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(photo credit: (Courtesy))
A delegation of Jewish community leaders from Venezuela arrived here this week as part of a mission intended to explore options for Venezuelan Jews who want to leave the troubled South American country and move to Israel.
The members of the mission, including the 16 community leaders and their partners, met Wednesday with President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem. They discussed issues ranging from Israeli politics to economic concerns. The visitors also told Katsav of the growing unrest in Venezuela and their fears for the future of the 15,000 Jews living there.
The trip was supposed to have been conducted under a low profile following growing friction between Venezuela and the US, as well as an alleged anti-Semitic statement made by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in December.
"The situation in Venezuela is very difficult," said Edwin Villamicar, 24, who moved to Israel in January. "It is a very violent country with many murders, and we have to work very hard to make a little bit of money."
Villamicar said that back home he did not feel connected to the Jewish community and that in Israel it was easier to connect with his Jewish roots and meet other young Jews.
Nathalie Mizrachi, 26, made aliya four years ago, leaving all her close relatives in Venezuela.
"They did not want to leave their lives and their jobs over there," she told The Jerusalem Post. "If something happens and Chavez says they might not be able to leave, then they will get out quickly."
"Venezuelan Jews are not really interested in coming to Israel," she said. "Most of them prefer to go to America, I think it is good that they are now encouraging Jews to come here."
"The situation over there is not good, but not specifically for the Jews, but in general," said Mizrachi. "There are no jobs and it is hard to make a living. Jews are now looking for other options."
"There is not a great feeling of anti-Semitism," she said. "There have been a few anti-Semitic remarks but nothing over the top."
Earlier this week, there were media reports that Chavez was planning to sell his country's fleet of 21 US-made F-16 fighter jets to another country, perhaps Iran. The reports were denied Tuesday by Venezuelan Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia. Previously, the US announced a ban on arms sales to Venezuela.
The visiting group, led by Freddie Pressner, president of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela, visited a Tel Aviv University program for Spanish-speaking students on Wednesday, and on Thursday they will tour Kfar Saba, which has been designated by the Jewish Agency to absorb the growing number of Jews immigrating from Venezuela.
"The city of Kfar Saba is happy to be affiliated with the Venezuelan Jewish community," said Kfar Saba Mayor Yehuda Ben-Hamo, who is scheduled to visit Caracas next week. "I see this initiative as an important Zionist endeavor of which Kfar Saba is very proud." Ben-Hamo said that 25 families have settled in the city in recent months and that more Venezuelan immigrants are scheduled to make Kfar Saba their home this year.
The city offers new Venezuelan immigrants housing assistance, a program where families "adopt" older immigrants, extra assistance for children in the school system, information on work options and a network of immigrant organizations to help ease the transition into Israeli society.
Jewish Agency officials estimate there are around 2,000 Venezuelan Jews living in Israel and that just over 100 Venezuelan Jews arrived here during the past year.
"We expect that number to rise," one official told the Post.
In January, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center accused Chavez of making anti-Semitic comments during a Christmas Eve speech. The Wiesenthal Center even wrote to Chavez demanding he apologize for what it said was a negative reference to Jews.
At the time, The Forward reported that Venezuelan Jewish leaders had defended their president and criticized the Wiesenthal Center.
"You have interfered in the political status, in the security, and in the well-being of our community. You have acted on your own, without consulting us, on issues that you don't know or understand," they wrote in a letter.
AP contributed to this report.