This past week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died of a massive heart attack, while also suffering from an undisclosed form of cancer. Chavez was just weeks into his fourth term as president, 14 years overall.
Following my recent trip to Cuba, and knowing the close alliance between Venezuela and that country (including being where Chavez was receiving treatment), I thought I would share about the challenges for the Jewish community in Venezuela.
Ninety percent (roughly 9,000) of Venezuela’s Jews live in Caracas. The community has a Jewish school for children ages 4 to 18 and a Jewish Community Center called Hebraica located on the same campus. They have a home for the elderly and a network of social services operated by the community. In addition, there are 18 synagogues and a community services building called Bet Am where many of the traditional Jewish organizations are housed. There are growing needs for financial aid (food, medicine, education), eldercare support, and security for every Jewish institution. The challenge today, with a shrinking population (especially among the wealthy) is that there are too many institutions and buildings and the community is now downsizing (selling assets) to adjust to its changing demographics.
Similar to the effect of the regime change in Cuba in 1959, Jews have left Venezuela in large numbers over the past 14 years. In 1999, when Chavez was elected, there were more than 20,000 Jews – today around 9,000. Chavez never openly threatened the Jews, yet his frequent anti-Israel messages kept them continually on edge. Although the Jewish community felt an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, it was the government’s nationalization of private companies and concerns about economic security that drove many away.
The first signs of trouble under Chavez came during the years of the second intifada, when the government sponsored rallies in support of the Palestinian cause with a strong anti-Israel message. In fact, in May 2004 after a rally, the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas was attacked. And later that year, security forces carried out an armed raid on a Jewish school in Caracas.
Venezuela’s final break with Israel came in 2009, during the three-week Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began in late December 2008. Chavez severed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians. Chavez also insisted that the Jews of Venezuela rebuke Israel for its actions.
As Chavez continued his rule, greater concerns developed about the physical safety of the Venezuelan Jewish community. I have heard multiple accounts about plans developed by outside Jewish organizations and the local Jewish community for the possible evacuation of the country’s Jewish community should the need arise. The plan still exists.
Despite the governmental crisis, the Jewish community in Venezuela continues to push forward each day. We should be proud that our partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution are “on the ground.” We will all wait and see what happens next.
Over a month has passed since the Israeli elections were held, but no government has been formed. In accordance with Israeli law, President Shimon Peres initially consulted with all of the parties. Following those conversations, Peres determined that the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had the best chance of building a new government by forming a coalition of at least 61 members.
As the law dictates, Peres gave Netanyahu one month to form a government. This period expired last Saturday night, and Netanyahu then sought - and received – a further two weeks to complete the task. No further extensions are allowed. If Netanyahu does not manage to form a government by March 16, Peres can ask a different member of Knesset to attempt the task (an unlikely scenario). Failing this, new elections would be called.
News reports from Israel say that a bloc of three parties – Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Naftali Bennett’s The Jewish Home, and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima – which together constitute 33 seats, are hoping to make Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu commit to certain policies and portfolio assignments. Apparently, if these three parties receive two of the top-tier portfolios, Foreign Minister and Finance Minister, they will support Prime Minister Netanyahu for a full, four-year term.
We will all watch as Netanyahu works hard to form a coalition in the coming days, especially with the upcoming visit of President Obama.
Currently, the 8th grade class at the Portland Jewish Academy is in Israel and having a wonderful time. It is so much fun to see their photos and to follow their trip. You, too, can check them out on their blog.
This past week, close to 13,000 people gathered at AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference in Washington, DC. At the conference, a Sunday night banquet honored outstanding student activists from campuses across the country. Mazel tov to Talia Davis, a sophomore and campus liaison for QuackPAC at the University of Oregon, who was one of the recipients. Speaking on behalf of her peers, she applauded her organization for passing the first student senate resolution nationwide condemning a nuclear Iran. Davis said, “Although Israel activism shouldn’t exist around winning an award, for my cadre it has definitely motivated us to continue to improve our student body relations.”
Speaking of college students, if you know of students in need of additional scholarship aid, you should be aware of The Sussman Fund. This restricted endowment fund of the Jewish Federation was established in 1981 by Lillian and Gilbert Sussman to provide grants to Jewish students from the Metro Portland area toward their higher education. In keeping with the founder’s wishes students pursuing undergraduate studies in an accredited college or university in the United States are encouraged to apply for grants from this fund. Grants are made in late June or early July in order to plan for the coming year. Traditionally award amounts have not exceeded $1000.
For more details click here. The application deadline is May 15, 2013.