Jewish community's hope for change in Caracas after election victory


Venezuela's dwindling Jewish community breathed a collective sigh of relief after Sunday's landslide opposition election victory.

Down to a mere 7,000 members from some 25,000 in the 1990s, the Jews of Caracas have come under increasing harassment from the country's authoritarian socialist government.

"There's no doubt in my mind, this government is profoundly antisemitic," said mayor David Smolansky in his office in the town hall of El Hatillo, one of the five municipalities that form the Venezuelan capital.

Two years ago the then 28-year-old Mr Smolansky launched an uphill bid for the post, beating a host of candidates to become one of the youngest mayors in the country. Since then the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother has won several prestigious prizes and the undisputed approval of the citizens of El Hatillo.

Not of the government, however, which has waged a smear campaign against his Voluntad Popular (Will of the People) party. It is the party of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López.

Mr Smolansky said: "Diosdado Cabello, the president of our national Assembly, has called me 'the Venezuelan Netanyahu', 'a Zionist leader', and suggested I was trained by the Mossad and receive large sums of money from abroad. Basically, the government's message has been: be careful with this Jew."

The campaign against Mr Smolansky is only one example of the increasingly aggressive rhetoric by the leaders of Venezuela's "Bolivarian Revolution". From the day the late president Hugo Chávez rose to power in 1999, the socialists used anti-Israel and anti-Zionist policies to provoke what Chávez called "The Empire" - the United States.

Chávez established close ties with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. From 2004, antisemitic graffiti appeared on Caracas's streets and the government started targeting the economically and culturally successful Jewish community.

In November that year, 25 police officers entered a Jewish school in the capital and searched the building in front of hundreds of terrified children. The police were allegedly looking for drugs and firearms. Of course none were found, causing the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to condemn the raid as "more a pogrom than a judicial investigation".

After the Israeli offensive in Gaza - which Chávez called a "Holocaust" - in January 2009, 15 masked men stormed the Tiféret Israel synagogue and vandalised it. Four years later a list was leaked of prominent Venezuelan Jews who were being watched by the Bolivian intelligence service, Sebin.

Things did not improve after Chávez died of cancer in March 2013, perhaps surprisingly, given the roots of his successor Nicolás Maduro, whose ancestors were Sephardic Jews who reached Venezuela via the Netherlands and Curacao.

The presidential campaign later that year was marked by antisemitic attacks against opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, who was labelled an "agent of the Jewish lobby", a fascist and even a Nazi, despite the fact his grandmother survived Auschwitz.

Incidents like those in 2004 and 2009 led to a massive exodus of Jews from Venezuela, said security consultant and community leader Samuel Yecutieli.

"Every year some 10 per cent of our community migrates to Miami, Panama and Israel, in that order," he explained.

Like many Venezuelan Jews, Mr Yecutieli is exasperated by his government's close ties to Arab dictatorships. "Technologically, agriculturally and culturally, Venezuela has so much to learn from Israel.

"Instead we are close allies with its enemies. What benefit have we reaped from these relationships? Absolutely nothing."

It may be too soon to speak of a new beginning for the Jewish community, but Mr Yecutieli saw the opposition's success - taking two-thirds of national assembly seats - as the beginning of the end of the revolutionary regime in Miraflores, the presidential palace in downtown Caracas.

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