The last Jews of Caracas
Venezuela was once home to a flourishing Jewish community. When Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, an estimated 25.000 Jews lived in the tropical country. Today, only 7000 remain. The others have moved to Israel, the United States, Spain and other countries.
The history of the Jewish community in Venezuela dates back to the early 19th century. The country was famed for its religious tolerance. Christian and Muslim immigrants and their Jewish peers shared the same neighbourhoods peacefully. Venezuela was also one of the few nations that welcomed ships carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe in 1938. Venezuelan Jews made important contributions to politics, economy and arts in their new home country.
So what went wrong? In the first place, the Jewish exodus is only a tiny fraction of a much bigger migration movement. The International Monetary Fund is expecting the number of Venezuelan migrants to hit five million by the end of this year. Under Chávez and his successor Maduro, corruption soared and production collapsed. This has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history.
In a second place, many Jewish people I interviewed felt that Antisemitism had been on the rise in Venezuela in the last decade. My interest for the Jewish community aroused in 2009 after I read about robberies and desecrations in synagogues and other Jewish facilities. Since then, to my knowledge, no more physical attacks on Jewish institutions in Venezuela have been reported.
Still, anti-Semitic tendencies didn’t cease. An umbrella organization of Jewish associations in Venezuela, the CAIV, has been publishing a yearly report about Antisemitism in Venezuela. The last one available on their homepage dates back from 2015. It counted more than 1600 anti-Semitic publications in Venezuelan media the previous year.
When I resumed my investigation ten years later in 2019, I noted that the Jewish community had become more closed off. One Jewish friend confirmed me that many community members were afraid that a public statement or an appearance in front the camera could strain the fragile relationship between Jews and the government.
Although numerically reduced, the Jewish community in Venezuela has maintained its strength also thanks to strong community services that include synagogues and colleges.
I am deeply grateful for those Jewish Venezuelans who opened their doors to me. While I had the privilege to be part of their lives and their services in the synagogue “Rabinato de Venezuela”, I realized that religion always meant resistance. It was also due to their belief and their strong community ties that these Venezuelan Jews were able to survive in a collapsed country on the brink of a civil war.