The First Word: Why we met with Hugo Chavez

History has proven that no society in which Jews feel unease can flourish.

chavez 88 (photo credit: )
chavez 88
(photo credit: )
Permit a Brooklyn-bred Jew the use of British understatement: "Ceaucescu was no saint." He was a warped megalomaniac who had no respect for the idea of human rights and ruthlessly trampled on the dignity of his citizens - reducing them to impoverished helots. He threatened the use of anti-Semitism and on occasion made good on that threat - all the while maintaining an independent policy toward Israel and ransoming "his" Jews. Despite the Romanian dictator's long litany of misdeeds, WJC President Edgar Bronfman and I kept talking to him. We did that because there were Jews in Romania whose very lives depended on the despotic whims of that despicable dictator. Because of that open channel to Ceaucescu, Romanian Jews were able to live as Jews and to stave off starvation thanks to the steady flow of material aid from abroad. They were allowed to emigrate to Israel, and hundreds of thousands took advantage of that opportunity. No less important, Israel was able to maintain a foothold in the Communist bloc and reap many diplomatic benefits as a result. We thought of those days several weeks ago when, at the invitation of Argentina's president Nestor Kirchner, we met with Venezuela's controversial leader Hugo Chavez at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. Many of us had misgivings about the wisdom of meeting a man who was on record as regurgitating time-worn anti-Semitic canards and who regularly pilloried Israel. But meet with him we did, together with senior representatives of Latin American Jewry. Over the years, when Jewish communities were imperiled, time and again Edgar Bronfman and I met with leaders we found distasteful and even repugnant. But thousands of Jews live in Venezuela and there are thousands more in neighboring countries. And they cannot ignore the rumblings of social revolution in their backyard, especially when there is a distinct anti-Jewish accent to that purported social change. President Chavez aspires to bring about a social revolution destined to change the face of Latin America, but the question is what will be the face of that revolution. Those of us old enough to remember the 1950s recall asking that same question when Castro and his followers rode through the streets of Havana. In forceful language, Chavez told us that he has no quarrels with the Jews of Venezuela and that he considers his Jewish subjects "dearly beloved citizens" and valuable assets to his nation. But this week, since that hopeful encounter, one must come to believe that the skeptics may have been right and that our willingness to give Chavez the benefit of the doubt was naive. More and more, it seems that ours was a confrontation with a shameless friend of evil. THE RANTINGS of Chavez, and his reckless overtures to states supporting terror have an impact far beyond the borders of Venezuela. Chavez is seen as the voice of Latin America's Indian population, which has long been relegated to the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole. Washington is associated with the ancien regime which Chavez is determined to bury once and for all. Today we confront a new political persona in South America, which forces us to reassess our previous understanding of politics there. Chavez hates President George W. Bush, and vilifies Israel. He meets with Ahmadinejad and courts Syria. He regularly parrots anti-Jewish calumnies even while continuing to insist that he is no anti-Semite. But above all he wants to be the leader of a social revolution that will change South America. Chavez makes no secret of the fact that the ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro is his idol. But Chavez's attempts to imitate Castro are not quite convincing. Castro protected and respected his Jewish community despite the fact that he later severed relations with Israel (though he did so years after the rest of the Communist Bloc, and one suspects that it was a pragmatic move more than one motivated by any real ideology). Whatever the Cuban dictator's other shortcomings, and there are many to be sure, a search of his many speeches will reveal no hint of anti-Semitism. I met with Castro many times, and never suspected for a moment that he was an anti-Semite. I do not know whether President Chavez reads The Jerusalem Post, but suspect that this article will eventually reach him. Therefore this is an opportunity to send him the following message: Your Excellency, You are on the brink of defining the Bolivarian revolution that you aspire to lead across Latin America. Whether you like it or not, the way in which you deal with your country's small Jewish minority will ultimately define your place in history. Will you be recorded as a complex and controversial personality, perhaps even a genuine statesman - or as a crude mimic of one of the 21st century's worst tyrants and Holocaust deniers, one branded by the entire civilized world as the most powerful and dangerous spokesman of rogue regimes? History has proven that no society can flourish in which the Jew feels unease. You may think that you can separate Jews from Israel. Others have tried. But as you will soon learn, you cannot. The courageous Jews of Venezuela, Venezuelan patriots whose support for Israel, both in word and deed, is unwavering, have proven that. Take heed. If you think you can maintain a friendship with rocket rattlers and the bankrollers of international terrorism - and also receive support, or even acceptance in the family of civilized nations, you are mistaken. But at the end of the day, the choice is yours. The writer is the Chairman of the Policy Council of the World Jewish Congress.