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Venezuela’s Dispossessed

Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?

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Hillo Ostfeld discusses his September 16, 2010, meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Hillo Ostfeld discusses his Sept. 16, 2010, meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.(All photos Matthew Fishbane.)
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Goodbye to All That

For generations, the Jews of Caracas had idyllic weather, prosperity, and vibrant communal organizations. Things have changed under Hugo Chávez.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who ruled the country since 1999, died today at 58. Last year, Tablet’s senior editor Matthew Fishbane reported on the state of Venezuelan Jewry under his rule.

During a recent trip to Bogotá, Colombia, where I’d lived for years, I discovered that the wealthier parts of the city were filling up with an odd sort of super-refugee. The new arrivals were mainly rich Venezuelans fleeing an increasingly chaotic situation in their home country: oil execs booted out by nationalization, industrialists frustrated by the corrupt and now hostile business environment, successful entrepreneurs and others displaced by a newly minted Russian-style oligarchy loyal to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. These transplants, many of them Jews, were arriving in the Colombian capital and prospering because they had tremendous skills and valuable international connections—and because they were coming with their social and business ties intact. Their first complaint was invariably about what they called “the security situation” in Caracas. That they found Bogotá to be an island of safety and peace by comparison was alarming.

Through some of these new Colombians, I was introduced to a man named Alan Vainrub. In 2005, Vainrub’s parents sat him down in their spacious apartment in Caracas, on the lush lower slopes of Ávila mountain, to talk about his future. Vainrub, then 23, held an engineering degree from the local Universidad Metropolitana and was happily employed at Procter & Gamble. He had designs on an overseas MBA, after he’d gained more work experience. But Vainrub’s father, a doctor, told him that the domestic political situation was getting worse under Chávez; by the following year, Vainrub’s father said, there might be hundreds of upper-class Venezuelans applying for business degrees, all looking for a way out.

Vainrub was in no hurry to leave. After all, he was the comfortable heir to one of the great flowerings of the Jewish postwar diaspora, third- and fourth-generation Venezuelans with education, social clout, and roots. Jews had first arrived in Venezuela from Curaçao, a haven from the Inquisition, in the 19th century. “Turcos”—the catch-all term for anyone of roughly Middle-Eastern coloring or north African descent, regardless of their religion—had been arriving in the country since the 1900s. And a long tradition of lenient immigration policies—especially after World War II, based in part on the need for expertise and manpower to exploit the country’s single most important resource, oil—meant that Europeans, Iberians, Chinese, Russians, and other Latin Americans were all welcome there. Venezuelans came in all colors and had intermarried for centuries, fashioning a fully mestizo culture brewed from the descendants of indigenous people, Spanish colonials, African slaves, and 20th-century immigrants. Jews were a tiny, accepted minority. People called each other affectionately demeaning nicknames, instead of epithets: mi vieja, mi gorda, mi negra.

But by the time Vainrub’s father sat him down, the Jewish community of Caracas, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, was in precipitous decline. The major cause of this decline was the 1998 election of Chávez—now the longest-serving head of state in the Western hemisphere. After surviving an ouster by coup in 2002, and pushing through constitutional reform to end presidential term limits, Chávez, who declared his recent battle against cancer won, now openly projects his rule into the middle of the 21st century. He has proclaimed the next 10 years to be the Bronze Age of the Bolivarian Revolution, a hybrid of populism and socialism soldered onto a Napoleonic personality cult. The Bronze Age is to be followed by an intermediary Silver Age, and then concluded, beginning in 2031, with the Golden Age of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Over the years, as Chávez’s brash populism has been buoyed by income from Venezuela’s vast, nationalized oil reserves, an object of his political manipulation has become the Caracas elite—“estos ricachones,” roughly translated: those fat cats, as he has dismissively referred to the upper class. In 2004, Chávez made his first official visit to Tehran and struck up a personal friendship and diplomatic alliance with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, whom he welcomed to Venezuela this month. This came after decades of political tutelage from another Holocaust denier, the Argentine ultra-nationalist Norberto Ceresole, who died in 2003 but who managed to instill a conspiratorial, amalgamated view of Jews in his pupil. Chávez has seemed to find in anti-Zionism, and later anti-Semitism, a valuable political tool, one that enhances, or makes more precise, his love of straw-man rhetoric and open hostility toward the United States, first against the bellicosity of George W. Bush and then against President Barack Obama, who remains an avatar of “imperialismo yanqui,” which has abetted “las oligarquias” in Latin America.

