Venezuelan Jews are moving to Israel to escape deepening poverty

Beit Shemesh, Israel — When Daniel Oritz moved to Israel from Venezuela , his first meal was a bowl of chicken soup. He took one spoonful and began to cry.

For him, the soup signified an escape from the poverty and deprivation he has experienced for more than two years.

“We were very hungry,” said Oritz, who moved in November. “There was no meat, no sugar, no pasta.”

Venezuela’s economic crisis is so severe that citizens must wait in lines for hours at grocery stores to buy basic staples, or pay exorbitant prices on the black market. Some have even died of basic illnesses because of a shortage of medical supplies.

Tens of thousands have left the country, including a growing number of Venezuelan Jews who have relocated to Israel.

The process is not easy because Israel and Venezuela do not have diplomatic ties. In 2009, following Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, then-President Hugo Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador and his staff from Caracas. He aligned himself with the Palestinians, recognizing their right to statehood later that year, and developed relations with Iran, Israel’s nemesis.

Official Israeli government figures show that 111 Venezuelan Jews made “aliyah,” the Hebrew term for immigration meaning “ascending,” to Israel in 2015, more than double the number who arrived in 2012.

And although final figures for 2016 are not in, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that works to bring Jews from distressed places to Israel, said it had helped about 90 people immigrate.

Between 6,000 and 9,000 Jews remain in the country of 30 million.

Organizations working to help Jews leave Venezuela, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, said they prefer not to talk about the process because it could endanger those who remain.

“We work outside of the Jewish community and under the radar, gathering information by word-of-mouth about Jews who are interested in moving to Israel,” said an employee of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she shuttles between Israel and Venezuela on a regular basis.

She said that in the past, Venezuelan Jews opted to move to the United States or Panama but that those places are too expensive because the economic crisis has devalued their property and other assets.

“Israel is really the only option for them,” she said.

Jews moving to Israel are entitled to a basket of benefits offered by the state, including greatly subsidized health care, free schooling, and discounts on apartment rentals and other goods.

Anti-Semitism was widespread under Chávez and has continued since his death in 2013. Jewish groups estimate that about 50 percent of the 22,000 Jews who lived in the country when Chávez came to power have left.

Last year, the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League condemned a magazine for using anti-Semitic imagery on its cover that suggested the country’s economic problems were brought on by wealthy people of “Israelite origin.”

“For several years we have seen anti-Semitic accusations and themes appear in Venezuelan public discourse,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, responding to the magazine’s cover in August. “This shockingly graphic manifestation of anti-Semitic imagery on full display on Venezuelan newsstands is unacceptable and repulsive.”

Oritz, who grew up and emigrated from the city of San Cristobal, not far from the border with Colombia, said his family was victimized in a violent robbery just over a year ago. A band of armed men broke into his home, tied up the family and threatened to kill them if they fought back. They proceeded to take everything his family owned, including their car. Nothing was retrieved, and no one has been arrested for the crime.

It was a harrowing experience, he said, one that he thinks brought on his mother’s death a few months later. The attack pushed him to find a way out of the country and make his way to Israel.

Oritz had been to Israel — he immigrated in 2006, only to discover that his mother was sick, forcing him to return home. Over the years, he said, he yearned to move back. Now, the situation in Venezuela is so bad that he had no choice, he said.

Once he is set up, he will bring his father, sister and his girlfriend, and their 5-year-old daughter.

For Reisy Abramof, who also is Jewish and arrived in Israel on the same flight as Oritz, the political situation in Venezuela is surprising and alarming.

“It is very sad to see people queuing up for food and others dying in hospitals because there is no medicine,” said Abramof, who is from Venezuela’s third-largest city, Valencia.

Her family could afford to buy goods on the black market at inflated prices.

But Abramof, 29, who spent five years at college in the United States, said there is no future for young people in Venezuela.

“I feel hopeful in Israel; it’s a country filled with social innovation and opportunities,” she said. “I have already had a few job interviews, and now I need to learn the language.”