The World's Oldest Hate Finds New Life in Venezuela

Nothing physical has followed yet. But, Brener said, President Chavez's government has issued a fiat that Venezuelans can no longer obtain travel visas to Israel. This was a measure obviously aimed at Jewish hearts, one the government had to have known would wound as summer hiatuses approached. Brener said the Canadian government was moving to alleviate the visa void at its Caracas embassy.

Today, a fresh sense of insecurity and dread stalks the Jews of Caracas, much like it did the Jews of Venice in the 1200s, Spain in the 1400s, British Palestine in the 1930s, or the Soviet Union in the 1970s. With an immediate past of government raids, presidential denunciations, synagogue desecration, and media rants, Brener says the community especially fears it will take a beating if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear sites. The new Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu is talking about the Iranian sites like it means business -- and soon.

Iran and the Chavez regime have cozied up so closely that two direct flights a week now connect Caracas and Tehran and most passengers and cargo are allowed to bypass normal entry and exit inspections. Venezuela's Jews are quite mindful of the 1992 and 1994 bombings of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires and Israel's embassy in Argentina. Hundreds were killed and wounded. In 2007, Argentina indicted senior Iranian officials for orchestrating the blasts under cover of diplomatic privileges afforded by the former Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires.

"If anything ever happened between Israel and Iran, well I don’t know what might happen to us," Brener told me. "Nobody knows what those planes take, who travels or what is coming in. It’s all shrouded in mystery."

I asked Brener what, if anything, the community has done to protect itself from any state-sponsored onslaught provoked by confrontation between Israel and Iran, or anyone else.

"One doesn't really know what to do" against the concentrated power of a whole government, he replied. This is something that hasn't been seen since the old Soviet Union and its crackdown on Jewish "refuseniks." The rabbi said local Venezuelan security guards have been hired to protect buildings. But he noted that these hired guns don't much inspire his confidence because "you can buy off people with very little in Venezuela."

After some prodding, the rabbi acknowledged that some local Jews had organized a kind of civilian self-protection group. Brener himself travels with a bodyguard these days. But these efforts don't inspire a sense of security either. For one thing, interest in the self-defense group is tepid. Other Jews in the community won't support it for fear of further stoking local enmities.

"The community is divided among those who say 'you’ll only make it worse' and people like me who believe we should make noise, not keep quiet. I don’t go for that," Brener said. "History has shown us when you keep quiet, you're abetting the enemy."

Brener told me that even the self-protection measures that have been organized might provide a psychological comfort for some but probably won't help much if the time does arrive when they are needed.

"We can’t withstand any kind of organized aggression; let’s put it that way," he said. "We can’t withstand that."

Finally, as we wrapped up our talk, the rabbi fell back on an age-old practice born of last resort for Jews across the span of history who have found themselves in eerily similar straits. He issued an alert, a plea to the outside world for intervention of a sort that he knows has never exactly time-tested well.

"The world should be aware that there is a possibility of something happening in Venezuela," he said. "And if something did start to happen, the world should cry out."