And so in 2006, Alan Vainrub entered Harvard Business School, hoping to return to Venezuela after graduation and rejoin the Jewish community of Caracas. But the intervening five years have made that dream seem foolish, if not suicidal. As the reality of Chávez’s durability has set in, nearly half of Venezuela’s Jewish community has fled from the social and economic chaos that the president has unleashed and from the uncomfortable feeling that they were being specifically targeted by the regime.

In this significant migration I saw the seeds of a story of dispossession and loss unlike any other in the hemisphere, a tale spanning five generations—from Europe to Israel to the Americas and back. What I found was at stake for people like Vainrub, his sister, his parents, his Caracas-born grandmother, and her German-born Jewish parents, was the very idea of a “Venezuelan Jew”—a patriotic, Latin-inflected, Holocaust-surviving, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, privileged, devout, convivial, passionate, Merengue-dancing, carefree, and idiosyncratic species. How dangerous must a situation get for a Jew to cast off the identity he had constructed for himself and his family as a person rooted in a particular place? I asked this question of everyone I met: What is your limit? When do you leave? On the one hand, there was the Jewish leader who made religion his measure. “I won’t stop being Jewish,” he told me. “If by staying I can’t be Jewish, then I’m not staying.” But many more seemed to have the tolerance of community association President Salomón Cohen Botbol. Just three weeks before I met him, Botbol’s oldest son, who had graduated from high school, had been kidnapped—allegedly by ransom-seeking delinquents. Understanding the situation of what they call “secuestro express,” Botbol said, meant he knew that the assault would be no more than a few unpleasant and costly hours—“the scariest of my life,” he said, but nothing out of the ordinary. An arrangement was made—Botbol declined to offer the details—and the family resumed its life. “In this case it wasn’t traumatic,” he said. “But there are traumatic cases.”

Wasn’t finding your son in mortal danger reason enough to abandon a sinking ship? “I’m not thinking of leaving,” he answered.

***

On Dec. 2, 2007, the day a constitutional referendum was held to abolish term limits, the Chávez government raided the undisputed hub of Jewish life in Caracas, the Colegio y Centro Social, Cultural y Deportivo Hebraica, the site of the main Jewish school and club. It was the second such invasion. This time, masked and armed police piled over the walls as elementary-school children arrived for class. The government claimed it was acting on a vague, anonymous tip that the club was harboring weapons, or was a front for Mossad. In both cases, the raids were officially declared “unfruitful.”

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Matthew Fishbane Amazing article,
I lived there everything you say is true.

jacob arnon says:

Jews in Spanish speaking countries have a long history of being held in contempt when not outright put in danger.

It seems that Jews tend to see their past in a country from which they were expelled as “golden.” Hence the Yiddish song “Roumania, Roumania.”

Joshua Pines says:

Great article. I’ve know many from the community over the years and it jibes entirely with their stories.

One minor semi-correction. Aventura is in fact a separate city now, not merely a neighborhood. This is likely due in part to Venezuelan Jewish immigration, which has played a large role in its growth to 36k+ residents, driving its incorporation in 1995.

K. M. McDonald says:

How prescient the publication of the works – The Prague Cemetery by U. Eco and A Lethal Obsession by R. W. Wistrich the last few years. The institutionalization of anti-Semitism, subtle yet profoundly dangerous, just persists. Now the latest large-scale appearance of subtle, yet institutionalized anti-Semitism in Venezuela under Chavez; deeply disturbing and saddening.

Verificationist says:

Tremendous piece. Fiction’s level of texture and depth, except it’s all too true. I would have loved to hear from someone in the government, someone to speak for and give insight to the other side, even if it would have been nothibg more than a fatuous denial of Matthew’s claims. But overall, tremendous work, and kudos to Tablet for investing in journalism of this length, depth, and significance.

Eva Josko de Gueron says:

A excellent and moving account.

My main critique, apart from some minor errors, is that it conveys the impression that all Venezuelan Jews are wealthy — which is not the case — and that if fails to reflect the enormous, and often demeaning, effort of immigrants — Jewish and otherwise — to achieve middle class status.

I might add that, from the very beginning, the government´s message to the middle class was “if you don´t like this, leave”, read “give us free rein”, like in Cuba. Most resisted but as things got worse, many that could, sought other alternatives; it got harder for people like me to persuade or even urge others to stay on.

There is reason to realistically hope that things will change and that the Jewish community will not only survive but be vibrant again. Ojala!

Be that as it may, the article and Tablet deserve kudos.

Matthew Fishbane says:

Eva Josko de Gueron is right to remind readers of the economic diversity of Venezuelan Jewish life, which runs from one of the richest men in the country to welfare recipients and everything in between. (Hebraica club dues were charged on a sliding scale according to ability to pay.) It is precisely this diversity that is a casualty of the new Venezuela — as she points out: those who can leave, do.

