Ilan L. is in the U.S. on a mission to educate American high school and college students on Israel and Middle East realities. He has been sponsored by StandWithUs, an Israel education organization operating on campuses to combat anti-Israel defamation and boycotts, as well as battling against growing anti-Semitism on college campuses and in communities worldwide. StandWithUs also works to foster leadership among junior high and high school students, to inculcate love for Israel, and appreciation for Israel’s contributions to humanity.
Puder: Tell our readers about your family, and your growing up in Venezuela?
IL: I’m originally from Caracas, Venezuela. My family comes from a variety of places. My grandmother from my mother side is a Holocaust refugee. She, her parents and her brother escaped from Europe during the Second World War. After a very hard time in Siberia, they decided, as many other families to try their luck in Latin America. My grandmother got to Venezuela as a child after losing everything in Europe.
The story of my dad’s family is very different. They are Christian and have lived in Venezuela for many generations. My dad always respected, and promoted, my Jewishness. I grew up as part of one of the most beautiful Jewish communities, a community full of social responsibility and justice, with a deep love for the state of Israel and Judaism, but that managed, at the same time, to be part of the Venezuelan society.
Sadly, when I was about 14 years old, I encountered antisemitism face-to-face. People denied the Holocaust, painted swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti outside our school, insulted us during sport games between our school and other clubs in my city. Sadly, these attacks didn’t come only from other citizens. The Venezuelan government orchestrated a campaign to demonize the state of Israel.
Suddenly, my identity as part of the Jewish minority in Venezuela was under attack. Back then, I was 20 years old, was in the middle of Law school and had to make the most difficult decision I have ever had to: leave my family behind to create a future for myself in Israel. This scenario in which a child – in my case an only child – has to leave his parents behind to move to a country where he can celebrate his identity is, without a doubt, more complicated that anyone can explain in words.
I’ve been living in Israel since then, fulfilling the Zionist dream: finishing a degree in Israel, giving back to my country by serving in the IDF and finally getting married in our homeland.
Puder: Describe your job with StandWithUs?
IL: After two years of service in the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit of the IDF as the head of the digital team, I started my journey with StandWithUs.
I always stayed in touch with young pro-Israel leaders in Latin America. Because of my personal experience, I know the horrible feeling of thinking that you are by yourself defending your ideology. StandWithUs has been working for 17 years to support pro-Israel leaders around the world, so as soon as I had the chance, I started volunteering there to create the first programs in Spanish.
A couple of months later, I found myself opening the newest chapter of the organization: StandWithUs Latin America. Since then, two years ago, we have come a great way. Today we have an office in Brazil – the first StandWithUs office in any Latin country; we are present in Argentina and Mexico and we were even able to create programs in Spain.
The challenges are still there and without a doubt, there is a lot to do, but for the first time, we have the backs of those young leaders who are representing Israel in Latin America.
Puder: Please describe the current condition in Venezuela, and its impact on Jews?
IL: Venezuela is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. The lack of food, medicine and other resources transformed one of the countries with the largest gas reserve into one of the poorest countries in the world.
For many years now, Caracas, the capital city and the place where the largest concentration of Jewish population is, has been considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Venezuela’s homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, at 90 killings per 100,000 residents.
Venezuela has also become an ally for Iran in America Latina. Many reports show a direct relationship between the government and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. This environment translated to the diminution of the Jewish community in the country. Even without an official number, some people believe that only 2,000 Jews remain in Venezuela today.
Many families, mine among them, are dealing with the dilemma of losing everything and starting their lives again. In only one generation my family that went to Venezuela with nothing, escaping from the Holocaust, now is being forced to live, once again, with nothing.
Puder: Where is President Nicolas Maduro going with his foreign and domestic policies, and in his relationship with Iran and Hezbollah?
IL: A lot has been said about Venezuelan politics. Some people consider that Maduro is leading the country to the exact same place that he wants: a country where you can control the starving population with a little bit of bread. As the Romans said, “Bread and Circuses.”
The relations with terrorist organizations is, without a doubt, one of the issues that has to preoccupy us all. Years ago, the CIA reported that the ex-vice-president of Venezuela was giving diplomatic passports to members of different terror organizations. Only this week, a report was published that some Palestinian organizations have been training the militias created by the government.
In a country where the information is controlled by the government and Democracy is only a memory, we can’t be sure about the real situation but we sure can know something: Iran has its hands full of Latino blood, and the terrorists who committed the only terror attacks against the Jewish community in the region are still free.
Puder: What is the future of Latin American Jewish communities?
IL: I´m optimistic. I think we have more friends than enemies in Latin America. There is a deep relationship between Latinos and Israelis that is stronger than with their governments. We see how different non-Jewish communities have declared their support for Israel, how Israel continues to help Latin countries in the toughest situations and how countries like Guatemala have decided to show their support by moving their embassies to Jerusalem.
I think it´s time that Israel and the Jewish community around the world embrace Latin America as one of the closest friends of Israel and start building bridges to bring us together, to build real alliances between our countries and to enhance the beautiful relationship that has always existed between our people.