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Venezuela

VENEZUELA (Span. República Bolivariana de Venezuela), republic in northern South America; general population: 24,000,000; Jewish population (2005), est. 15,500 (mainly in the cities of *Caracas, Valencia, Maracay, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, San Cristóbal, and the Margarita Island).

Colonial Period

Venezuela was discovered by Columbus on his third voyage in 1498, when Columbus, after sailing round the island of Trinidad entered the Gulf of Paria and landed on the mainland without realizing that he was setting foot for the first time on the South American continent. Having observed the huge and powerful currents of fresh water flowing into the gulf, Columbus believed he was at the mouth of one of the four rivers of paradise and, fascinated by the pearl ornaments of the native population, concluded that he was at the doorstep of the Garden of Eden described in Genesis. He was really on the eastern coast of what is now Venezuela.

EARLY JEWISH PRESENCE

Three streams flowing from the same Iberian source shaped the character of the initial Jewish presence in Venezuela: that of Portuguese, Italian, and Dutch Sephardim.

Even though many Portuguese arrived in Venezuela in the years after its discovery and at that time Portuguese was considered a synonym for *Crypto-Jew, contrary to what happened in other lands of South America most of those who came to Venezuela were not of Jewish origin. Only the names of a few of those who arrived and lived in Caracas and Maracaibo between 1642 and 1649 have remained registered. Therefore, their presence must have been very limited. It is only in 1693 that we find the first Jewish establishment in Venezuelan territory, when a group of Leghorn Jews (Italians), who had fled from *Recife (Brazil) to *Suriname, and from there moved to *Curaçao, settled in an inlet neighboring Tucacas, a village on the western coast of the country. Unfortunately, this small community, which was known under the name of Santa Irmandade (Holy Fraternity), also disappeared leaving no traces or documents, not even a cemetery or any other mark. One has to wonder if the only way to survive in the Spanish dominions was to cover one's tracks so as not to be discovered or persecuted by the Inquisition. Yet, the actions of the Inquisition in Venezuela were more sporadic and picturesque than frightening. The judges and commissioners who were sent by Spain lacked jurisdiction and, as a result, their jobs consisted only of reporting acts that had been denounced and sending the suits along to Cartagena de Indias. In 1821 the government of Venezuela definitively abolished the Inquisition, decreeing that it was extinguished and that it never would be reestablished.

18TH CENTURY

After these brief incursions of Portuguese and Italian Jews, it fell upon Sephardi Dutch to provide leadership in the years that followed. At the beginning of the 18th century the economic conditions in Venezuela and the proximity of islands belonging to the Netherlands gave rise to a commerce which would result in a significant Jewish presence in Venezuela. Due to the monopoly imposed on the colonies

Jewish communities in Venezuela, 2005. Jewish communities in Venezuela, 2005.

by the Spanish government, foreign ships bearing illegal merchandise were rife along the Venezuelan coasts. Dutch schooners were seen very frequently and smuggling flourished between Tucacas and Curaçao. Dutch Jews, attracted by the possibility of trade between the Antilles and the continent, participated extensively in the large-scale interchange which evolved under the Dutch flag. A major factor in the boom that ensued was due to the compliance of the Dutch, the very authorities appointed by the Spanish Crown, the Spanish clergy, and even the slaves. At this time, Tucacas was the most active port that sprung up along the west coast and the largest market for products from overseas. From there cocoa, tobacco, indigo and hides were shipped and food, liquors, clothing, and metals received and an active slave trade developed. This commerce between the mainland and the Netherlands Islands spurred the insistent permanence of a small colony of Jews in Tucacas from 1708. There, despite the attacks and devastation they suffered periodically by the Spanish mayors in order to suppress smuggling, they erected 17 houses and the first synagogue on Venezuelan territory and stayed until 1720 when the synagogue and the homesteads were burned and destroyed by Pedro José de Olavarriaga and the inhabitants were obliged to move away.

Even though the only extant reference to this first synagogue had been a single communication (now lost) sent in 1720 by this congregation to the parnassim of Curaçao, the existence of the synagogue was subsequently confirmed when in the files of the West India Company in The Hague was found a letter sent in 1737 by one of the parnassim to his colleagues in Amsterdam, where he related that "despite Governor van Collen's hostilities toward the Jews, he recognized the significance of their commercial dealings with Venezuela where, according to him, they had incensed the Spanish by erecting a synagogue on the coast near Caracas."

In spite of the intense trading activities developed by the Jews along the Venezuelan coasts, the 18th century did not favor their permanent settlement in Venezuela. The ban on foreign and Jewish establishments in the Spanish colonies was widely enforced. With the exception of a few known cases, any dealings which were not purely commercial were strictly limited.

