CARACAS, Venezuela – A group of unidentified assailants overpowered security guards and vandalized a synagogue here early Saturday morning, the latest in a series of episodes aimed at Jewish institutions since Venezuela’s recent expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the severing of diplomatic ties with Israel to protest the war in Gaza.
The vandals broke into Tiferet Israel, a Sephardic synagogue in the Maripérez district of Caracas, strewing Torah scrolls on the floor and spray-painting the walls with messages like “Death to all,” according to televised reports.
“We feel threatened and, with this incident, attacked,” said Elías Farache, a spokesman for Venezuela’s Jewish community, in comments broadcast by Globovisión, a private television network.
President Hugo Chávez ’s government criticized the episode on Saturday. “We reject these acts of violence,” Jesse Chacón, the communications minister, said. But Mr. Chacón also insinuated that the attack could have come from a conspiratorial antigovernment group seeking to “generate a climate of irritation” before a referendum in February over lifting Mr. Chávez’s term limits.
Still, it was not clear on Saturday who carried out the attack. It came after an earlier episode in January in which vandals sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of the same synagogue reading, “Property of Islam.”
“What is troubling about Venezuela is that anti-Semitism is being used as a political tool,” the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, said in a report detailing previous episodes of vandalism here in January on the Israeli Embassy, which is now closed, and the businesses and synagogues of the Jewish community, which numbers about 15,000.
“It is fostered by the highest levels in the government, trickled down the government apparatus and is left unchallenged by officials in the Chávez regime,” the report said.
Mr. Chávez has ratcheted up his criticism of Israel in recent days. After Israel expelled Venezuelan diplomats last week, in response to the Israeli ambassador’s expulsion here, Mr. Chávez said, “We receive them with jubilation, and it is an honor for this Socialist government, for this revolutionary people, that a genocidal government like Israel expels our delegation.”
Jews were already concerned about Mr. Chávez’s close relationship with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
But the government of Venezuela has previously denied that its criticism of Israel’s policies was anti-Semitic. “All of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities know religious discrimination is not a problem that has or will have a place in our society,” Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro told the Al Jazeera television network last week.
Still, some pro-government groups here commonly associate Jews with unsubstantiated antigovernment conspiracies. Sometimes officials appear to support such theories, as they did by raiding a Jewish community center in 2007 with two dozen armed security agents, ostensibly conducting a search for weapons that were not discovered.
In August, Mr. Chávez appeared to be open to easing tensions with Israel and Venezuela’s Jewish community by meeting here with leaders from the Latin American Jewish Congress. Since Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza, that moment appears to have passed.