Recently, the following graffito appeared near a Caracas Metro station: "Be patriotic, kill a Jew." Elsewhere in the city, another reads: "Jewish pigs, another 6 million." (See photo above.)
It's not altogether unusual for public indignation toward current Israeli policies to spillover into aggression against domestic Jewish populations, as we have recently seen in Europe. Yet what makes Venezuela different is the distinct role that the government takes in promoting such hostility, and the way the Middle Eastern conflict has been deeply woven into political fabric of the predominantly Catholic, South American nation.
Recently, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro organized a rally labeled the "March Against Israeli Genocide." There, the Venezuelan president called upon "the Jews that live in our lands" to "stop the massacre, and the murder of those innocent boys and girls."
It's a tall order. In the words of one community member: "When the president himself calls out Venezuelan Jews to rein in the 'Zionist' government and stop the Gazan genocide -- as if we could even do that -- you think to yourself, 'How is it that the country I grew up in feels the need to single me out? When did the open society I used to live in turn into this?'"
Venezuela's Jewish history is in some ways quite unique. The oldest Jewish community in the Americas is a Sephardic congregation on nearby Curaçao that dates back to 1651, and which has maintained crucial trading networks with Venezuela since it was founded. For generations, an offshoot of this community even prospered on the mainland Venezuelan town of Coro until it was destroyed in a rare New World pogrom in 1855. The survivors were evacuated by Dutch warships back to the Antilles, but even today, many of Venezuela's most common last names have roots within the Curaçaoan Sephardic community, including that of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, and even Nicolás Maduro himself (although neither are themselves Jewish).
The current Jewish community is primarily orthodox, and comprised of only 10,000-15,000 individuals (down from more than twice that fifteen years ago). Most are the children or grandchildren of immigrants: At various times during the 20th century, Venezuelan governments actively cultivated immigration from Europe, and European Jews quickly integrated into general society, and, culturally, anti-Semitism was never much of a problem. Among these newcomers was my grandfather, Iván Lansberg Henríquez, a Dutch Jew, with Curaçaoan roots, who fled the Wehrmacht across the Atlantic in 1939, and eventually made an excellent life for himself in Caracas -- becoming an avid optimist about his adopted homeland in the process, up until his death in 2006. But 2006 was the year that the Venezuelan government first unveiled "anti-Zionism" as a major part of its public platform.
As the relationship between Venezuela and the United States continued to sour following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, and a failed coup against him in 2002, Venezuela sought to replace its conventional allies with more likeminded states opposed to U.S. influence -- among them, fellow OPEC nations like Libya and Iran. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, the government -- acting in solidarity with its friends -- aggressively denounced the actions of the Jewish state. Chávez publically deemed the conflict with Lebanon a "New Holocaust" against the Palestinians and Lebanese, and government billboards sprang up around Caracas showing Israeli soldiers brutalizing children and Chávez and Ahmadinejad holding hands to denounce Israeli imperialism. "We were caught off guard by the vehemence," one community elder confided in me.
Ever since, whenever Israel has come into conflict with a neighbor, the Venezuelan government's media apparatus kicked into gear: Foreign Minister Elias Jaua recently traveled to Egypt where he took photos with wounded Palestinian children whom he claimed were actually Hugo Chávez fans. President Maduro himself recently said on national television: "Israel doesn't kill in error. It kills with horror." (Later, he proclaimed: "[Israel] carefully calculates its attacks, and has by now destroyed over 50 synagogues!" The mix-up was just one of those gaffes for which Maduro is fast becoming famous, although both ignorance and poor verbiage exacerbate the problem.)
In Venezuela's pro-government rhetoric, both regime officials and state media often group together loaded terms that, in effect, become synonymous: "Imperialists," "International Elites," "Ultra-rightists," "Fascists," and "Zionists" can be used interchangeably, or paired together, to denote any enemy that criticizes or meddles in Venezuelan government affairs. The indistinctness of these terms can make them difficult to keep straight in practice. When an anchor on Venezuelan state television recently derided former Venezuelan Trade Minister (and former Foreign Policy editor) Moisés Naím for signing a letter condemning certain Venezuelan regime practices, he dismissed Naím's perspective as that of "a believing Jew." He probably meant to say "Zionist," but no retraction or clarification was forthcoming.
At present, most Venezuelan Jews do not face open discrimination from their neighbors. Even so, a sense of dread and isolation is pervasive among much of the community, and some worry that, with diplomatic relations severed between the government and Israel, there may be nobody to protect them in a pinch. While researching this story, absolutely nobody I spoke with who still resides in Venezuela was willing to let me use their names. "Despite the rhetoric, we maintain workable relations with certain individuals within the government," one community leader explained, "and we cannot risk losing that." He's right. At present, Venezuelan national guardsmen posted outside Caracas synagogues and Hebrew schools provide some protection against the physical dangers posed by unruly groups that might take the political rhetoric to heart -- and this defense is something that could just as easily be taken away.
Recent attacks on protesters and students during the prolonged period of nationwide urban unrest earlier this year loom large. The pro-government militias known as "colectivos" targeted Venezuelan enemies of the state far more aggressively than did the state authorities themselves. "Under Chávez, you at least felt that he could control his crazies," one community member told me; under Maduro, they felt that all bets were off.
Then again, Chávez couldn't always control them either. In 2009, fifteen armed men broke into a Caracas synagogue and desecrated it with swastikas, scrawling threats on the walls. During the raid, the men also stole computers and other records containing a veritable who's who of local Jewish families and Jewish descendants, including home addresses. The loss of this private information, and its potential for resurfacing, remains a major cause of concern among the community.
And yet one person I spoke with, saw the community's faith as their best shield: "We are survivors, and we will also survive this." Referencing a passage in Genesis, the community member continued: "Long ago, God promised Abraham that he would bless those that bless us, and curse those that curse us. Remember that Chávez cursed us and we're still here." Indeed, in May 2010, during the tense aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla Raid, Chávez did damn the state of Israel on national television, bellowing: "Damn you state of Israel. Terrorists! Murderers! I Curse you!" For the moment, though, Venezuela's Jewish community perseveres.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches Latin American Business at the Kellogg School of Management and is a columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional.
Photo: Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela