CARACAS (JTA) -- The floor of the small synagogue in the center of Coro, the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Venezuela, is covered in a thick layer of sand intended to recall the Children of Israel's time in the Sinai Desert.
It is also, however, a symbol of the transience of Jewish settlement in South America.
Jewish settlers arrived in Coro, a small town in western Venezuela that was the county's first capital, from Curacao in 1827. In 1855, nearly the entire community left after a mob ransacked Jewish homes and shops.
Venezuelan Jews say that was the last time anti-Semitism flared up in the country. But in the past few years a community that had considered itself among the most well-established in South America has lost up to one-fifth of its members, prompted by an increasingly hostile environment under the government of President Hugo Chavez, a radical leftist who has been in power since 1999.
"People have left, but ther e hasn't been a massive exodus as some people have said," said Jacqueline Goldberg, editor of Nuevo Mundo Israelita, the community's weekly newspaper.
Goldberg was referring to rumors in Caracas that up to half of the city's Jews had moved out of Venezuela since Chavez took power.
Accurate figures are hard to come by, but estimates suggest the community now numbers between 15,000 and 20,000. The vast majority are based in the capital, with small communities in the cities of Valencia and Maracaibo, and on the Caribbean island of Margarita.
A principal factor keeping them in Venezuela is quality of life. The community is mostly middle and upper class, and while it has suffered from living under a regime whose president routinely accuses the wealthy of undermining his "21st century socialist revolution," the government's policy platform also allows business opportunities.
"When you have a president who's massively expanding public spe nding, there's a lot of money to be made," said a Jewish businessman who asked not to be named. "A lot of Jews are involved in construction, which is booming, what with the government building more schools, hospitals, housing and roads."
Another economic reason not to leave: The Chavez government introduced foreign exchange controls in 2003, making it difficult for Venezuelans to take their wealth out of the country.
Another attraction is the strength and cohesion of the community. Given its small size, the Jewish infrastructure in Caracas is impressive: There are five synagogues, and the community carries out its own kosher slaughter. The centerpiece is the Club Hebraica, a large complex in Los Chorros, an upmarket residential neighborhood in the eastern part of the city.
The Hebraica comprises a well-equipped Jewish school and a sports and social club with a large swimming pool; tennis, basketball and squash courts; soccer pitches; and even a bowling alley.
Hebraica"'s tranquility feels a world away from the social and economic revolution gripping Venezuela, and symbolizes how the Caracas Jewish community has protected itself from some effects of that upheaval.
"If you're not involved in politics, you don't really feel the regime," said Rabbi Pynchas Brener, head of the Ashkenazi community.
Nevertheless, Venezuelan Jews feel a tangible discomfort.
"We've never had anti-Semitism here in Caracas, so this situation is something new," community member Moises Nessim said. "I would say there is worry and concern, but not yet fear – more uncertainty about what's going to happen."
Although Chavez – a former army officer and coup leader known for his fiery anti-American rhetoric – has never been much favored by Venezuelan Jews, relations between his government and the community started to deteriorate in earnest in 2004.
In November of that year the Club Hebraica was raided by police under a search warrant issued by a local pro-Chavez judge. The warrant, which came after the murder of public prosecutor Danilo Anderson, suggested that the Hebraica was being used to store weapons.
That accusation apparently sprung from rumors that Anderson had been killed with equipment from Israel"'s Mossad spy agency. After searching the school and the club, police left empty-handed.
Incredulous that authorities might think the Jewish community was storing weapons in its school, some observers concluded that the raid really was intended to intimidate the community.
"Chavez must have known about" the raid, one community member said.
"In this society, nothing happens without his permission," this member said. "There was a feeling that the government wanted to send a sign that no group was immune from its control."
The situation deteriorated further a month later, when Chavez said in a speech that "the descendants of those who killed Christ" and "the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here" had "taken possession of all the wealth in the world."
