As the political and economic situation in Venezuela becomes increasingly unstable, Jews are fleeing the South American nation, with many choosing to immigrate to Israel.
Conditions in Venezuela began deteriorating in 2013 following the death of the country’s former president, Hugo Chavez, and the ascension of his chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver.
Chavez aspired to dictatorship and was harshly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. During the past four years of his successor’s rule, inflation has skyrocketed, leading to shortages in food and basic supplies such as medicine and toilet paper. Venezuelans stand in long lines — sometimes for 12 hours — just to obtain bare essentials.
“There is no value to life right now in Venezuela,” Adele Tarrab, a Venezuelan Jew who moved to Israel with her family in 2015, told JNS. “I’ve actually seen people get killed for bread.”
Venezuela was once home to a thriving Jewish community, one of the largest in South America, with around 25,000 members in 1999. The crumbling economy caused many of the country’s Jews to flee, most to Miami, Mexico and Panama. Some 9,000 Jews are believed to still reside in Venezuela.
“We love Venezuela,” Tarrab said. “It’s a beautiful country. We still have family there, but they want to leave.”
In late July, a group of 26 new Venezuelan immigrants arrived in Israel, with the Israeli government and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) facilitating their aliyah.
IFCJ says it is the only organization on the ground in Venezuela assisting the Jewish community with aliyah. During the past 18 months, the organization has brought 153 Venezuelan Jews to Israel, and has helped the immigrants obtain thousands of dollars in support to get on their feet.
“In the past four years we’ve seen a deterioration in the situation of the people of Venezuela,” IFCJ’s founder and president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, says. “Many of the olim (immigrants) that we have brought to Israel have not been able, literally, to put bread on the table.
“Most of them are coming to Israel literally with the ‘shirts on their backs,’ no luggage,” he says.
IFCJ aids elderly and less affluent Jews who remain in Venezuela, as the majority of wealthy members of the country’s Jewish community “already left for Miami” before the situation deteriorated, Eckstein says.
According to Eckstein, amid the lack of law and order in Venezuela, Jews are increasingly targeted for kidnappings by criminal gangs who hold them for ransom.
“Since the Jewish community has this image of being more affluent due to stereotypes about Jews, kidnappings of Jewish community members are more common,” he says.
Tarrab says that Venezuela is like a jail. “You don’t leave your house because it’s very dangerous to go out,” she says.
Tarrab recalls a 2009 incident in which 15 armed attackers “broke into the main synagogue in Caracas” on a Friday night “and urinated on the Torah scrolls. It was shocking.”
The assailants scrawled anti-Semitic graffiti on the synagogue’s walls and prevented the community from holding Friday night services.
She also detailed an incident in which government forces confiscated the central gold market in Caracas, where many of her family members, including her father Maurice, owned jewelry stores for more than 30 years.
“Chavez knew that many of the stores were owned by the Jewish community. It was shocking and very sad,” Tarrab said.
Venezuela’s Jewish leaders don’t want to present the current economic situation as a crisis, “but it really is,” Eckstein says.
Despite the “lifeline” of moving to Israel, Tarrab said the South American immigrants face many new challenges in the Jewish state. They are often “frustrated by the lack of help” from the Israeli government and encounter intense bureaucracy.
“The government should make the process smoother,” says Tarrab.
Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption this month announced an increase in aid to Venezuelan immigrants.
Total state benefits now amount to $9,700 for couples; $8,200 for single-parent families; $5,100 for singles; $3,000 for children up to age four; $2,200 for children ages four-18; and $2,600 for immigrants ages 18-21.
Soon after arriving in Israel, Tarrab and her family settled in the coastal city of Netanya and opened a restaurant, Rustikana, that serves home-style Venezuelan food. The family imports fresh kosher meat from South American countries such as Argentina to provide authentic flavors.
“My family and I came to Israel with ‘con las ganas,’ the willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed,” says Tarrab.
“You cannot come to Israel with the same mentality we had in Venezuela. Every day is challenging,” she said.
“Every day I have to fight, I am always on the defensive. It’s tiring, but I love Israel. I feel safe here, and I feel like this is my country.”