A Conversation with Pynchas Brener, Chief Rabbi of Venezuela
The Jewish community in Venezuela, although relatively small, has nevertheless had an outsized impact on the country, as it tends to do in most countries of the world in which the Jewish diaspora have a presence. One of the primary leaders of the Jewish community in Venezuela for several decades has been Rabbi Pynchas Brener, who served as chief rabbi of Venezuela from 1967 until his emigration to Miami in 2011. He remains rabbi emeritus at Unión Israelita de Caracas.
He has authored several books in Spanish on Judaism and is well published over the years in major Venezuelan newspapers such as the leading opposition paper El Nacional, El Universal, and the Venezuelan-Jewish weekly paper Nuevo Mundo Israelita. Rabbi Brener remains active in ministry, and his faith-based talks can be found in both English (labeled “Coffee and Faith”) and in Spanish on his personal website: www.pynchasbrener.com/
Rabbi Brener was born in Poland in 1931 and emigrated with his parents to Peru in 1935 as the anti-Semitism of the Nazis was beginning to make itself felt in Europe. He is a scholar, with graduate degrees from Colombia University (MA) and Bar Ilan University in Israel (PhD), and has been a role model in spiritual and civic leadership over many decades, playing a hugely influential role in Venezuelan civil society, as well as in political life, with his support being sought by every Venezuelan president and senior political leader until Hugo Chávez’s coming to power began to cause a noticeable shift in the relationship between synagogue and state.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have had a series of conversations with Rabbi Brener about the history of the Jewish community in Venezuela, the role it has played both prior to and during the period of Chavismo, and his hopes for his nation’s future.
Paul Coyer: Rabbi Brener, can you briefly summarize for us the history of Judaism in Venezuela?
Rabbi Brener: Certainly. The first Jews to arrive in Venezuela were Dutch Jews from Amsterdam (as well as some from Spain and Portugal) who came to the Caribbean through the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao, which is the oldest Jewish community in the Americas. The synagogue there was founded in the 1670s. From Curacao, they migrated to the city of Coro on the Venezuelan mainland, which is only a short distance from Curacao, and from there moved further into the interior of Venezuela. Incidentally, there is a link between the Curacao Jews and those of the United States, as well. In the latter half of the 1600s, small groups of Jews migrated to Rhode Island, which was founded for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. One of the groups of Jews to migrate there was a group from Curacao, which arrived in 1694, and added significantly to the fledgling community. The Jewish community there sometime afterward requested help from the synagogue in Curacao in building a synagogue, which was built in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1763. It still exists and is the oldest synagogue in the United States.
Gradually, the Jewish population of Venezuela grew. The 1930s saw an influx of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Hitler and the anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, as did my own family, which immigrated to Peru. More came in the aftermath of the Second World War. After the 1967 war, an influx of Sephardic Jews came from the Middle East and North Africa, primarily from Morocco, further bolstering Jewish numbers. Venezuela’s burgeoning economy, stable political life, and thriving civil society were a magnet to immigrants from all over the world at the time. The tolerant nature of Venezuelan society added to the attraction Venezuela held for Jews. By the 1990s, there were approximately 25,000 Jews living in Venezuela, with numerous synagogues as well as Jewish schools and cultural and civic centers. One of those civic centers is Club Hebraica, which was built in the 1970s and is a social, cultural, and sports club. Despite the turmoil in Venezuela, it continues to remain open and provides limited service to the community, having electrical generators and, therefore, water. It has allowed Venezuelans in limited numbers (so it is not overwhelmed) to come into its premises and do things such as shower, charge their smartphones, and attempt to communicate with friends and relatives abroad.
Paul Coyer: You have said that Jewish civil society organizations have had an outsized influence in Venezuela, and there are also numerous examples of civil society organizations in Venezuela which have done very good work and were not Jewish, per se, but were nevertheless begun and/or headed by Jews, correct? Tell me a bit about their involvement in meeting the needs of the broader society.
Rabbi Brener: That is correct. One such organization that still exists is called Santa Ana, which ministers to orphans. Another, which I headed, is called Conciencia Activa, or “Active Conscience.” The Jews of Venezuela tend to eschew political labels but are for certain principles such as equal opportunity, freedom to work, personal security, private property, free-market economics, helping the poor, and sharing with others. They help not only other Jews but have programs to help the poor in general that include food distribution, and have remained active as much as possible even in the current environment.
Paul Coyer: Jews are accustomed to anti-Semitism—it has followed them throughout their history. You have mentioned the tolerant nature of Venezuelan society, however—the lack of anti-Semitism in Venezuela that made it such a hospitable place for the Jewish community to thrive. Can you describe that a bit here and explain the manner in which things changed due to the rise of Chavismo?
