During the final years of Hugo Chavez’s rule, Moshe Calzadilla was afraid to wear his kippa out on the streets of Caracas, Venezuela.
Once an active member of Venezuela’s local Jewish community, Calzadilla emigrated to Israel in November 2016. He told The Times of Israel in recent a telephone interview that in the years leading up to Chavez’s death in 2013, Jews were fearful to openly display signs of their religion.
The situation was a far cry from the pre-Chavez years, Calzadilla said, when Venezuela was proudly pluralistic, and was even one of the few countries that welcomed ships carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe in 1938.
Nonetheless, when asked about anti-Semitism in Venezuela’s society and politics, Calzadilla was careful to avoid using that term, referring instead to anti-Israel sentiment. The discrimination, Calzadilla said, ran along socioeconomic lines, associating Judaism with wealth.
Belts have tightened across the board, however, since Venezuela has sunk into the politico-economic crisis that has plagued the Latin American country since 2013.
Since then, roughly 3.5 million of Calzadilla’s fellow citizens have fled the country. The recent escalation in violence has led to the largest exodus in Latin American history, with the International Monetary Fund expecting the number of Venezuelan migrants to hit 5 million by the end of this year.
Many members of the Venezuelan Jewish community — which numbered 25,000 in 1999 — have likewise emigrated to the Jewish state. Today, only 7,000 Jews remain in Venezuela. According to the Jewish Agency, 683 Venezuelans moved to Israel between 2013 and early 2019.
But even as Venezuelan Jews in Israel watch the crisis worsen from afar, the challenges of migration and integration into a new society still affect their daily lives.
Among the newcomers are 31-year-old Gabriel Rosendo Deutsch, and his wife, Arbeilys Prieto, 28, who arrived in Israel last June.
Over a steaming cup of black coffee at the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Jerusalem, where the couple takes a free immersive Hebrew course, Rosendo Deutsch confessed that they mostly moved to Israel for practical, rather than ideological, reasons.
“In Spain, we would have had to seek political asylum, and employers don’t hire people without documents,” Rosendo Deutsch said, adding that they also twice attempted to emigrate to Colombia.
According to Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent — along with their spouse and children — has the right to citizenship, making Israel an attractive prospect for those seeking greener pastures. However, new arrivals face other challenges.
Language is one of the biggest hurdles to integration — and to finding a good job, a key factor in helping new immigrants achieve independence after their initial five to six months living in the absorption center’s subsidized housing.
Calzadilla, a psychologist with “an important practice” back in Caracas, said that practicing his profession in Israel is particularly difficult, at least for now, because it “requires a very high level of Hebrew.”
Calzadilla said that newly-arrived professionals are often forced to find temporary jobs while perfecting their language skills. The most common option, he said, is factory work, though the conditions are often dire.
“There is a lot of mistreatment, no attention to industrial safety at the workplace,” Calzadilla said, adding that “you always work overtime, so it is really hard to study and work at the same time.”
Many of Calzadilla’s fellow newcomers have chosen to focus on work over learning Hebrew, or have sought jobs for English-speakers in Tel Aviv.
Calzadilla, meanwhile, has found a job that, while not a precise fit for his skillset, allows him to work in Hebrew.
“I’ve been working for six months in a high school, supervising after-school activities for students who don’t go straight home in the evening,” Calzadilla said. “Kids are really good teachers,” he said, but it’s difficult to make ends meet while only working part-time.
Calzadilla believes that more can be done to help Venezuelan immigrants enter the professional workforce in Israel. Some other interviewees have suggested a database of companies in need of Spanish-speaking employees.
Veterans give newcomers a helping hand
There are a number of organizations that do try to help Venezuelan immigrants overcome these challenges.
Rivka Lobl Mitelberg is the administrator of Beit Venezuela, a volunteer organization founded 10 years ago to help Venezuelan migrants to Israel.
