Editor's Notes: When Jewish communities lose their voices

The world today includes too many Venezuelas and potential Venezuelas - countries where Jews are already in crisis or on the brink.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
A few weeks ago, on the eve of a national referendum through which Venezuela's dictatorial President Hugo Chavez narrowly failed to secure his indefinite re-election, federal police raided the main Jewish social club in Caracas, La Hebraica. It was a seemingly negligible incident, and one that attracted only the briefest media attention: As hundreds of local Jews were enjoying a wedding party at the nearby Union Israelita Synagogue, the cops broke through the gate and proceeded to search the premises, absurdly, for weapons and explosives. They left, needless to say, empty-handed. Two years ago, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recalled in its report on the raid, the police had done much the same thing at a Jewish school in the capital - entering the premises in a purported search for arms that turned up nothing. In both cases, the unsubtle message was that Venezuela's Jews are being watched carefully by a regime whose leader meets regularly with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and who has declared that the "descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ" have "taken possession of all the wealth in the world." It is not pleasant being Jewish in Venezuela today. I recently watched a video of footage from a Venezuelan TV station in which a Chavez acolyte accused Jewish leaders of fomenting, leading and financing anti-government student protests and other conspiracies. "We have to be very careful about what is going on in Venezuela," the speaker declared ominously. "Those Jewish businessmen who are not involved in the conspiracy must say so." He identified two rabbis by name, and also named a wealthy Jewish family at the heart of the purported plotting. "I am not going to be blamed for being an anti-Semite," he said... as he spouted his anti-Semitism. Visiting Israel this week, a former Venezuelan Jew who now lives in Miami told me flatly that "Chavez and his government do not like Jews," and that the community has not fled en masse only "for the same reason the Jews didn't leave Germany: denial." An Israeli friend, a veteran immigration official and activist, recalled the bitterly sad experience he'd had on his last visit to the country, when he joined a protest march to the Iranian Embassy in Caracas by members of the Jewish community, rallying against Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial. The Jews felt a keen imperative to protest, he said, but they were also terrified to do so. And so the march, at the organizers' insistence, was held in silence - "literally, a community that has lost its voice." Some of Venezuela's Jewish leaders argue that things are not so bad - they can travel freely, they don't feel threatened (police raids notwithstanding) and they've found a working relationship with Chavez. A community that numbered 30,000 at its height in the '60s and '70s has gradually declined - to 14,000 according to some estimates, just 9,000 according to others - but there's been no mass panicked exodus. Many Venezuelan Jews have relocated to Miami. Not so many have come to Israel. IN A week that saw the publication of statistics suggesting that as many people may be leaving this country as are arriving to make their homes here, and amid an unfortunately erroneous sense that the era of crisis aliya is over, the failure to encourage Venezuela's community to move here in larger numbers is a telling case study in what has gone wrong. The failure is certainly not Israel's alone. The Jews of Venezuela are trapped, as all too often in threatened Jewish communities throughout history, by a degree of willful blindness to their deteriorating surroundings, by inertia, by concerns about the challenges - economic, linguistic, social - of uprooting themselves in favor of the Jewish homeland. And Israel truly has attempted to smooth their path here. A couple of years ago, early in Ze'ev Boim's short tenure as minister of immigrant absorption, a full-scale project was mapped out to bring at least some of Venezuela's Jews to Israel. The disinclination of the wealthier Jews to relocate was recognized in Jerusalem. It is an inertia that was emphatically voiced in the immediate aftermath of Chavez's referendum defeat, when Roberto Kulka Kohn told a reporter from the JTA that "the problem with us [Jews] in Venezuela is that you could never live like this anywhere else." Kohn, the well-heeled owner of a Caracas textile plant, went on: "Nobody here really wants to go to Israel. You would need to have 10 times as much money to live this way." But the thinking here was that the poorer Jews - notably several hundred living in truly