Joshua Pines is also correct about Aventura, and I thank him for the precision, though being in Aventura does not feel separate to “greater Miami,” and many Venezuelans said they had moved or were moving to Miami, when in fact they meant Aventura. That the Venezuelan Jewish community is largely responsible for Aventura’s incorporation is not surprising, given the history and strength of their organizations.

shushan says:

venezualiamn jews are not friends of american Jews, therefore who cares about this story

Annette Cohen says:

As someone who has been living in Israel for the past 50 years after making aliya from New York City in 1962 for solely and intensely Zionist reasons I had a hard time coming to terms with the utter lack of relevancy of the State of Israel as a viable destination for these endangered Jews. I do not know if that reflects your personal viewpoint or the reality on the ground. I do know that a very large number of South American Jews have settled happily in my beautiful city of Haifa and throughout Israel over the years, as have many others from lands which they left voluntarily or by force of circumstance.

When taken from a philosophical, religious, political and/or historical perspective the lack of relevance of the existence of a modern, democratic, successful Jewish state in a piece about the situation in which these people find themselves is almost beyond belief. The seeking of alternatives in Florida, Spain, or other South American countries points to a historical blindness of biblical proportions. Is this something inherently wrong with Diaspora Jews or are we getting a distorted picture?

Matthew Fishbane says:

Annette, thank you for an interesting, important question. The Venezuelan Jewish community seemed to have very strong ties to the state of Israel. Many of the people I met had family there. Many were choosing to make aliya. The Jewish school takes Juniors on an annual trip to Israel. The club has youth groups and other organized connections to Israel. Hillo Ostfeld has hosted Shimon Peres in his home. If the article neglected to make clear this strong bond, it is an oversight. Salomon Cohen Botbol, the president of the CAIV, talked quite a bit about the challenges of aliya for members of his community. One in particular was the splitting up of large, tight-knit families. In the piece, Isaac’s view toward aliya is representative of what I heard from some others there.

Israel is full of Spanish speaking Jews. Nice.

My2cents says:

In response to Mr Arnon when he says : “Jews in Spanish speaking countries have a long history of being held in contempt when not outright put in danger.
It seems that Jews tend to see their past in a country from which they were expelled as “golden.” Hence the Yiddish song “Roumania, Roumania.”

I’d like to tell him that I much disagree with both of the points he’s trying to make. Firstly “Jews in Spanish speaking countries” is too broad of a generalization. Each Spanish speaking country is different from the other. I invite you to read about the jewish community in Panama, and then compare to the one in Colombia to see how much they differ in several aspects (i.e level of religiousness, relationship with the government, influence in the local economy).
Secondly, NOT ONE south american country has expelled jews. so when you say” It seems that Jews tend to see their past in a country from which they were expelled as “golden.”” You are very mistaken. Jewish people are leaving just like non-jews are too. Anyone who is well to do and has some vision and ability to transplant themselves to a better place does it. there isn’t any persecution taking place in latin america. The current situation is harsh for everyone. In the past 15 yrs the jewish communities of Colombia, Argentina, and Venezuela have emigrated in immense numbers. But if you read a bit you can find how non-jews have also left in large numbers.

Jean Terry says:

This is certainly a sad story and a story the Jewish people have repeated countless times in history.

Botbol said, meant he knew that the assault would be no more than a few unpleasant and costly hours—“the scariest of my life,” he said, but nothing out of the ordinary…. probably the Jews on the railroad platform in Birkenau felt the same way

shushan has no idea how involve are the venezuelan jews in their american communitties, he is extremelly ignorant! Venezuelan jews are involve in federation, JCC, sinagoges, and US politics.

My2cents says:
“In response to Mr Arnon….
I’d like to tell him that I much disagree with both of the points he’s trying to make. Firstly “Jews in Spanish speaking countries” is too broad of a generalization. Each Spanish speaking country is different from the other. I invite you to read about the jewish community in Panama, and then compare to the one in Colombia to see how much they differ in several aspects (i.e level of religiousness, relationship with the government,….”

I am sorry ‘My2cents” that I haven’t seen your post till now. Had I seen I would have replied sooner.

Except for Argentina, about which later, there are relatively few Jews living in most Spanish speaking countries.

Then those small number of for the most part immigrated the these countries after WW2. They are also mostly middle or upper class professional who are “protected” by the authorities. (I use the word advisedly.) Many of them also present themselves as secular leftists.

In a country like Mexico for example there area about 50 thousand Jews and most live in the capital city. There is always talk of “conversos” “hidden Jews” and their descendants, but if they have to be hidden that should tell you much about their status there.
Jews whatever their persuasion can take their presence in these countries for granted.

