When Nathalie Mizrahi left Israel to visit her hometown in Venezuela, she found something entirely new: widespread anti-Semitism.
Rhetoric attacking Israel abounded in public demonstrations and the media. On walls she saw scrawled "Death to the Jews!" "It's disturbing, because it didn't use to be like this at all," said the 26-year-old Hebrew University student.
Before she made aliya four years ago, "I had absolutely no problem saying I'm Jewish. Now I wouldn't say it so openly."
Mizrahi attributed the rise in anti-Semitism to the leadership of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, as did the Anti-Defamation League in a new report chronicling recent incidents of anti-Semitism.
"It's coming from the top. There's an atmosphere created by the leadership that creates an environment of permissiveness for anti-Semitism to be expressed," said Michael Salberg, the ADL's director of international affairs. "In the past, [anti-Jewish] comments would be condemned. In the course of the last year... there were no condemnations, and in a sense that provides a societal green light."
Salberg asserted that Chavez was looking to "raise his profile in the world" and that "Israel and the Jewish people are a ready-made target."
In addition, the report connected Venezuela's relationship with the Arab-dominated Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Chavez's "hatred of Western capitalism" with the rising anti-Semitism.
Mizrahi also accused the populist Chavez of promoting hatred between different groups, such as the poor and the rich, with Jews associated with the latter group.
She described Venezuela's 25,000 Jews as "a strong community," but noted that local leaders have enhanced security recently out of concern of changes in the local climate towards the population.
Salberg noted that the instances of physical anti-Semitic attacks are "minimal," but warned that the atmosphere could lead to the use of violence.
He said he couldn't quantify the rise in anti-Jewish activity, as the report relied on anecdotal evidence. But it related several cases of demonization of Israel and Jews in the last few months.
Examples included the vandalizing of Jewish buildings in Caracas, including those of the Israelite Association of Venezuela and the Hebraica community center, on at least four recent occasions. Language throughout the recent war in Lebanon was hostile toward Israel, for instance, posters at a protest declaring that "Israel equals Terrorism" and referring to "Auschwitz in Palestine."
And Chavez himself was quoted as making statements such as: "Israel was committing a genocide in Lebanon and its leaders should be held responsible and should be judged by an international tribunal... The Israelis criticize Hitler but have done something worse."