If someone were to rank the most embattled Jewish communities in the world today, the Jewish community of Venezuela would certainly be high on that list. Over the past decade the community has shrunk by half its size, according to a report from Gil Shefler published in the Jerusalem Post.
“Ten years ago we had about 18,000 members,” said Salomon Cohen. “Now we have about 9,500.”
Cohen, head of the Confederacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), an umbrella group representing the country’s Jewish community, spoke with The Jerusalem Post Tuesday on the sidelines of the World Jewish Congress.
The 55-year-old leader of the Jewish community cited three main causes for the community’s current state.
“First, the economy is not going like it was 10 years before,” he said.
“Second, security in general is very, very bad. We have too many killers in Venezuela”.
Indeed, violent crime is a major issue plaguing Venezuela. According to recent reports the number of civilian deaths in Venezuela in 2009 was approximately 19,000, almost three times higher than that in Iraq.
The third factor cited by Cohen was anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish community.
“We had about 200 attacks on the community,” Cohen said. “When they want to speak about Venezuela negatively they call it the ‘Israel of South America,’ for instance.”
Part of the problem is that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a strong ally of Iran, an avowed enemy of Israel. Chavez is a strong critic of Israeli policy and severed ties with Jerusalem in 2009.
Anti-Israel sentiment is widespread and supported by the state. In the halftime of the recent soccer World Cup final, local television aired an ad which showed soccer players wearing jerseys with Israel and Zionist emblazoned on them on a soccer pitch with Palestinian women and children.
“This is not a game, this is a massacre,” the ad declared.
Despite the differences of opinion, Cohen said it was important to remain engaged in dialogue with the government.
“We have direct communication with several government ministers and those in charge of providing security,” he said. “These lines of communication are well established, although we would like to have more”.