Claudio meets me in a quiet street in Jerusalem, where he has recently settled after immigrating here a year and a half ago. He joins a number of other recent immigrants from Venezuela that comprised the highest growth rate in Israeli immigration in the last year. As we walk together, Claudio shares the story behind his immigration.
Until early 2010, Claudio, 27, lived in Ranana, Venezuela, a relatively wealthy community with many other Jewish young people. He had completed his university education in theater and was embarking on a career in the arts, a lifelong dream. Why would he uproot himself from his seemingly idyllic life and move to Israel?
The answer is complex. The most immediate one – safety and security. “I no longer felt safe,” Claudio explains. In 2009, right before he emigrated, the number of civilian deaths in the country was almost four times higher than those in Iraq. Violent crime is not a concern plaguing only the Jewish community. Many affluent Venezuelans are subject to kidnappings, and Claudios’ family home was robbed a few years ago, with his father held at gunpoint.
Hoping to marry and raise a family, Claudio wanted a feeling of greater security. That desire, combined with his strong Jewish sense of identity, drew him and his fiancée to Israel.
The Jews of Venezuela
The history of a Jewish presence in Venezuela dates to at least the middle of the 17th century, when marranos (descendents of baptized Jews from Span and Portugal) arrived there. A formal Jewish community wasn’t established there, however, until the middle of the 19th century.
Venezuela has a long history of acceptance of its Jewish community. During times of war, Venezuela has served as a haven for Jews from around the world, including World War II Europe and 1960s Morocco. Venezuela was also one of the first countries to offer support of the 1947 UN resolution calling for the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel.
Today, about 35,000 Jews live in Venezuela, most in the capital city of Caracas. Jewry is divided equally between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, and the country’s practicing Jews are highly Orthodox. Venezuelan Jewry is generally middle class to affluent and a close-knit community, with most children attending Jewish schools and with low rates of intermarriage.
But the land of opportunity and safety represented by Venezuela has begun to seem like a mirage in recent years. In addition to the aforementioned concerns about increasing violence across the countryside, immigration has been affected by political tensions with the Chavez administration; e.g., growing ties with Iran, hostile statements against Israel, and calls upon Venezuelan Jews to publicly denounce Israeli military actions or face boycotts. The country has also undergone recent economic upheaval, and some complaints of anti-Semitism have emerged, particularly during the times of Chavez’ most negative diatribes during the Gaza war. Anti-Semitic graffiti’s defacement of one of the country’s oldest synagogues, police raids on a Jewish community club, and increased vandalism trouble Jews who had long been accustomed to living in a country receptive to their culture and religion. While the tone of political discourse has cooled somewhat in the past year or so, the sense of community acceptance so long taken for granted has been shaken.
Venezuelan Jews in Israel
Venezuela has had tenuous relations with Israel since Hugo Chavez came to power. In response, Israel established a program for the encouragement of immigration from Venezuela, and Venezuelan Jews have responded enthusiastically, with as many as half of Jewish Venezuelans leaving the country during Chavez’s regime, the majority of whom immigrated to Israel.
Assimilation into the Israeli culture is not difficult, and most immigrants have the means to settle comfortably. However, the Venezuelan Jews’ historic love of their birth country makes the relocation process a poignant one for many.
Claudio has completed all the requirements for making aliyah, and will get married in just a few months. Many of his extended family members will join him in Jerusalem for the wedding celebration. “Sometimes I think of marrying in the shul at home,” Claudio admits. But he knows this is only a remnant of nostalgia for his birth country. Most of his family and friends have dispersed from the Ranana area, and many have joined or preceded him in the move to Israel.
Now Claudio is beginning his career in theater and excited about the prospects for his and his new family’s future. There will be time to visit Venezuela in the future. For now, he focuses on his new life in Israel.