Though the Christ-killer comment clearly appeared anti-Semitic, some commentators said Chavez actually was referring to global capitalism. Indeed, when Jewish leaders soon afterward met with the president at Miraflores Palace, his official residence, he assured them that he had not been referring to the Jewish community.
That meeting in January 2006 brokered an uneasy peace, but the official reaction to Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last year unleashed what Freddy Pressner, head of CAIV, the Jewish community"'s umbrella organization, calls "an explosion of anti-Semitism in Venezuela."
Chavez repeatedly compared Israel's behavior to that of the Nazis, a stance that locals say encouraged a wave of similar slanders. Sammy Eppel, a Jewish journalist in Caracas, catalogued a host of violently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic writing and cartoons in the local government and pro-government media.
In one article, which appeared last September in Diario de Caracas, a pro-government newspaper, journalist Tarek Muci Nasir wrote of the "Jewish race" that "the only resource they have left to stay united is to cause wars and genocide."
A cartoon that ran last year in Diario VEA, a state-owned newspaper, depicted Hitler saying, "How they've learned from me, these Israelis!"
One worrying trend is the extent to which these sentiments appear to be approved and encouraged by the government. The Ministry of Information last year organized a demonstration outside the main Sephardi synagogue in Caracas, an act that Pressner called "insensitive and imprudent."
After the demonstration, the wall outside the synagogue was daubed with "Jews, killers – leave" and "Zionist baby-killers." At other times, graffitti has appeared there with slogans such as "Jews go home" and "Here are the murderers of the Palestinians."
A more worrying development was the appearance of a Venezuela-based Web site claiming to be the local branch of Hezbollah. The site warned, "Hizbolla Latin America is analyzing placing explosives against a U.S. ally in Latin America. This would indicate the launch of Hizbolla Latin America."
Another concern is over Chavez's increasingly close economic and political ties to Iran. As the world has condemned Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Venezuela has emerged as one of Iran's few solid allies in the world.
At the same time, Chavez effectively cut all diplomatic ties with Israel last year by withdrawing his charge d'affaires. He had recalled his ambassador three years earlier.
Pressner said Chavez's comments could trigger more extreme activists to feel they"'re acting with his blessing.
"We fear what he has sowed," he said. "W e fear what could happen if there is another conflict. If there were a conflict with Iran, for example, we don't know what the consequences would be for our community."
Nevertheless, most Jews in Caracas do not feel that anti-Israel sentiment will provoke physical attacks.
"They're not burning synagogues or persecuting people on the streets, but there is officially sanctioned anti-Semitism," Eppel said. "The Venezuelan people aren't anti-Semitic. This is being directed by a few activists."
A more immediate concern is over the government's plans for education. Chavez's stated aim is to spread "21st century socialist values" via the school system – and to extend this through private schools as well. While it"'s not clear how this would work, many Jews find the proposal troubling.
"Their education plan is a big worry," said Guillermo Schmidmajer, whose daughter teaches Hebrew at the Jewish school. "Chavez is putting his brother in cha rge of education reform, and he might base it on the model in Cuba, where he was a student."
On a more positive note, the community can take heart not only from its own unity but from the solidarity and support it has received from across Latin America and the world. Last weekend, CAIV celebrated its 40th anniversary in a spirit of hopefulness and achievement.
To coincide with CAIV's anniversary, the Latin American Jewish Congress held a two-day meeting in Caracas attended by some 70 Jewish leaders from Latin America, the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel.
The highlight of the weekend was a commemoration at the Hebraica attended by some 1,200 people featuring Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, first lady of Argentina and a senator there, as the keynote speaker.
In what seemed to be a swipe at Chavez, she told the meeting, "Each and every one of us who has the responsibility of being part of an elected institution in Latin Ameri ca should not only raise our voices but act in a concrete way against any sign or glimpse of anti-Semitism."
The audience responded with spontaneous, wild applause. Fernandez is widely expected to launch a bid to succeed her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in Argentina's presidential elections in October.
At a time of great concern over the actions and attitudes of its own president, the Venezuelan Jewish community is happy to have such influential friends.
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