August 14, 2008
CARACAS -- Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez, a firm ally of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, met with Jewish leaders Wednesday in an atmosphere described by both sides as ''cordial'' and ``positive.''
Heading the delegation was Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who was accompanied by, among others, Jack Terpins, his counterpart from the Latin American Jewish Congress.
Venezuela's Jewish community, which is 15,000 strong but has dwindled in recent years, has frequently voiced its concerns, not only over the alliance with Iran and Venezuela's support of the radical Palestinian organization Hezbollah, but also the overtly anti-Semitic attitudes of some of Chávez's more radical supporters.
In 2006, Chávez compared the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah in south Lebanon with Hitler's attempt to eradicate the Jews. He threatened to sever diplomatic relations, saying he had ''no interest'' in ties with ``a state like Israel.''
Wednesday's meeting, at the Miraflores presidential palace, came about as a result of mediation by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whom Jewish organizations have lobbied to use her close ties with Chávez to ease tensions with the community.
In March 2007, before becoming president, the then Sen. Fernández de Kirchner was keynote speaker at the Latin American Jewish Congress' annual meeting, held in Caracas. On that occasion, she promised ``concrete action in the face of any sign of anti-semitism.''
In a brief statement to the press on the steps of the palace after the meeting, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said he hoped ``this coming-together will be maintained.''
Argentina's ambassador in Washington, Héctor Timerman, who was also present at the meeting, said Chávez had expressed a desire to join forces with Fernández de Kirchner and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ``to achieve the eradication of anti-Semitism in Latin America.''
One possibility, according to another participant -- Abraham Levy, president of the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) -- is that the three leaders sign a joint statement against anti-Semitism.