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Synagogue attacked after hate-speech by Venezuela president

By Adriana Stuijt     Feb 1, 2009 in World
A group of armed men has desecrated a synagogue in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, in what Jewish leaders of the country's 15,000-strong community call the worst attack ever. The sacred Torah was thrown to the ground.
At least 15 unidentified men overpowered two security guards and occupied the building for several hours, spraying graffiti on the walls that read: "We don't want murderers," and "Jews, get out." Nobody in authority tried to stop it. see
Scriptures were damaged and the group called for all Jewish people to be expelled from the country. As much as one-fifth of the Jews of Venezuela have already left the country in 2008 and their schools were forced to close earlier this month out of fears that the children would be attacked. see
Chavez reportedly maintains close ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has intimated that he wants to see Israel eradicated. The Venezuelan leader in turn had upset the Jewish community in 2005 when he said 'the people who killed Christ took over the world's riches'.
Relations have spiraled downhill ever since - tensions have risen especially since Venezuela cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in January 2009 over its rocket attacks against Gaza, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
"Never in the history of Venezuela's Jewish community have we been the target of such an aggression," Elias Farache, the president of Venezuela's Jewish Association, said. "The climate is very tense. We feel threatened, intimidated, attacked," he said.
The Israeli government ordered Venezuela's ambassador in Tel Aviv and his two staff, along with the country's chief diplomat in the occupied West Bank, to leave after Caracas decided to cut off diplomatic relations on January 14. Four days later, Jewish schools were closed and an Israeli flag was burnt on the steps of the Israeli embassy after Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president, labelled Israeli leaders as "genocidal."
Leaders of Venezuela's Jewish community warned in cautiously-worded language that vocal denunciations of Israel by Chavez and the state-run media 'may have' encouraged Friday's attack.
"These declarations permeate society," Abraham Levy, president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations, said. The Jewish community in Caracas was already "tense" and "preoccupied" in the wake of Chavez's decision to expel the Israel ambassador, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Venezuela Pynchas Brener said two weeks ago.
Brener, 77, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post by telephone from New York, said that Jewish schools in Caracas closed out of concern that they would attract anti-Israel demonstrations. Chavez's decision to expel Ambassador Shlomo Cohen came in protest against what he called Israel's "barbaric" military operation in Gaza.
In 2002, Brener, a graduate of Yeshiva University who has been a rabbi in Venezuela for 41 years, supported a coup against Chavez that succeeded in deposing him for less than a week in April 2002. Since then, Brener has been on bad terms with the government.
The rabbi said the latest incident affecting the Jewish community was the decision by the government to expropriate ownership of a large mall that was built by a Jewish businessman outside the San Bernadino district in Caracas.
In addition, twice in recent years Venezuelan military forces have raided the 1,400-pupil Jewish school in the Los Chorros neighborhood, ostensibly looking for arms.
Read only some of the online hate-speech here:
The atmosphere has worsened lately, first and foremost because of Chavez’s increasingly inflammatory talk about Israel and its supporters.
A television program called “The Razor,” broadcast on a state-owned channel, has featured lengthy rants about the presence of Mossad agents allegedly in the country working to unseat the Chavez regime with the support of the United States and opposition forces in Venezuela. The host of the show has also questioned the loyalty of leading Jewish figures to their home country. Despite repeated complaints by CAIV, the authorities have taken no action. see
Long before an attack on the Caracas synagogue in which Torah scrolls were thrown to the floor and "death to the Jews" was painted on synagogue walls, the Jews of Venezuela were feeling threatened.
Rabbi attacked on the Shabbat:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's rhetoric linking the country's Jewish community to Israel's military operation in Gaza caused the Jewish community to step up security a few weeks ago, according to reports.
And on Jan. 24, in a harbinger of the attack six days later, a community rabbi walking on Shabbat was beaten by a group of attackers before being rescued by taxi drivers.
In the Jan. 30 incident, up to 15 people attacked the Tiferet Israel Sephardic synagogue, throwing the scrolls and damaging some, and painting the epithets on the walls. The synagogue's guard was held at gunpoint and was found injured on the floor of the building by members on Saturday morning, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The same synagogue was vandalized last month, as was the Israeli Embassy. A Jewish community center was raided in 2007 in a search for illegal weapons. None were found. And while president Hugo Chavez decried the attack on TV, he also added a strange comment: "It must be asked ... who benefits from these violent incidents. It is not the government, nor the people, nor the revolution..."
Chavez 's speech suggested that political opponents had plotted the attack against the Jews to reduce his chances in a Feb. 15 referendum on a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay in office after his term ends in 2013.
Speak to your Jewish neighbours...
Chavez and local media had however by then already stepped up their criticism of Israel, with Chavez going so far as to tell his fellow citizens that they 'should speak to their Jewish neighbors' in order to make Israel stop its assault on Gaza, a Latin American observer told JTA.
The observer said the attack on the Caracas synagogue "crossed more red lines" than in any other country. He said the scene inside the synagogue could be described as a "pogrom." "The community is scared," the observer said.
On Jan. 6, three days after Israel began its ground assault in Gaza, Chavez expelled Israel's ambassador to Caracas and seven embassy staff members.
That day, Chavez again called on Venezuelan Jews to denounce Israel's operation.
A Palestinian community lives here with us which we adore and love, and there are also Jews that live here who we love as well, but I wish the Jewish community would declare themselves against this barbarism," he said. "Do it. Don’t you strongly denounce any act of persecution and the Holocaust? What do you think we are looking at [in Gaza]? Put your hand on your heart and be fair.”
With the embassy closed, international Jewish organizations working in Venezuela such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress are the Jewish community's only link to some government officials.
"A few days ago we had an emergency meeting with leaders of the Caracas Jewish community, who shared with JDC their grave concerns about the rapidly escalating situation," Steve Schwager, JDC's executive vice president, said in a statement issued to JTA. "In an immediate response, JDC's staff in Latin America stepped up its urgent work with the Jewish community in Venezuela. We increased and intensified our staff presence in Venezuela to assist the community in expediting its readiness in response to the new threatening reality."
Schwager said that the JDC referred the Caracas Jewish leadership to the appropriate defense and advocacy Jewish organizations.
During a meeting last August with leaders of the World Jewish Congress, Chavez promised to condemn “all forms of anti-Semitism,” according to a JTA report. Under Chavez’s rule, however, the Venezuelan Jewish community has declined by about a quarter, according to the WJC. Approximately 9,000 to 14,000 Jews now live in Venezuela.
Chavez reportedly maintains close ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has intimated that he wants to see Israel eradicated. The Venezuelan leader had upset the Jewish community in 2005 when he said the people who killed Christ took over the world's riches. Relations have spiraled downhill ever since.
While American-based international Jewish groups have expressed concern over the attack and blamed Chavez for creating an atmosphere of hate in Venezuela, observers say it is unlikely that their condemnation will have an effect on the Venezuelan president.
They say, however, that if a leader Chavez admired, such as Fidel or Raul Castro of Cuba, called on him to back off of his verbal attacks on the Jewish community, it would have more of an effect.
"The total disrespect of a Jewish house of worship reflects the escalating climate of hostility towards Jews in Venezuela," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement released by the organization.
Harris also said, "There are strong indications that what we are witnessing is a state-sponsored campaign of anti-Semitic persecution, spurred by both Venezuela's alliance with the Iranian regime and the surge of anti-Israel rhetoric during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas."
Harris called on the international community to declare its solidarity with Venezuela's Jewish community.see
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