Initial Period of Independence

A Spanish colony for more than 300 years, Venezuela became one of the first Spanish South American colonies to declare its independence in the early 19th century. Since becoming a sovereign nation, Venezuela has undergone periodic episodes of civil conflict and dictatorship. Much of Venezuela's 19th- and early 20th-century history was characterized by periods of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence, with the military exerting a strong influence over politics.

19TH CENTURY

The year 1811 is that of the Venezuelan Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the Spanish forces confronted the patriots inflicting upon them great losses. Simón Bolívar, forced to flee to Curaçao, received there the enthusiastic support of Mordechai Ricardo (in commemoration of this event, the government of Venezuela issued a set of stamps in 1989). The Sephardim of Curaçao saw in Bolívar a hero who, inspired by ideals of equality, with no distinction of race or religion, would fight for the separation of Venezuela from the Spanish Crown. In so doing, he would re-open the doors of the Hispanic world to them. With the onset of the War of Independence, the Dutch Jews were the first to provide aid to the young republic, participating in the war effort by means of financial support. Benjamin and Samuel Henríquez were active officials in the army, and Juan Bartolomé de Sola participated in the famous Battle of Carabobo.

Between 1819 and 1825 many Jews abandoned the island of Curaçao and relocated in various regions of Venezuela and, while some of them established themselves in Puerto Cabello, Maracaibo, Barcelona, Valencia, and Caracas, most of them chose to settle in Coro, where their coreligionists had been living since as early as 1779. There, they began to demonstrate the characteristics which would distinguish them: a unitary spirit, hard work, and an intellectual ability hardly seen in this territory in those days. Besides these skills, the Jews who arrived in Coro carried with them the baggage of religious knowledge and Sephardi traditions that had been cultivated in Curaçao and which they wanted to preserve in their new homes. With this group, a fruitful period of planting roots began. This historical period started in 1829 with Joseph Curiel, and it was the origin of the Jewish social, political, cultural, and economic integration that spread through all of Venezuela. From that time on, Coro has been considered the cradle of the Venezuelan Jewish community.

Since the arrival of Jews in Coro, many of them made important contributions to the economy, science, and culture of the region. Prominent are the names of Joseph Curiel, dedicated to the cause of public health; David Curiel, who contributed largely to pharmaceutical science; his son José David Curiel, president of the Supreme Court of the State; and the important poets Elías David Curiel and Salomón López Fonseca; other residents, such as members of the Jesurun, Senior, Maduro, Capriles, Valencia, Pereira, de Sola, Henríquez, Hoheb, Abenatar, and Salcedo families were outstanding businessmen, doctors, and politicians. But, although the newcomers celebrated religious services in some houses, had a mohel and practiced circumcision, celebrated marriages according to the Jewish rite and buried their dead in the Jewish cemetery, they could not be termed as Jewish practitioners. We have to remember that in Venezuela the freedom of religion was accorded in 1834. With the passage of time and although separated by only a thin strip of ocean from the center of Jewish life that was Curaçao, the adherence to the ancestral tradition diminished. These Jews, and at a later date those of the younger generations who were born in the country, soon assimilated into Venezuelan culture.

By the middle of the 1860s, new forms of political relations and business began to develop in Venezuela. The Jews and the people from Curaçao who had settled in Venezuela understood the needs of the country. Given the proportion of the population they represented, they contributed a larger than expected share to the modernization efforts. The trading company of Jacobo Abraham Jesurum & Zoom expanded the commerce between La Guaira and Curaçao. In 1865 Jesurum established a shipping line between Curaçao, La Guaira, Puerto Cabello, St. Thomas, and Europe and signed a contract to construct the eastern railroad and to issue postage stamps for the mail service he provided. Jacobo Abraham Jesurum made several loans to the government, guaranteed by the revenues of the Coro customs office. In 1879, President Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who had cultivated in France the friendship of the banker Isaac Pereire, signed a contract with a son of Isaac to develop natural resources and several enterprises in Venezuela. By the last quarter of the century, a group of industrial managers with a modern mentality and contacts in the United States and Europe arose in the commercial sector. Among them were Manasés Capriles Ricardo, Tomás Chapman, Isaac A. Senior, Salomón López Fonseca, Julio César Capriles and Jacob M. Chumaceiro.