impoverished conditions - could be attracted. The Kfar Saba municipality was selected as their potential refuge. Initial accommodation was made available, a package of preferential financial benefits devised, and aliya emissaries dispatched. The result was unimpressive, to put it mildly. The campaign attracted a dismally small number of immigrants. No matter how dire their economic situation and how bleak the political future, even the unhappiest of Venezuela's Jews apparently preferred to stick with the devil they knew. ONE OF the less noticed casualties of disgraced president Moshe Katsav's ignominious exit from Beit Hanassi was the project he was energetically supporting to establish some kind of Israel-based Diaspora parliament, a forum to enable better communication between Israel and the global Jewish community and thus to galvanize more efficient policies for their mutual benefit. Last week, as The Jerusalem Post exclusively reported, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instituted a new task force designed to remake the Israeli-Diaspora relationship - to move away from the old paradigm of a cash-strapped Israel perpetually cap-in-hand to Diaspora philanthropy. The very fact that the spurned Venezuelan Jewish aliya rescue plan did not even set its sights on the higher echelons of that community, but sought primarily the most helpless, underlines both Israel's own low opinion of what it has to offer, and an awareness of where Israel's reputation stands among all but the most ideologically motivated potential immigrants. What is most damning about that perception is how widely it differs from the reality of our country. With all its challenges, Israel remains an insistent beacon of democratic values. It is thriving economically (on hi-tech brainpower) and culturally (Oscar nominations et al). And in this globalized world, it is thoroughly capable of constituting the geographical base for the most ambitious of entrepreneurs in every field. The Diaspora today includes all-too many Venezuelas and potential Venezuelas - countries where the Jewish communities are already in crisis or on the brink, where Jews close their eyes to the scale of the threat even as they lose their voices, and where they invoke the greater economic hardships they fear they would face if they left. For their sakes, and for our own sakes here in Israel, Olmert's effort to revitalize the Israeli-Diaspora relationship must not become yet another ballyhooed but ultimately irrelevant short-term political initiative. Aliya may be only one of many answers that serious, two-way Israeli-Diaspora interaction may offer to the various challenges facing Jews around the world. But there can be no doubting the need for the deepened partnership. Properly rebuilding that bridge is an urgent imperative. And there is simply no excuse in this day and age for a strategic failure to communicate from Jerusalem to the four corners of the world and back - to update perceptions, to share information and the benefits of experience, and thus to act effectively to safeguard the global Jewish nation. INCIDENTALLY, THE same veteran Israeli official and activist who told me about the silent anti-Ahmadinejad demonstration in Caracas two years ago also told me of a meeting he happened to attend 30 years ago, hosted here by prime minister Menachem Begin. It was summer 1978 and Begin was meeting with a group of Jewish leaders from Iran, including Habib Elghanian, the honorary leader of the community, urging them to lead their people to Israel. The Islamists were on the rise, Begin warned them. The Shah could be overthrown. Their very safety required them to leave. The Iranian Jews waved Begin's concerns away, this veteran recalled. They told him the Shah would be there forever. The Jews would be fine. What they really needed was better Jewish education. Though frustrated by what he saw as their shortsightedness, Begin agreed to change the subject to education. Discussion turned to how many teachers should be dispatched. At first there was talk of eight or more, but the Iranian guests (implausibly) pleaded poverty, telling Begin the community couldn't afford to fund anything like that number. Ultimately, therefore, it was agreed that two educators would come from Israel to Iran - with Israel footing three quarters of the bill, and the Iranian community the remaining quarter. Early 1979, of course, saw the Shah flee and the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. On March 16, Elghanian was arrested. Tried by an Islamic revolutionary tribunal on charges that included "contacts with Israel and Zionism" and "friendship with the enemies of God," he was sentenced to death. He was executed two months later. "We are uneasy," an anonymous Jewish intellectual in Teheran told Time magazine's reporter that week in May 1979, "but there is no room for panic."