced by all Venezuelans, those Jews who remain are facing increased challenges because of the exodus. “You still have the same number of schools, but you don’t have the same number of contributors,” he said. “So that’s a big problem.”
Chaya Perman, the wife of Rabbi Moshe Perman, director of Venezuela’s Chabad Centre, said, “The recent anti-Zionism is part of what is going on internationally.”
According to Perman, “nearly every Jewish family is affiliated in some way,” with some 90% of Jewish children attending Jewish day school; kosher meat, pizza, and bread products are still available. Given the overall circumstances, however, houses of worship are using up financial reserves to keep afloat, though they are “not yet at the point where they think they need help from wealthy Jewish communities,” she said.
For the Permans, two married children with their husbands and 15 grandchildren remain in Venezuela. They, much like the rest of the community, don’t know whether tomorrow will be better or worse. But there’s always hope.
“It’s a wait-and-see attitude,” said Perman.
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than a hundred publications around the world.