Before the end of the 19th century, a new wave of Sephardi immigration arrived in Venezuela. They were from northern Morocco. These immigrants settled mainly in the cities of Caracas, Barcelona, Carúpano, Cumaná, La Victoria, Villa de Cura, and Caucagua, and some of them went to places as distant as the uninhabited San Fernando de Apure and Ciudad Bolívar. The life of these people was hard at the beginning. Without capital or skills, they became traveling salesmen. Because of their dedication to commerce and trade, they spread out and no longer lived together as a community. Religious life did not exist because there was neither a synagogue nor rabbis. For many of them, this situation contributed to their forgetting their Jewish roots.

Immigration and Communal Organization

20TH CENTURY

By the year 1907, 230 Jews lived in the country. Through perseverance, sacrifice, and savings, those who had arrived at the end of the 19th century started opening commercial houses in prime locations in Caracas and initiated some manufacturing facilities. Gradually they began to prosper. The adoption of local customs was not an obstacle to narrow links of solidarity among themselves; the improvement of their economic situation helped them continue to maintain their faith and the bonds with the family they had left in Morocco. To satisfy the growing needs of the group, they founded in Caracas in 1907 a charitable society named "Sociedad Benéfica Israelita" which remained active until some time after 1909; they used to meet in private houses to pray and celebrate the holidays and in 1916 they inaugurated a cemetery. By 1917 the number of Jews had increased to 475. The National Census of 1926 recorded 882 Jews.

In the 1910s, under the dictatorship of General Juan Vicente Gómez and the boom of Venezuelan oil, Sephardi Jews from Eastern Europe, Yemen, Persia, Syria, and Lebanon arrived in Caracas. At the same time, Ashkenazi Jews coming from Central Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reach Venezuelan shores. These new immigrants had left Europe under the most precarious conditions. They traveled third class on miserable ships to trade their poverty for the almost universal poverty of the rural country that Venezuela then was, and to find an older community of Moroccan origin, now mostly wealthy and well established. These newcomers had to live in houses where each family had a single room with kitchen and bathroom shared. After walking through neighborhoods and climbing steep hills to sell their merchandise for monthly payments, their greatest aspiration was to create their own commercial establishments. With nostalgia for the customs and traditions of their ancestors, they soon formed groups based on places of origin, and Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and Germans came together out of affinity to share memories. These affiliations served as a mutual support in time of need. In 1931 they established the Sociedad Israelita Ashkenazit and 12 years later the Centro Social y Cultural Israel. In 1936, aware of the need to unite forces and to create a congregation, both groups merged and in 1950 they gave birth to the Unión Israelita de Caracas (UIC). Other small Ashkenazi institutions were founded in Maracaibo (1941), Maracay (1944), and San Cristóbal (1945). During all these years the Ashkenazi groups used rented houses to celebrate religious services and organize social activities. It was not until 1961 that the UIC began the construction of its synagogue in Caracas.

Greatly devoted to religious tradition, the Moroccan Sephardi group that lived in Caracas founded in 1930 the Asociación Israelita de Venezuela (AIV), whose first objective was to build a synagogue and which has become since then the representative organization of the whole Sephardi community. The Synagogue El Conde (1939–54) and the Gran Sinagoga Tiferet Israel de Caracas built in the period 1956–63, as well as the group of new synagogues that developed during the last two decades of the 20th century, are an expression of the traditional deep-rooted religious feelings of this Jewry.

The Holocaust and the Subsequent Period

By the end of the 1930s, the Venezuelan government had imposed restriction on Jewish immigration. While during the Nazi regime some Caribbean countries closed their ports to the ships carrying human cargo that tried to escape the annihilation that extended in Europe in those years, in 1939 General Eleazar López Contreras, president of the Republic, had humanitarian feelings. At the initiative of the Comité Israelita Pro-refugiados, he granted permission to land to the passengers of the only two ships under the German flag that anchored at Puerto Cabello and La Guaira, the Koenigstein and the Caribia. Most of these refugees were intellectuals and educated professionals whose influence would be decisive in the subsequent development of the community and whose contribution to the country has been notable.

The 1940s were framed by the tragic events of World War II. The nucleus that gave rise to the Unión Israelita de Caracas together with the members of the Asociación Israelita de Venezuela showed their solidarity with their coreligionists who, escaping from the Holocaust, arrived in Venezuela in search of shelter. In their desire to help the refugees fleeing events that were developing in Europe, in 1941 a Jewish group from the Middle East and North Africa set up the Centro Benéfico Israelita. Starting in 1946 and continuing well into the 1950s, a new contingent of Askenazim, survivors of the Holocaust, bolstered the Venezuelan community.

