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South Florida's Venezuelan Jews Recall Bitter Anti-Semitism Under Chavez

Christine DiMattei

Inside Jose Moreno's Judaica shop in Aventura, there's an entire wall lined with Hebrew books.  Other shelves hold glistening menorahs and there's a rack filled with special Passover games and toys for children.

An elderly customer enters the shop wearing a yarmulke and Moreno greets him in Spanish.

Moreno, 71, was raised in Venezuela and for many years owned a similar store in Caracas.

"Most of the Jewish people had good businesses and [a] good living standard,” Moreno said.  “We had a lot of synagogues, temples, schools.”

But then Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 on a wave of populist outrage against the establishment.

"Chavez made it very clear to the Venezuelan people that we (Jews) are the people that make all the trouble in this world,” Moreno said. “That we are the people that hold all the money of this world."

Moreno is among thousands of Jews who left Venezuela for South Florida in the last 15 years.  Members of Venezuela's dwindling Jewish population say anti-Semitism in the South American country reached a fever pitch under the presidency of Hugo Chavez, who succumbed to cancer two weeks ago.

Under Chavez, the country's state-run media was allowed to carry anti-Semitic messages.  Chavez also broke diplomatic ties with Israel and fostered close relations with Iran.  Over the last few years, synagogue vandalism has become commonplace and wealthy Jews are reportedly being targeted for kidnappings.

Moreno says he received word just a few weeks ago that an old friend from high school, a wheelchair-bound woman, was kidnapped and held for ransom.

But now, Moreno and other Venezuelan Jews living in South Florida are wondering if things will get any better in a post-Chavez world.

Before Chavez was elected, there were roughly 20,000 Jews living in Venezuela.  Today, there are less than 10,000.  But now that the government is in transition, Jewish rights advocates worldwide are closely monitoring the country’s political situation.

Henrique Capriles, the Roman Catholic grandson of Holocaust survivors, recently announced his candidacy for Venezuelan president.  In next month's elections, he will run against Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor.

Juan Dircie, Associate Director of the American Jewish Committee's Latino and Latin American Institute in Miami, says conditions for Jews still living in Venezuela would improve, if only the country would re-establish ties with Israel.

“I believe that time might come to re-engage Venezuela and Israel in a much more solid relationship for the benefit of both countries,” Dircie said.

In the meantime, the World Jewish Congress says its members have held several meetings with Maduro, who vowed that state-sponsored anti-Semitism in Venezuela would not be tolerated.

Hugo Chavez made a similar pledge in 2008.

Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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