The strengthening of the Iranian diplomatic and economic presence in Latin America, coupled with the upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents and a deterioration in relations between Israel and many South American countries, led Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein to convene a three-day meeting in Jerusalem of leaders of Latin American Jewish communities.
The Latin American conference was launched Tuesday evening at Beit Hanassi, where Haim Aron, a former ambassador to Colombia and currently the chairman of Edelstein’s Advisory Committee on Latin America, spoke of the Latin American contribution to Israel’s existence. Of the 33 votes in favor of the partition plan which was voted on November 29, 1947, 12 were by South American countries. There were four abstentions from South America, and Cuba was the only South American country to vote against partition.
Aron, a Latin American by birth, attributed this overwhelmingly pro-Israel attitude to lobbying efforts by the Jewish communities of those countries, and noted that during the War of Independence, many South American Jews had served in Mahal (overseas volunteer) units. In the early years of the state, the first kibbutzim in the Negev were largely settled by South Americans, he said.
Later, South American immigrants contributed greatly to science, medicine, institutions of higher learning, banking and industry.
“The only area in which we did not make an impact was in politics,” he told the gathering of 42 leaders, including six from Venezuela, which no longer maintains diplomatic relations with Israel; ambassadors from most Latin American countries; and Israeli diplomats who served in such countries or who are currently working in the Foreign Ministry’s Latin American Department.
Aron was at a loss to explain why the close connections between Israel and Latin American countries had deteriorated. He blamed the virulently anti-Israel policy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for bringing both the Foreign Ministry and the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to the conclusion that Latin America was one of Israel’s major strategic challenges.
Aron also emphasized the importance of recent visits by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres to South America, saying they had paved the way and opened doors for renewed cooperation.
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“We must strengthen connections with these countries and their Jewish communities,” said Aron.
In a statement released at the beginning of the week, Edelstein stressed the need for direct dialogue with Latin American Jewish community leaders, given the challenges facing those communities.
“Iran is strengthening its diplomatic and economic presence in Latin America, while exporting the Islamic revolution and disseminating radical Shi’ite Islam among its residents. We are concerned that this Iranian presence, which is both strategic and tactical, will create unprecedented situations in these countries,” he declared in the statement.
He added that “in recent years, there has been an upsurge in anti-Semitism in several Latin American countries, which finds expression in verbal and physical assaults, and vandalism, that are perpetrated under the excuse of being directed against the State of Israel.”
At Beit Hanassi on Tuesday evening, Edelstein said he was very moved to see a new dimension of Jewish solidarity. The short period in which the conference had been organized and the resulting positive response was proof of how essential such a meeting was, he said.
The goal, he went on, was to work together and to build an effective program through the sharing of information.
“We can all learn from each other,” he said. “Our mission is to maintain contact with a view to mutual assistance.”
Edelstein added that he did not want to limit such meetings to annual or biennial gatherings, but wanted them to take place frequently.
Peres, who had met some of the leaders during his visits to Brazil and Argentina last November, said he knew how much energy and effort it took to maintain Jewish community life in Latin America in the face of dwindling numbers.
“It’s very difficult to keep up Jewish life when Jews are leaving,” he said, adding that he had been greatly moved by the enthusiasm of the Jewish communities of Brazil and Argentina. He had also been impressed by the coexistence between Jews and non-Jews. As an example, he noted that there were three Jews on Brazil’s Olympics committee.
But what impressed him most was that given the large Arab populations of the two South American countries, there was virtually no enmity between Arabs and Jews. This was something that could be emulated in the Middle East, he said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who visited South America soon after Peres, was equally impressed by the lack of hostilities, according to Peres, who spoke to him after his return.
Peres reviewed the various nuclear threats endangering the world and said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had established terror cells in Lebanon and Gaza.
Reiterating his recent remarks that Ahmadinejad was an inhuman dictator whose murderous plans must be stopped, Peres once again called on the nations of the world to take appropriate action and impose the most stringent economic sanctions on Iran.
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