I have met many Spanish speaking non Jews, in the US, in Europe and in South America (mostly educated persons of the left and the right) and they word Judio is often used as an expletive.

Argentina is an exception because the number of Jews there is greater and these started arriving in the 1900’s and many arrived after world war2. They never had an easy time there and the best one can say about the rulers is that some were not antisemitic. In the 70’s all hell broke loose and the military government went after leftists and subversive (and many, many Jews) in their dirty war to “rid the country of internal enemies.”

The number fo Jews in Panama is under ten thousand

The number of Jews in Panama is under ten thousand almost enough to fill a large futbol stadium.

I can write another ten pages about this topic but if people are interested I suggest they do some research on their own.

jacob arnon says:

Re: Argentina let a lot of Jews in, but they also let a lot of German Nazis in.

What does that tell you?

A visitor says:

My husband’s venezuelan family (we are not Jewish) is dealing with some of the same issues addressed in this excellent artcle. We hope that the jewish community in Caracas will be safe from further violence and can continue to make contributions to the overall quality of life in Caracas.

Mr. Chavesz you are dying because the G-d of the jewish people has cursed you for going against his people. Look at Hitler and the german people how they fell. No Empire or nation or race or person that goes against G-ds people will ever survive or have any peace. G-d is justfull thats why you are dying. You got what you deserve

As the stories and experiences of S American (& S African too) Jews becomes more prevalent in the US, I hope we learn some lessons from them.

As a pretty typical kid raised in the NY/NJ area, born in Brooklyn to marginally religious parents and raised with the suspicions and striation that Ortho vs Conserv vs Refromed vs “atheist” Jews create for themselves in the relative safety of the US, personally, I learned a lot more on HOW to be Jewish from my S American friends in Aventura than almost anything in my past.

The “I’m not religious” comment from Isaac reminds me so much of my friends. They have a much more comfortable sense of their Jewishness and religiosity – one we can learn from.

A year or so ago I recall reading something to the effect that Castro, through an interviewer, admonished Chavez against mistreating Jews.

Does anyone recall that story, and did it alter Chavez’s behavior?

great piece.
Seems to be similar to whats going on in the Turkish and Iranian jewish communities.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

The Jewish community in Mexico are about 50,000. They are a mixture of those coming from Russia and Poland, and from Arab countries Syria and Lebanon. They came to Mexico during the 1920,s and 1930,s. Before WWII. The converses came during the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century.. Established in the north Monterrey and formed industries. Their descendants remained converses. and they are just a curiosity and insignificant as far as the Jewish community is concerned. The Jewish community in Mexico are fully integrated in the country. Prosperous, and even members of the government. The secretary of health is Jewish, a personal friend of president Calderon. The previous president Fox, his foreign minister was of Jewish descent, Mexican father Jewish mother.

The Sephardic community has provided money to the Shas party in Israel. The whole community Ashkenazy and Sephardic is very supportive of Israel. Leftist anti Israel are almost non existent.

Thus arnon is strongly ignorant of the Jewish community in Mexico.
Should check his facts before posting misleading denigrating comments. And keep his mouth shut up.

Quite a few descendants of these Mexican Jews live in the USA . Most of us are professionals quite successful in America. Strong supporters of Israel. Strong supporters of the USA.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

In Mexico for the last 30 years of the PRI party control the most popular TV anchorman was Jacobo Zabludovsky a son of Russian Jews born in Mexico. He was the powerful anchorman of news from the main tv chain Televisa. Actually the Televisa chairman had converted to Judaism with his first Jewish wife. Now divorced he reconverted to Catholic. The family are the Azcarragas.

Mexico has been good to Jews , and vice-versa for industry, commerce, technology, higher education.

Emilio B says:

Excellent piece. Should be required reading for ALL Jews, everywhere.

Why am I not surprised that Chavez is supporting the Syrian government by sending arms to fight the insurgents? One anti-Semitic dictator deserves another. I would like to see Oliver Stone’s comment about his beloved Chavez proudly supporting
the bloodshed in Syria.

rosita says:

menos mal q llego hugo, ya se estaban apoderando del pais entero, remember palestina: sionistas ladrones y asesinos!

Samir Halabi says:

Why wasn’t there issued a fatwa on Chavez the Jew-hater’s head.
Although elected as the winner once again in the Venezuelan national elections. I hope that he will be fatwad in the not too distant future.

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Venezuela’s Dispossessed

Half of Venezuela’s Jewish community fled under Hugo Chávez, who died this week. Will the other half follow?