During this same decade a succession of events contributed largely to strengthen and consolidate the future of communal life: the bases of the Consejo Central de Sociedades Israelitas de Venezuela (Central Council of Jewish Societies of Venezuela) were established; Mundo Israelita, a weekly newspaper, began its appearance in 1943; WIZO de Venezuela was constituted and the first copies of the magazines Prensa Judía (1944) and Paz (1946) were issued. The Colegio Moral y Luces Herzl-Bialik was founded in 1946, beginning its activities with a registration of 40 students.

Zionist youth movements were established by young Venezuelan Jews who, enthusiastic over the creation of the State of Israel, took names such as Grupo Universitario Scopus (1946), Grupo Juvenil Kadimah (1946), Javerim (1954), Ken Najshón del Hashomer Hatzair y Bnei Akiva (1955), Hanoar Hatzioni, and Young Israel.

Contemporary Period

With the death of the General Juan Vicente Gómez (1935) after 27 years of a strong-arm government, Venezuela adopted the constitutional system. The decisive political changes at the end of the "gomecismo" coincided with the beginning of the modernization of the country (the presidencies of Gral. Eleazar López Contreras (1936), General Isaías Medina Angarita (1941), Rómulo Betancourt (1945), Rómulo Gallegos (1948), and General Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1950)), and with the reaping of the benefits of oil.

For Venezuela, starting on the path of modernization, two of the ingredients necessary to accomplish it were at hand: the oil wealth that sprang spontaneously from the earth and the people's desire for transformation; the only missing component was the human factor. In this circumstance, the country opened its doors to immigration. Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese arrived in waves as did Jews who had survived the European catastrophe. By 1950, the Jewish population had grown to about 5,000–6,000 persons. In 1958 the dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez fell. During the period 1957–59 about 1,000 Jews from Egypt, Hungary, and Israel were admitted. Others came from South American countries, escaping from their political instability.

After the withdrawal of the military from direct involvement in national politics (1958), Venezuela started to enjoy an unbroken tradition of democratic civilian rule, though not always without conflict. The 1960s were deeply convulsive in political matters, giving rise to a mainly intellectual left. The 1970s were marked by the energy crisis in consequence of the revolution in Libya, the Yom Kippur War, and the fall of the shah of Iran. Presidents Rafael Caldera (1968), Carlos Andrés Pérez (1973), and Luis Herrera Campíns (1978) had to navigate the difficulties of those years.

A highly organized and supportive Jewish community developed then. Since 1966 the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV) is the umbrella organization that officially represents the whole community. At the beginning of the 1970s the Colegio Moral y Luces Hebraica, spanning Jewish education from kindergarten to high school, opened its door and received in its classrooms 95 percent of the Jewish student population. It was in this setting that Sephardi-Ashkenazi interrelations began to grow steadily, pointing toward the total unification of both communities. In 1970 the Jewish population was estimated at 15,000, most of them living in Caracas. This number had increased to 20,000 in the mid-1990s.

Institutions such as the Instituto Cultural Venezolano-Israelí (1956), the Federación Sionista (1959), the Instituto Superior de Estudios Judaicos (ISEJ, 1977), the Centro de Estudios Sefardíes (1980), the Colegio Sinai (1983), the Museo Raquel Kern (1983), the Beth Avot (Home for the Aged, 1984), the Museo Sefardí Morris E. Curiel (1998), the Centro de Salud Yolanda Katz (1998), the Library Leo and Anita Blum (1998), and the Centro Cultural Gonzalo Benaím (1998), are but a sample of the many educational, cultural, and welfare organizations that provide valuable communal services through intense activity. Cordial relations with churches are maintained through the Comité de Relaciones entre Iglesias y Sinagogas establecidas en Venezuela (CRISEV, 1973). A chair on Judaism opened at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello.

Throughout these years, the Jewish contributions to the country have been significant. Outstanding individuals among them received national prizes in a variety of fields, examples being in physics (Estrella Abecasis de Laredo) and chemistry (Gabriel Chuchani); plastic arts (Harry Abend; Sofia Imber); theater (Isaac Chocrón); literature (Elisa Lerner); and cinematography (Alfredo Roffé). Jews who have presided over academic organizations were Paul Lustgarten (National Academy of Physical, Mathematics and Natural Sciences), Benjamin Sharifker (rector of the University Simón Bolívar), Rafael Reif (provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Paulina Gamus (deputy to the National Congress), Ruth de Krivoy (president, Banco Central), Rubén Merenfeld and Gonzalo Benaím (outstanding professionals and community and social activists), and many others.

