(photo credit: AP)
The Jewish community in Caracas is "tense" and "preoccupied" in the wake of President Hugo Chavez's decision to expel the Israel ambassador, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Venezuela Pynchas Brener said on Thursday.
"This government has been very friendly with Iran," Brener said. "And many Venezuelans make no distinction between Jews and Israelis - maybe they are right."
Brener, 77, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post by telephone from New York, said that Jewish schools in Caracas closed for few days out of concern that they would attract anti-Israel demonstrations.
Chavez's decision to expel Ambassador Shlomo Cohen came in protest against what he called Israel's "barbaric" military operation in Gaza.
In 2002, Brener, a graduate of Yeshiva University who has been a rabbi in Venezuela for 41 years, supported a coup against Chavez that succeeded in deposing him for less than a week in April 2002.
Since then, Brener has been on bad terms with the government.
The rabbi said the latest incident affecting the Jewish community was the decision by the government to expropriate ownership of a large mall that was built by a Jewish businessman outside the San Bernadino district in Caracas.
In addition, twice in recent years Venezuelan military forces have raided the 1,400-pupil Jewish school in the Los Chorros neighborhood, ostensibly looking for arms.
But the most important development, which could have a major impact on the future of the country, is a referendum slated for next month.
Venezuelans will be asked to approve a measure that would allow Chavez and other politicians to be reelected indefinitely.
Chavez has been president since 1998.
"If that referendum passes I expect a lot of Jews will leave Venezuela, because it would mean Chavez is here to stay," the rabbi said.
Shmuel Kornblit, Bnei Akiva's Buenos Aires-based regional director for Latin America, said that in addition to the diplomatic staff, Bnei Akiva's emissary to Venezuela, Yoav Weiner, and his wife, Maya, a Jewish Agency emissary were forced to leave.
"This move does not bode well for Jewish education in Venezuela," Kornblit said by by telephone from Argentina.
"Jewish education in South America depends on outside educators. Now with the diplomatic mission forced to leave it will be very difficult to convince educators to come to Venezuela," he said.
Kornblit explained that for security reasons the Weiners could not remain in Caracas. He added that Israelis who lacked non-Israeli passports had a difficult time obtaining visas to visit Venezuela.
"There is a strong anti-Israel sentiment in Venezuela, not so much anti-Semitism more anti-Zionism. That's why Haredim have fewer problems there."
Over the past decade thousands of Jews left Venezuela for Miami, Madrid and other cities, he said.
The Jewish community, like other affluent Venezuelan communities, was deeply concerned about Chavez's Marxist economic policies, he said.
"People are afraid he is going to nationalize the economy and take possession of privately owned factories and businesses. I think that concerns them more than anti-Semitic-related violence," Kornblit said.