In a cafe in Jerusalem’s city center, Mitelberg told The Times of Israel that the organization — which also operates back in Venezuela and recently welcomed its 5,000th member — works as a social networking platform for Venezuelan Jews have moved or would like to move to Israel.
“Essentially what we do is provide information,” Mitelberg said, explaining that the organization’s objective is to inform people about life in Israel and dispense basic advice on procedures such as opening a bank account or finding the best school for their kids.
This extends to the Beit Venezuela Facebook page, which provides a list of professionals across Israel such as doctors, lawyers, dentists, and electricians, who can provide services to the Venezuelan community.
Mitelberg said the organization is funded by private donations, and among other things helps lone soldiers from Venezuela cover a portion of their living expenses. Beit Venezuela also rents out spaces in shopping malls, where small weekend flea markets allow the new immigrants to display their crafts or sell authentic homemade Venezuelan food.
“The idea is that the community stays united in some way,” Mitelberg said, adding that it is essential to pay attention to the needs of each demographic — be they singles, young couples, or entire families.
“In this sense, the digital platform helps us listen to their fears, worries and requests,” she said.
Alongside Beit Venezuela, Mitelberg said the Immigration and Absorption Ministry helps new immigrants acclimate and become important contributors to the country.
She also cited other organizations that help new immigrants with employment and consulting, such as OLEI (the Latin American Organization in Israel, Spain, and Portugal), which focuses specifically on immigrants coming from those regions. Through its 25 branches in Israel, OLEI cooperates actively with Beit Venezuela.
Navigating stormy diplomatic seas
Venezuelans keep coming to Israel, despite the fact that immigration has become particularly complicated due to a perfect storm created by the current crisis and the 2009 severing of diplomatic ties with Israel by then-president Hugo Chavez, during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador in Caracas, and the Israeli embassy was closed.
The Venezuelan immigrants who spoke with The Times of Israel said that they managed to obtain visas to Israel through second-party countries such as Colombia, or through the assistance of a Jewish Agency emissary in the Paris airport during a layover on their way to Israel.
Relations between Venezuela and Israel had been tense since Hugo Chavez rose to power, but only came to a breaking point in 2009, despite anti-Semitic incidents such as the vandalizing of a Caracas synagogue in May 2004, or the police raid of a Jewish school in November that same year.
Things did not improve under Nicolas Maduro, acting president of Venezuela since 2013. Maduro appointed Tareck El-Aissami, who is barred from entering the US due to his connections with Hezbollah and alleged involvement in drug trafficking, to be his vice president.
The country has been in a period of political strife ever since Maduro succeeded Chavez as president. Mass protests against Maduro’s rule began the following year, and have ramped up since his reelection to a second six-year term in a contested election last May.
Due to inflation relentlessly spiraling out of control, today in Venezuela groceries and medicine are almost impossible to find, and unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, Natan Lederman Sokol told The Times of Israel. Sokol is pursuing a PhD at Tel Aviv University as a visiting professor and researcher from the Metropolitan University of Caracas.
He said people are scavenging through streetside piles of trash for scraps of food. Illustrating the scarcity of food, Sokol said over the course of 2017, six out of every 10 Venezuelans lost approximately 11 kilograms (24 lbs).
Meanwhile, the Jewish community has been warily neutral towards the current regime, even as Venezuela’s Chief Rabbi Isaac Cohen shook hands with Maduro when the latter hosted Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar this past December in a “peace diplomacy” bid.
Cohen claimed in a recent statement that the Jewish community accepted Israel’s recognition of Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself president of Venezuela on January 23, though this would mean a break with the community’s longstanding policy of remaining neutral throughout the political power struggle.
Guaidó’s move is the clearest attempt to challenge Maduro’s authority since the beginning of the crisis, and he has quickly been recognized as Venezuela’s leader by many countries following the lead of US President Donald Trump.
For many Venezuelan emigres anxiously watching their country’s collapse from afar, however, Guaidó may represent the only vestige of hope on the horizon.