In 1992 there was a military attempt under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez to remove President Carlos Andrés Pérez from power. Though the coup ultimately failed and Chávez was jailed, his role in resisting the then unpopular president made him a prominent figure in national politics after he was released from jail in 1994. In 1998 he was elected president of the Republic.

The political turmoil of the early 2000s and the social and economic transformations the country has faced under the administration of Hugo Chávez have imposed new responsibilities upon the community. The Jewish environment did not escape the serious crisis that economically affected the less favored people. By the year 2005 the total number of registered students in the Jewish school had decreased due to the recent phenomenon of migration and aliyah made by a considerable number of Venezuelan Jewish families. The number of students attending the Colegio is 1,381.

In 2005 it was education and social welfare activities that required the maximum attention from the community authorities. There was an increased need for scholarships for the day school and a considerable number of families required monthly financial assistance. Apparently, the years of prosperity were reaching an end and uncertainty was what characterized the future.

Antisemitism

Leaving aside the anti-Jewish outbursts that occurred in Coro in the mid-19th century and ended in an arrangement with the government, Venezuela is a country where discrimination by origin, race, or religion had been almost nonexistent and where antisemitism was not widespread. Even during the periods of dictatorship which prevailed during part of the 20th century, the Jewish community was not singled out for oppression.

It is since the Six-Day War (1967) that anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist propaganda reared its head and was echoed by the leftist parties, although public opinion and the press remained friendly to Israel and to the Jewish people.

In Venezuela the Jewish and Arab communities had been living and trading together in harmony for years. Successive governments had maintained their neutral position in the Middle East conflict and had tried to keep peace among these groups, although they were unable to prevent the outbreak of antisemitism that poisoned the press, the university campus, and the politic atmosphere in the 1970s.

More recently (2005), even though President Chávez had affirmed and repeated that a total and absolute climate of liberty exists, intermittent broadcasts of the official radio and TV stations attempted very often to denigrate the integrity of the Jewish people and the State of Israel; degrading concepts and prejudiced expressions are heard in some media; antisemitic watchwords appear painted on walls; posters and "cartelones" incite against the Zionism; antisemitic mottoes are daubed on the façades of Jewish institutions. As a result of a political assassination and in order to explain problematic national and political events, the police carried out an unsuccessful search in the Hebrew school and the Hebraica social club (2005). It is possible that these are isolated actions, but to the surprise of many people, the distribution of antisemitic literature has increased greatly in bookstores and newsstands.

Relations with Israel

Special mention should be made of the close relationships that have always existed between Venezuela and Israel. Diplomatic relations are on the ambassadorial level. The embassy was located in Jerusalem for many years but eventually moved to Tel Aviv. Commercial ties between the two countries are well developed. Visits of ministers and cooperation in specialized professional projects and agricultural development programs have been very frequent.

Venezuelan Jews have maintained strong ties with Israel and many have visited the country several times. The financial contributions to Jewish causes used to be large. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel, a set of commemorative postal stamps was issued by the government in 1998.

The Comité Venezolano pro-Palestina was formed in 1946 and, under the Rómulo Gallegos presidency, the Venezuelan government gave its affirmative vote to the Partition Plan in the United Nations (1947) and was one of the first nations to recognize the State of Israel (1948).

Since the establishment of the Cámara Económica Venezolana-Israelí in 1976, trade between the two countries has grown considerably. In 1970 the total amount per year was $3 million ($1.5 million for each side). In 1980 the total was $21.6 million (of which Israel exported $21.3 million). This Venezuelan deficit continued in 1990 with total trade of $92.9 million (Israel exported $90.7 million). A big drop in trade was registered in 2000, down to $36.7 million, Venezuela exporting $10.4 and Israel 26.3 million. Total trade in 2003 was $29.3 million (3.8 and 25.5, respectively) and in 2004 $56.8 million (9.6 and 47.2, respectively).

With respect to aliyah (emigration to Israel), the first years of the 21st century showed a pattern of steady growth (52 people in 2002; 113 in 2003; 117 in 2004; and 129 in 2005).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

J. Carciente, Presencia Sefardí en la Historia de Venezuela (1997); "Sephardi Jews in Venezuela," in: Synagogues in Venezuela and the Caribbean. Past and Present (1999); M. Nassi, La Comunidad Ashkenazí de Caracas. Breve Historia Institucional (1981); M. Beker, "Ashkenazic Jews in Venezuela," in: Synagogues in Venezuela and the Caribbean. Past and Present (1999); Nuevo Mundo Israelita, Memorias de una Diáspora (2004); Maguen, Revista del Centro de Estudios Sefardíes de Caracas, 2000/2004.