Jews in Latin America revise Mideast strategy

Success of Palestinian statehood bid in region has leaders at AJC conference in Miami reconsidering approach.

pro-Palestine rally in Peru_150 (photo credit: Reuters)
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.
“I 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.”
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Lottenberg, who 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 policy.”
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 year.
“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 agenda.”
After much wrangling, Santiago eventually supported the Palestinian statehood bid, but with caveats meant to appease Israel.
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.”