pro-Palestine rally in Peru_150.
(photo credit: Reuters)
When Claudio Lottenberg, the president of Conib – the umbrella group
representing Brazilian Jewry – published a letter in the local press criticizing
the government’s ties with Iran, he encountered an unexpected result.
RELATED:'Get to Know Israel' Quiz in Argentina
could not understand how then-Brazilian president Inacio Lula da Silva would be
a friend of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust, and
I paid a heavy price,” he said. “When President Shimon Peres was invited
to have lunch with Lula at his home, I was not invited.”
was blacklisted by da Silva, said ties with current Brazilian President Dilma
Roussouff have improved, but the story is indicative of a larger phenomenon.
Countries hostile to Israel, like Iran, exert a large and arguably increasing
influence over Latin America, sometimes driving a wedge between its governments
and local Jewish communities.
How to deal with these realities will be
one of the issues topping the agenda at the American Jewish Committee’s
Strategic Forum of Leaders of Latin American and Jewish Communities, which
starts in Miami on Friday.
“We are facing a new situation,” said Dina
Siegel- Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at the AJC and
an organizer of the three-day gathering. “In the past, the Jewish communities
were not alone, but there was no competition on the Middle East conflict.
Suddenly you have actors on the local and international level vying for public
opinion who also are pushing governments for different positions on foreign
The Islamic Republic, which has close ties with Venezuela,
Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, isn’t the only Middle Eastern country with a strong
presence in the Latin world. Saudi Arabia also wields considerable political
clout by virtue of its petrodollars. In Buenos Aires, for instance, a massive
mosque built by the Saudis in the 1990s dominates an entire block in the
neighborhood of Palermo.
Pressure regarding Middle East policy in Latin
America can also come from within.
In Chile, the local Palestinian
community – the largest on the continent – played a big part in shaping
Santiago’s policy on the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN this
“Historically we’ve had good relations with the Palestinian
community,” the former head of Chile’s Jewish community, Gabriel Zaliasnik, told
The Jerusalem Post
last year. “But in the past decade, they have deteriorated a
little bit because the Middle East conflict has become more on the
After much wrangling, Santiago eventually supported the
Palestinian statehood bid, but with caveats meant to appease
Looking forward, Mario Fleck, a leader of the Jewish community in
Sao Paulo who will attend the conference in Miami, believes Jews in Latin
America should take a page from their US brethren’s book and become more
directly involved in government.
“We don’t have even a single member of
congress in Brazil, not one Jew,” said Fleck. “We couldn’t get our act together.
There is Jaime Lerner, the former governor of Parana, and a few others, but you
can count them on your fingers in the last 30 years.”
He said the Jewish
community in Brazil, which numbers around 100,000, has plans to encourage more
of its young members to enter politics.
“In the future, we are going to
plan better,” he said. “This is a long-term plan.”