Jews flee Venezuela amid growing political violence

More and more members of country's once-thriving Jewish community arriving in Israel as economy and political system collapse at home

Illustrative: In this March 17, 2017 photo, Jewish converts Sahir Quitero, center, her husband Franklin Perez, son Ezra, left, and daughter Hannah, walk to departures lounge of the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela, on their way to Israel. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Jews in Venezuela are increasingly fleeing the country amid the rising political instability and violence under President Nicolas Maduro, with a growing number decamping for Israel.

Speaking at their new apartment in Jerusalem, Estella and Haim Sadna, a religious couple with four kids from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, described the food scarcity and rampant crime that drove them to move the Jewish state.

“Most of the supermarkets are empty. Everything is empty. You can see that all the aisles are completely empty,” Haim Sadna told Channel 2 in an interview aired Saturday.

His wife Estella complained of the difficulty in Venezuela of buying basic products such as milk for her kids, adding that “since Passover we haven’t had bread.”

“We lived in a beautiful home with seven rooms. But we left everything behind. We left the house, we left the furniture, the cars. Everything remained [there],” the couple said. “We brought the clothes that we use. That is what we brought, clothes and shoes.”

The Sadna family at their apartment in Jerusalem. (Screen capture: Channel 2)

The Sadnas also noted the collapse of public services in the country such as healthcare, as well the sky-high crime rates, with Venezuela having some of the world’s worst murder statistics.

“The crime situation is [so bad] that it is scary to go out to the street. I only go out of it is essential and that is it,” Estella said. “At five p.m. we would run home.”

“The situation got worse and worse. We could no longer go out to the street,” she continued. “On most days the kids didn’t go to school. They said they were in jail, that the house was a jail. The children have no life [in Venezuela].”

While Venezuela once had one of the largest Jewish communities in the region, numbering some 25,000 in 1999, only about 9,000 Jews are believed to remain in the country. Israel has been working behind the scenes in order to bring as many of those remaining as possible to Jewish state, according to Channel 2.

Illustrative: A young Jewish boy reads from the Torah on his Bar Mitzvah in Magen David synagogue in Caracas, Venezuela. January 01, 2005. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

Nissim Bezalel, who moved to Israel from Venezuela a year and a half ago, said that Jews are in an increasingly perilous situation as a result of the widespread poverty stemming from the collapse of the Venezuelan economy.

“Because there is the image of Jews as wealthy people — that they have money — they are a target, to kidnap them and demand a ransom for them,” he told Channel 2. “It is not because they are Jews, it is because they have money.”

While most of the Jews leaving Venezuela would flee to Mexico, Panama or Miami, an increasing number of have been coming to Israel. Last month, a batch of 26 Jews arrived in the Jewish state from Venezuela.

Ofer Dahan, who heads the immigration department for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told Channel 2 that the state has increased its aid to Venezuelan immigrants as the situation in the country has gotten worse.

An opposition activist throws a Molotov cocktail during clashes with security forces in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on August 12, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ronaldo Schemidt)

While many Jews have fled the country amid the growing instability, a number have joined the protesters demonstrating against Maduro’s rule.

Alex Cohen, who said he joined the protests in Caracas four months ago, told Channel 2 that the goal of the demonstrators is “the return of Venezuela to the people.”

“In Venezuela there is a dictator and Venezuela is held as a hostage by ten people,” he said, while calling on the international community to come to the assistance of the demonstrators.

Opposition figure Nixon Moreno, who said he was forced to go underground after being arrested, likened the opposition’s struggle to Israel’s fight against terror.

“Israel understands us very well because Israel is a victim of terror by extremist groups,” he said, adding that Venezuela is “fighting against another kind of terror.”

Despite once being one of the wealthiest nations in South America, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, the Venezuelan economy has collapsed as a result of the economic mismanagement beginning under the late president Hugo Chavez.

The economic situation has further deteriorated since Chavez’s death in 2013 and the rise to power of his hand-picked successor Maduro, a former bus driver, with inflation hitting some 800 percent and ever growing shortages of basic foodstuffs, toilet paper and medicine.

With the collapsing economy, the country has been rocked by political turmoil, as Maduro has sought to consolidate power following the opposition’s victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections by weakening the legislature’s powers and imprisoning political opponents.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro addresses the new constitutional assembly that replaced the parliament and is tasked with rewriting the constitution, in Caracas on August 10, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ronaldo Schemidt)

Last month, Venezuela held elections for a new constitutional assembly that supersedes the parliament’s authorities. The US and a number of other Western and Latin American have refused to recognize the results, citing fraud and other irregularities.

The US slapped sanctions on Maduro following the vote and on Friday US President Donald Trump said he was weighing a military response to the “very dangerous mess” in Venezuela.

JTA contributed to this report

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