Sunday, September 30, 2007

Venezuela's Jewish community is becoming increasingly worried 

Caracas Jews fear planned state curriculum will hurt religious school

By Anshel Pfeffer
Mon., October 01, 2007.

Venezuela's Jewish community is becoming increasingly worried about President Hugo Chavez's plans to redraft the country's constitution and centralize the education system. Sources in the community say that since Chavez rose to power eight years ago, some 20 percent of Jews have left the country.

Over the past month, Chavez has advanced a raft of far-reaching amendments to the constitution, which he amended through a referendum shortly after he was elected to his first term as president in December 1998. Chavez aims to amend the constitution to remove the limitation on the number of times a president can run for reelection.

Chavez is also preparing a list of amendments making the Venezuelan economy more socialist and centralized, giving the government more control of certain sectors. Some of the amendments include nationalization.

Earlier this month, Chavez announced a new mandatory socialist schooling program. Schools that do not adhere to the government's curriculum would be closed and the pupils transferred to state-run institutions. This would affect private schools attended by children from affluent homes.

In recent media statements as well as in his weekly TV program, Chavez said that "private schools will have no choice but to comply." The ultimatum has worried the local Jewish community of some 12,000 people.

More than 90 percent of all Venezuelan Jews reside in the capital, Caracas. The two prominent Jewish institutions in the city are the community's club and a Jewish school, Ebraica, with some 1,300 pupils of all ages.

Changes to the schools' modus operandi could constitute a blow to Venezuela's Jewish community, prominent members say. "We don't think these plans are directed against Jews, but we could be affected by this general trend," a community activist told Haaretz.

"The school is an essential issue that unites all of the community around it," says another activist for an international Jewish organization who frequently visits Venezuela. "We expect Chavez's plan to make it more difficult to teach the school's specific Jewish subjects."

"Everything is blacker and whiter here," says one of the community's members. "You're either for Chavez or against him. And Jews are regarded as the opposition." The man, who requested anonymity, says that in Chavez's Venezuela Jews are also identified with Israel, which isn't on Chavez's list of favorite countries.

Until now, the local Jewish community has been able to weather the socialist storm. "Socialism and all, the community has never enjoyed such wealth before. The demand for imported goods is record high," the Jewish community member says.

But with thousands of Jews contemplating leaving for the United States, Israel and elsewhere, the community's stability under Chavez remains to be seen.

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