(photo credit: AP)
Israelis were not bowled over when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expelled our ambassador from Caracas three weeks ago. After due consideration, Jerusalem gave the Venezuelan head of mission, Roland Betancourt, and two other diplomats until this past Friday to depart.
If nobody was surprised by the ouster of our diplomats, neither was official Venezuela fazed by our retaliation. A government communiquÃ© described Israel's response as "weak, late, and in any case for us an honor... We're proud that Israel, led by criminals, made this decision."
No real relations had existed between the two countries for over two years. Caracas has not issued tourist visas to Israelis since the Second Lebanon War, and there remained little more than a feeble semblance of connection between the two governments. Israel's ambassador was shunned both by the regime and the media it dominates. Israel was demonized and delegitimized.
Back in 2002, Chavez ascribed an attempted coup to "a Zionist plot masterminded by the Mossad."
In 2005, while delivering a Christmas address, Chavez hectored that "some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ... took all the world's wealth for themselves."
Always eager to insert himself into any international imbroglio, Chavez has been particularly chummy with the most unsavory elements of the Muslim and Arab world. While visiting Libya in 2006, Chavez was awarded Muammar Gaddafi's Prize for Human Rights. A few days later, in Teheran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented Chavez with Iran's highest honor for backing its nuclear ambitions. Ahmadinejad attested: "In Chavez I met a comrade and trench-mate."
Venezuela's dwindling Jewish community is understandably anxious. Chavez's incendiary comments about Jews and the Jewish state fan anti-Semitic flames and leave local Jews feeling vulnerable. Two weeks ago Chavez exhorted them to denounce "Israel's barbarism. Do it. Don't you strongly denounce any act of persecution and the Holocaust? What do you think we are looking at [in Gaza] if not another Holocaust?"
This wasn't the first time Chavez likened Israel's self-defense to the systematic extermination of Europe's Jews.
So we worry for our brethren. Only about 15,000 Jews still reside in Venezuela, and Israel's diplomatic legation, when it was there, could hardly protect them. Perhaps the Canadians, whom Israel may ask to represent its interests as they do in Cuba, can be a more potent watchdog.
Chavez and his Bolivian cohort Evo Morales, who followed suit and also broke ties with Israel, don't reflect the Latin American mainstream. And no Israeli lapse is responsible for their idiosyncratic excesses. No diplomacy could preempt unmitigated unreasonableness and bigotry.
NEVERTHELESS, Israel needs to be deeply concerned by its tarnished image in an increasingly radicalized South America, a continent with substantial influence in world forums. Yet it's all but overlooked by Israel's diplomacy and hasbara apparatus. Meanwhile, Arab influence spirals. The Saudis and Gulf states pour in funds with which Israel obviously cannot compete and their investments are accompanied by intensive pro-Palestinian propaganda, which Israel barely bothers to combat.
Rebutting guarantees no success, but we should be doing more to make our case. During Operation Cast Lead, almost no Spanish-language material was disseminated by the IDF Spokesman. Surely translators could be recruited in our land full of immigrants. We urge the IDF to identify Spanish-language spokespeople to pitch in where necessary.
While Chavez and Morales certainly deserve our contempt, Jerusalem must not abandon the South American arena to Arab and Muslim propagandists. When misrepresentation isn't exposed it gains acceptance.
The Israel Broadcast Authority has a Spanish language service that is accessible via the Internet. Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires has a Spanish language Web site. It would be good if the Foreign Ministry could find creative ways to encourage greater numbers of South Americans to access pro-Israel information already available.
Venezuela is one of Latin America's oldest democracies, though Chavez is trying to convince the masses to keep him in power after his time in office expires in four years, despite the country's term limits. Israel has no quarrel with the Venezuelan people. We have not forgotten that Venezuela supported the creation of a Jewish state at the UN in 1947. What we need to do is tell the Venezuelan people that our cause remains just.