A dozen children are half-listening to a guide at the small synagogue in the centre of Coro, a town that was Venezuela’s first capital before the title passed to Caracas, 300km to the east.
The guide points to the floor of the country’s oldest Jewish house of prayer, which is covered in a thick layer of sand. “The sand reminded those praying of the time the children of Israel spent wandering in the Sinai desert,” he says.
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The sand also symbolises the transience of Jewish settlement in Coro: Jewish traders from Curacao arrived in the town in 1827. In 1855 almost all left after a mob ransacked their shops and homes.
That history aside, Venezuela’s Jews say the country has traditionally stood out in the region for its lack of anti-Semitism. But in recent years they have watched with growing unease as President Hugo Chávez has warmly embraced the government of Iran, which last year hosted a Holocaust denial conference and let loose a volley of scathing verbal attacks against Israel.
Jewish leaders say relations between the community and the government are at a historic low. Rabbi Pynchas Brener, chief rabbi of Caracas’s Ashkenazi Jews, says: “This is the worst I’ve seen the situation here in 40 years.”
Mr Chávez’s closeness to Tehran has even become a source of tension between Caracas and Buenos Aires. Argentina is seeking nine Iranian officials, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, in connection with the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed. The Argentine government accuses Tehran of having planned the bombing, and Lebanon’s Hizbollah of carrying it out.
When, in March, some 70 Jewish leaders from around the world gathered for a two-day meeting in Caracas, the keynote speaker was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the first lady of Argentina and widely tipped to run for the presidency in October’s elections. In a sideswipe at Mr Chávez, she spoke of the need “to act in a concrete way against any sign or glimpse of anti-Semitism”.
Conditions in Venezuela began to deteriorate in November 2004 when a Jewish school was raided by police. The search warrant, issued by a pro-Chávez judge following the murder of Danilo Anderson, a public prosecutor, suggested that the school was being used to store weapons. This apparently sprang from rumours that Anderson was killed using equipment from Mossad, the Israeli secret service. The police left empty-handed.
“Chávez must have known about it,” says one community member. “In this society nothing happens without his permission. There was a feeling that the government wanted to send a sign that no group was immune from its control.”
A month after the raid, Mr Chávez said in a speech that the “descendants of those who killed Christ” and the “descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here” had “taken possession of all the wealth in the world”. In a subsequent meeting Mr Chávez told Jewish leaders he had not been referring to their community.
Last year relations took another turn for the worse when the official reaction to Israel’s attack on Hizbollah in Lebanon unleashed what Freddy Pressner, head of CAIV, the main Jewish communal body, says was an “explosion of anti- Semitism in Venezuela”.
While few Jews blame the government directly for that sentiment, many say Mr Chávez’s repeated comparisons of Israel’s actions with those of the Nazis created a hostile atmosphere.
Jewish leaders also criticise the government for having organised an anti-Israel demonstration outside the city’s main Sephardi synagogue, the wall of which was subsequently daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti.
At the same time, Mr Chávez, a radical leftist who casts himself as a political counterweight to President George W. Bush in the Americas, has strengthened ties with anti-US allies such as Iran and Syria.
Mr Chávez has distanced himself from statements by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, that the Holocaust was fiction and that Israel should be destroyed but few Jews in Caracas feel reassured.
Up to one-fifth of the Jewish population has left since Mr Chávez took office in 1999, and the community is nervous about releasing numbers for fear it will be seen as a lack of commitment to Venezuela and could affect the 15,000-20,000 who remain.
Sammy Eppel, a Jewish commentator, says: “They’re not burning synagogues or persecuting people on the streets but there is officially sanctioned anti-Semitism. The Venezuelan people aren’t anti-Semitic. This is being directed by a few activists.”