Jewish leaders meet with Hugo Chavez

Venezuelan president pledges to improve ties with Jewish world, work together against anti-Semitism.

chavez 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
chavez 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
President Hugo Chavez met with Jewish leaders on Wednesday, pledging to work together against anti-Semitism and open up channels of communication despite strong differences on Mideast politics. Both Chavez and leaders of the World Jewish Congress called the meeting a success. "There may be some differences of opinion on some issues - on major issues such as Iran and also the Middle East," Michael Schneider, the organization's secretary-general, said after the meeting. "But when it comes to anti-Semitism, I think we're on the same page." "We mentioned our concerns about anti-Semitism and asked him what his position was," Schneider said. "And he said he was certainly not an anti-Semite." The socialist president said it was a "very important meeting," but did not elaborate. Schneider said Chavez offered to meet with his Brazilian and Argentine counterparts to jointly condemn "all forms of anti-Semitism, discrimination against minorities and anti-Muslim sentiment." Chavez has repeatedly vilified Israel while expressing sympathy for the Palestinians. During the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon, Chavez withdrew his top envoy from Israel and threatened to cut off diplomatic relations, calling the attacks "a new Holocaust." But his government has insisted the criticisms of Israel aren't meant to demonize Jewish people, saying relations with Venezuela's Jewish community are "open and friendly." A US State Department report on anti-Semitism in March expressed concern about Chavez's remarks demonizing Israel. Some other Venezuelan officials also have come under fire. In June, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center called comments by Venezuela's ambassador to Russia, Alexis Navarro, "racist." The daily Moscow News quoted Navarro as saying a failed 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez involved Israeli Mossad intelligence snipers who were "Venezuelan citizens, but Jews." Following Wednesday's meeting, "the global Jewish community is more at peace with President Chavez," said Jack Terpins, president of the Latin American Jewish Congress. Schneider said delegates asked Chavez to install a "full-status" ambassador in Israel to replace the current lower-level envoy - a request he said Chavez is considering. He said Chavez also expressed support for dialogue with the Jewish community in Venezuela and abroad, and would help facilitate dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Venezuela's Jewish community numbers an estimated 12,000 to 13,000 people, down from about 16,000 a decade ago as some have moved abroad. Venezuela's Jewish groups condemned a police raid on their community center last December, saying authorities were searching for nonexistent weapons. They also have denounced graffiti on synagogue walls with slogans such as "Here are the assassins of Palestine" and "Jews go home." Schneider expressed hope that Chavez's pledges would discourage anti-Semitic rhetoric. Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are united in their antagonism toward the US and Israel, and have teamed up to start joint ventures in Venezuela to produce cars, tractors and bicycles. Jewish leaders have expressed outrage at Ahmadinejad's visits, objecting to his past remarks calling for the destruction of Israel. Hector Timerman, Argentina's ambassador to the US, attended on behalf of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who helped arrange the meeting. According to the Argentina-based Jewish News Agency, Timerman said those at the talks asked Chavez to "use his relationship" with Iran to "express the concern that the (Iranian) president's statements generate" in their community.