Expats: Venezuela’s Reluctant Jews

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Photo by Daytonarolexboston.

When Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar was driven into exile at the turn of the 19th century, he found refuge in the homes of Jews on the Dutch colony Curaçao, some 40 miles north of Venezuela. After Gran Colombia won independence from Spanish rule and Bolívar expanded the constitution to include religious freedoms, the Jewish community in Venezuela began to swell, building a significant presence in the country over time. But those numbers are diminishing today, as Jews flee the unstable nation in record numbers.

Jewish immigrants found refuge from Nazi Germany when two steamboats, the Koenigstein and Caribia, docked in Venezuela in 1939. “Imagine our joy at being free and far from a land in which everything threatened us with death,” commented one refugee in a local paper. “It is such a holy occurrence given that we were expelled from Germany and you have embraced us.” As waves of Jewish immigrants settled in the country over the course of the century, they began forming community institutions, like La Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), also establishing 15 synagogues and an all-Jewish campus in Caracas, called Hebraica.

At the peak of the diaspora, in the postwar years, around 45,000 Jews lived in Venezuela. Today, they number around 9,000. With the death toll rising and inflation in the double digits, this comes as no surprise, but many point to a general climate of anti-Semitism that began to materialize when Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.

In 2004, Hebraica, which serves as a day school, country club and community center, was raided by 25 investigative police officers while class was still in session. Another raid took place on a different section of campus three years later, in the pre-dawn hours, by officers from the nation’s secret police agency. In 2009, 15 unidentified men broke into Caracas’ oldest synagogue and destroyed holy books, and a homemade bomb was hurled into a neighboring synagogue the following month. Evidence of the Venezuelan government spying on members of a Jewish NGO came to light early last year, under the suspicion that the human rights group was operating as a far-right Zionist arm of Israeli intelligence.

As anti-government protests continue to destabilize the already struggling nation, the future for Venezuela’s Jews is precarious. “I can’t tell you if ten years from now we’ll be half of what we are,” says CAIV vice president Efraim Lapscher. “The trend at the moment is a decreasing one, which is very worrying for the community.” Many are reluctant to leave, but most are reluctant to stay.

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