Rabbi Brener: Well, as you said, historically there has been virtually no anti-Semitism among the Venezuelan people themselves, and Venezuela has, indeed, been a very hospitable place, both for Jews and for many others. The people remain a very tolerant and open people, which is one of the reasons I have always been so proud to be a Venezuelan. Reflecting this innate tolerance, Venezuelan governments for decades treated the Jewish community well and sought our support and assistance on thorny social and political issues.
Before Chávez, every president of Venezuela visited my home on one occasion or another, and also visited my synagogue. The relationship between Jewish and Catholic leaders was always wonderful (and remains so). The Roman Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI established the Pontifical Commission “Justitia et Pax” (Justice and Peace) at about the same time that I became chief rabbi of Venezuela. I was invited to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Caracas to pray for peace. After that interfaith prayer service, Venezuela’s Jews and Roman Catholics decided to meet and develop closer cooperative ties outside of that official Vatican commission. It was out of these beginnings that we began the Committee of Liaisons between Churches and Synagogues in Venezuela, of which I served as president. We did television programs, promoted understanding, and projected a very real sense of harmony between Christians and Jews.
There is a German saying, “As the Christian community goes, so goes the Jewish community.” I believe this to be very true, and have always worked for strong Christian-Jewish relations and for the health and vitality of the Christian communities wherever I have been active. I have been close for more than 50 years to not just Catholic leaders in Venezuela, but Protestant and evangelical leaders as well. Samuel Olson, for example, the most prominent evangelical leader in Venezuela, has been a close friend for many years.
Under Chávez, things began to change as the government began to make alliances with states such as Iran and related non-state actors such as Hezbollah, which historically have been hostile to Israel and Judaism, and because of these relationships the government under Chávez became more rhetorically hostile to us. I believe that hostility to have been more rhetorical than real, but the government has made a concerted effort to cultivate anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes among the populace. This increasingly hostile environment is one of the primary reasons, in addition to Venezuela’s general collapse under Chavismo, that the Jews of Venezuela have emigrated in large numbers to neighboring Latin American countries or to the United States, as I have done. This emigration began five years or so after Chávez came to power.
Paul Coyer: Let’s talk in more detail about the attacks on the Jewish community that began under Hugo Chávez, which you attribute to his alignment with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Authority. During the Second Intifada, it appears that Hugo Chávez ramped up his attacks on Israel and on Venezuela’s Jewish community. There were public rallies which the government sponsored in order to criticize Israel and express support for the Palestinians. After one such rally, in May 2004, the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue was attacked by a mob. Later in 2004 a Jewish school was raided by armed police allegedly searching for evidence in the trial of a government prosecutor who had been murdered.
Rabbi Brener: Yes, those things occurred, but I did not view them as representing truly vicious persecution. I see these issues as being relatively minor—not representing real anti-Semitism. The 2004 raids were merely expressions on the part of the Chávez government that it could do something in support of the Palestinians, and were shows of force to Chávez’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah. It is true, however, that the government did seek to cultivate anti-Semitism and that was concerning.
Paul Coyer: That growing hostility on the part of the government and the government’s foreign alliances with state and non-state actors which hated Israel did result in the gradual emigration of much of the Jewish population, correct?
Rabbi Brener: That is correct. There was a population of about 25,000 Jews when Chávez came to power, and that population has dwindled to approximately 5,000 today—an 80 percent drop. The Jewish community’s main school in Caracas, which once had 2,300 students, now has only about 500. However, despite this, all of our community and civic centers remain open and serve the public to the extent that they are able. I maintain daily contact with the Venezuelan Jewish community, and was last in Venezuela just a few months ago. Everything is fully functioning. Even I was amazed at the tenacity of the Jewish community and its determination to stick it out in the midst of such trying circumstances and not just survive, but even to thrive and to continue to serve the broader community.
Club Hebraica, for example, has become more important than ever because of the great amount of physical insecurity in Venezuela. In Club Hebraica you feel secure—one of the very few places in Caracas where that is the case. It is therefore an important center for the community. It has electricity generators, and people come to charge their phones, to take showers (because it is one of the very few places with both water and electricity), and generally just feel secure.
Paul Coyer: Let’s talk a bit about some of the specific attacks on the part of the government against the Jewish community. Hugo Chávez accused the Jewish community of collaborating with Israeli intelligence to pursue “counter-revolution” in Venezuela, and the government-sponsored public protests against Israel and the Jews at times resulted in physical assaults on Jewish synagogues and heavy-handedness toward Jewish schools, as we’ve discussed. And Venezuelan government broadcasters recommended that Venezuelans read the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You, being the most high-profile Jewish leader in Venezuela were also a target. Tell me about that.
Rabbi Brener: Well, a few years ago a dossier from SEBIN, Venezuelan intelligence, was published by an Argentine media outlet, which had somehow gotten ahold of it. The dossier revealed that Venezuelan intelligence had been spying on Jewish cultural and civic centers, particularly Espacio Anna Frank, an institution begun by Venezuelan Jews that promotes understanding between different religions and cultures, labeling it a center for Israeli intelligence. I had been a vocal critic of Chávez, and that placed me on the government’s radar. The SEBIN documents labeled me “the chief spymaster” of the Mossad in Venezuela, and also claimed that I was connected with both the CIA and USAID. It was all very entertaining reading about my alleged activities as a Jewish James Bond.
