Saturday October 10, 2015
Israel Hayom
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Ayelet Ben Naim

Being a Jew under Chávez

Living in Venezuela, we had everything — a large family, a thriving business, a circle of friends both within the Jewish community and outside it, and a general feeling that we were at a good place in life. All of this was turned upside down when Hugo Chávez was elected president.

I was not among the Venezuelans who shed tears of sorrow over the president's death. As someone who lived in the country's capital of Caracas for 12 years, I felt that Chávez's reign was in direct opposition to freedom, democracy, human rights, and above all — my Jewish identity.

I came to Venezuela in 1991 to be with my husband, who was born there and whom I met while he was living and studying in Israel. In Caracas he worked as a fashion designer and managed a chain of clothing stores. The family business prospered, as did many other local Jewish businesses. Of course, the regime that preceded Chávez was not lacking in corruption, but at least it did not treat Jews with a heavy hand and allowed us to conduct our lives in peace. All this changed in 1999 when Chávez was elected president.

Chávez's many anti-Jewish statements in the media, like calling Jews pigs, denying the Holocaust and accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians, contributed to an atmosphere of anti-Semitism that grew worse year by year. Suddenly it became frightening to walk down the street after dark, for fear of being harassed. Our synagogues and Jewish community buildings were spray-painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans and there was a feeling that Chávez was egging on the populace and speaking the "people's language" against the Jews.

He was always quick to say that Venezuela's large businesses are controlled by Jews "stealing the nation's money," and we felt the results directly in our bottom lines. Everyone in the Jewish community felt their financial situation decline over time. I particularly remember the closing of a large Jewish-owned shopping mall in Caracas. Chávez decided to nationalize the property for the benefit of the state. Because many of the mall's shop owners were Jewish, we felt that the motive was anti-Semitism, pure and simple.

The Jewish community did not merely suffer from economic harassment. Government operatives would frequently follow children from rich Jewish families in order to kidnap them and demand ransom. In other instances, after Chávez had gained control of the police and the army, the defense forces would occasionally place a closure on the Jewish community schools, with the children inside and their parents unable to gain access to them. The pretext was that the Jews had hidden weapons inside and that searches had to be conducted to confiscate them.

The harassment, restrictions and overall atmosphere made my life as a Jew in Venezuela unbearable. But I hoped that the nation would have its say and replace Chávez with another leader. What finally broke my resolve and "persuaded" me to leave everything behind and accede to my husband's urgent pleas to leave was a law passed by Chávez concerning children. This law stipulated that children up to the age of 3 belong to their parents, afterward until the age of 10 they move to a school that is under control of the government, and from 10 until age 18 they study in a military boarding school. From that moment I understood that my future and the future of my children lies elsewhere. Almost all of our family agreed to come to Israel with us, and the rest fled to the United States, Spain, Peru and other countries.

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