The Jewish Community of Venezuela

Tuesday, May 23 2017

American news sources have been reporting on the economic crisis in Venezuela for months.  The devaluation of Venezuelan currency has resulted in a scarcity of basic consumer goods, a currency that is basically worthless, and a society in despair and chaos.  The Jewish community has suffered from the desperation and confusion as much as any other segment of the society, although both their backstory and their options are different.  

During the regime of strongman Hugo Chavez, an ally of Israel’s enemy Iran, and despite a far more prosperous oil-fueled economy, Jews faced government sanctioned anti-Semitic attacks, visual, verbal, and physically violent.  The Jews of Venezuela sought refuge elsewhere, primarily elsewhere in Latin America. There are some among the Jewish community who have called upon Israel to take action, specifically Ethiopia.

According to Moises, 61, a Venezuelan Jew, the Jewish community in Caracas, while still the largest in the country, has gone from 30,000 people down to 15,000. Moises continued, "We can still leave, but the door is slowly closing... In less than a year, the situation is going to explode."  

In the almost twenty years since Hugo Chavez came to power, first rich Venezuelans, then professionals, young people, and finally, the middle class left the country seeking opportunity and sanctuary in Latin America and the U.S. In the more recent past, from about 2015 forward, the remaining Jews in Venezuela began their exodus from their troubled homeland.  As late as 2000, the Jewish population of Venezuela numbered 30,000. Today that number is somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 predominantly orthodox Jews. Aliyah, which in 2012 included about 50-60 people grew to 111 in 2015, and was on its way to even more in 2016.

"For several years, we have seen anti-Semitic accusations and themes appear in Venezuelan public discourse," Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League said in August 2016, in response to anti-Semitic imagery that appeared on a Venezuelan magazine. (Christopher Woody in Business Insider 1/4/2017)

Israel and Venezuela have not had diplomatic relations since 2009, when Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador.  This complicates any attempts by Venezuelan Jews to make Aliyah.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, individuals who have chosen to convert to Judaism may be granted Israeli citizenship if they can demonstrate that they are participants in a significant Jewish community. 

Earlier this year the situation was even further complicated when nine Venezuelan Jews by choice from Macay converted to Judaism. They had studied for three years and had been converted by a Conservative Rabbinical court. Their hometown was too small and lacked a synagogue, so they joined a synagogue in Valencia, an hour away. Their applications were rejected by the Interior Ministry in Israel based on the fact that they had not been part of an established Jewish community during their studies.  After intervention by the Jewish Agency and numerous Rabbis from all over, the nine were granted citizenship after undergoing ritual conversion up on arrival in Israel.

Organizations working to help Jews leave Venezuela, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, said they prefer not to talk about the process because it could endanger those who remain.

“We work outside of the Jewish community and under the radar, gathering information by word-of-mouth about Jews who are interested in moving to Israel,” said an employee of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she shuttles between Israel and Venezuela on a regular basis.  She said that in the past, Venezuelan Jews opted to move to the United States or Panama but that those places are too expensive because the economic crisis has devalued their property and other assets. “Israel is really the only option for them,” she said.

(Ruth Eglash, The Washington Post, 1/1/2017)

Karen Feit

Zionist Affairs

This article is part of the June/July 2017 edition of Women Who Learn. To obtain a PDF version of the full edition, email us at jewisheducation@hadassah.org.

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