Paul Coyer: You have experience with more Latin American dictators than just Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. You also came to know Fidel Castro quite well, correct?
Rabbi Brener: That is correct. I first met him in 1988 in Havana, when I went there to attempt to address the issue of Jewish families that had been separated when Jewish parents sent their children to our schools in Venezuela and were not allowed to emigrate to Venezuela to join their children. I sent a communication to the Cuban government through the Venezuelan government, and, a bit to my surprise, was told that Castro had invited me to visit him in Havana. Without going into all of the details, I had a short visit with Castro and he agreed to allow several Jews to leave Cuba with me for Venezuela.
About a year later, I traveled to Havana again, at the request of the wife of the secretary of the Venezuelan Congress, who was originally from Cuba (the family was not Jewish), and who requested my assistance getting her brother-in-law out of Cuba. Castro wasn’t happy with my request, but did meet with me for more than four hours and agreed to release the man in question. I saw him again later that year when he traveled to Caracas for the inauguration of Carlos Andrés Pérez as president of Venezuela, and we met in his hotel room.
In short, Castro and I developed a real relationship over a period of nearly 20 years. He showed a genuine interest in the Jewish people, and I do not feel he was personally anti-Semitic. I realize all of the horrible things that he did in building a police state, but felt that it was better to build a relationship with him than to ignore him. His vision of a just society was as wrong-headed as is every socialist vision for such a society. Socialism is imposed from the top and ends up becoming an oppressive system, no matter its claims to the contrary, and suppresses human freedom in the interests of a misguided vision of equality. This is what has occurred in Venezuela. I like to say that “Bolivarian socialism” has pursued a “Hood Robin” strategy—Robin Hood in reverse. Rather than robbing from the rich to give to the poor, the rulers in such a system impoverish the middle class and further impoverish the already poor in order to enrich themselves. In this sense, Cuban and Venezuelan socialism is exactly the same—the elites at the top take all of the benefits of control of the state and leave everyone else impoverished. And those elites will fight tooth and nail to keep power, as once they lose it they lose all of their benefits and will likely end up in prison.
Paul Coyer: Where is the Jewish community in Venezuela today in terms of its role, and what role can it play seeking to revitalize the devastated country post-Chavismo?
Rabbi Brener: Well, as we’ve discussed, the Jewish community occupies a more important role than its numbers would seem to indicate. Jews remain prominent in many fields including medicine, academia, commerce, industry, etc., and would therefore play an important role in any revitalization effort.
Many Jews who have left Venezuela due to the extreme conditions still own manufacturing plants and businesses and other things in Venezuela in the hope of eventually returning, and they can play a role in revitalizing the country, whether they remain in the US, Colombia, or wherever, and go back and forth or may move back permanently. Many won’t move back, but some will, and even those who don’t can contribute significantly. Whether our numbers begin to grow again, who knows, as devastated as the country is at this point. I do know that the Venezuelan Jewish community, both in Venezuela and outside Venezuela, is as organized as it ever has been, and is determined to contribute. The Chávez revolution did do very real damage to the country. But I am convinced that it is damage that can be repaired, and the Jewish community is fully prepared to contribute to that healing process.
The Roman Catholic Church, too, with which I have long had strong relations, is very active and would be a tremendous force in reconstructing the country, as would the growing evangelical population, with whom I also have close relations. Faith communities in Venezuela in general stand ready to cooperatively contribute to the rebuilding of Venezuela in the myriad ways in which they are uniquely suited to do so.
Paul Coyer: One last question. Relations between the United States and Latin America have always been complex. On the one hand, there is deep admiration of the United States, and on the other hand resentment for perceived past wrongs, etc. What are your hopes for the evolution of those relations?
Rabbi Brener: The left-wing, anti-American populism that characterized so much of Latin America since the late 1990s is in full retreat, and the United States has very strong relations today with countries which previously had headed the anti-American charge, including Brazil and Ecuador. The left is dying off in Latin America, and I think the death of Fidel Castro symbolizes that in many ways. I am hopeful that more democratic movements will become the norm in the region and that this will pave the way for stronger relations with the United States. The United States, for its part, under President Trump appears determined for the first time in many years to pay sustained attention to Latin America. I am hopeful that President Trump’s strong support for the clearly expressed desire of the Venezuelan people to restore their democracy and to develop their economy upon more free market principles will have positive repercussions throughout the region.
Paul Coyer is a Providence contributing editor, a research professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and an associate professor at l’École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, the French Army’s equivalent of West Point.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of Rabbi Pynchas Brener in a Coffee and Faith video, via YouTube.