ahmadinejad chavez 298.8.
(photo credit: AP)
On the day that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived for a 30-hour visit, it seemed appropriate that Venezuela's Jewish community should organize a conference on the Middle East conflict and its local repercussions.
Freddy Pressner, head of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela, claimed the timing was pure coincidence, but agreed "fate" may have played a role.
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Ahmadinejad's visit here reinforced an alliance that both countries have been cultivating with high level visits. Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, both leaders of oil-producing nations, have found common cause criticizing US hegemony.
Chavez has come out in support of Iran's nuclear program as well as denouncing the war in Lebanon, accusing Israel of a "new Holocaust." At the Non-Aligned Movement summit, which was held in Cuba leading up to the Iranian leader's Caracas visit, Venezuela and Iran channeled the tide of global anti-US sentiment into support for Iran's right to nuclear energy.
"We are outraged" by Ahmadinejad's visit, said Pressner, citing the Iranian leader's Holocaust denial and his statements about erasing Israel from the planet.
While Israel's security has always been a cause for concern among Venezuelan Jews, Chavez's alliance with Iran has them worried about their own security for the first time.
"No one used to say anti-Semitic things," said Claudia Prengler, who attended the conference. "We've always lived in peace here."
Sammy Eppel, a local columnist, addressed the emerging anti-Semitism in his conference presentation. He claimed to have found 195 anti-Semitic messages in official and pro-government media in a 65-day period ending August 31.
Among Eppel's slides, one allegedly showed the front page of a government publication called "Docencia," or "Teaching," which denounced the "Jewish killers" perpetrating the war in Lebanon.
A former head of the Jewish confederation, Abraham Levy, remembered that up until a couple of years ago, "there were hardly any [anti-Semitic] articles" in Venezuelan media.
Some at the conference feared that Chavez's attacks on Israel may lead to attacks on local Jews. Already, graffiti is appearing on the Mariperez synagogue with increasing frequency. As a safety precaution, Levy skipped out on an office visit to the synagogue last Monday to avoid colliding with a pro-government march.
Critics claim that Chavez owes his anti-Semitic credentials to his late mentor, Norberto Ceresole, an Argentine ideologue who was well-known for his neo-Nazi views. But Chavez has only recently aimed his vitriol at Israel as he seeks friends in the Middle East, especially in Damascus and Teheran, both of which he visited in the last two months.
The recent wave of anti-Semitism has Venezuelan Jews, used to acceptance, rather nervous. Some even accuse Chavez of bringing in Hizbullah to indoctrinate Wayuu Indians in the west of the country.
"The government has adopted an anti-Semitic policy," explained Eppel. "But it's the government, not the people, that is anti-Semitic."
In meetings between Jewish leaders and high level government officials, including Chavez himself, the government has claimed to have its hands tied. "'We'll do what we can, but we can't deny people freedom of speech,'" has been the government's response, according to Pressner.
But considering that the wave of anti-Semitism comes from official and pro-government media, Chavez's failure to repudiate these media and the anti-Semitic graffiti represents the "crux of the problem," said Levy.
Venezuela's ties to the Middle East go far back. The country was among the founding members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), but always maintained a neutral position on Israel - until now.
"It started with taking a stance and has been aggravated by increasingly close ties where now you have these anti-Semitic messages," said Pressner. "Whereas before, the messages were unofficial, now they're official."
Chavez and his followers have helped create a "climate of unease and lack of safety," according to Pressner. "It concerns us," he added.
Like the rest of the country, Venezuela's Jews depend on the goodwill of a president whose power reaches deeply into most of the nation's institutions. Still, Pressner promised that they won't stand by as Israel and Jews are attacked.
"You can't separate Israel from Venezuelan Jews, they're one and the same," said Pressner, suggesting that as Chavez becomes closer to Israel's arch-foe, and his rhetoric follows suit, Jews here will continue to feel on edge.