World Jewish Congress officials allowed themselves to get carried away when they hailed a recent meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as having been “successful” and proclaimed that he had joined the global struggle against anti-Semitism. The Venezuelan demagogue did announce that his ambassador to Israel, who had been recalled during the Second Lebanon War, would resume his duties. But beyond that he has yet to display any meaningful initiative to reverse his long-standing hostility to the Jewish people and the Jewish state and his fervent alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It must have been music for the ears of Chavez to hear WJC secretary-general Michael Schneider proclaim to the media that “when it comes to anti-Semites, we [Chavez and World Jewry] are on the same page.” Schneider’s explicit assertion that “Chavez was certainly not an anti-Semite” was based on an assurance to that effect by Chavez and a vacuous offer to join others and “condemn all forms of anti-Semitism, discrimination against minorities and anti-Muslim sentiment.” To his credit, WJC president Ronald Lauder was more circumspect and apparently declined to comment.
The paeans of praise directed towards Chavez by Schneider and his colleagues ignore the fact that this wretched hooligan has achieved the notoriety of being the most loathsome contemporary anti-Semitic head of state outside the Muslim world. This is the man who in a Christmas speech alleged that “the descendants of those who crucified Christ control the world’s wealth.”
Chavez has also achieved international notoriety as one of Ahmadinejad’s closest allies. Both tyrants extol one another’s virtues and radiate hatred against the US and Israel. Chavez describes Ahmadinejad as “a fighter for just causes,” a “brother” and a “revolutionary.” Last year the Iranian president awarded Chavez Iran’s highest honor, the Islamic Republic Medal.
Chavez boasts of his close ties with President Bashar Assad of Syria. At a joint press conference with Assad, Chavez said “We know how Israel was born. It is an annex of the North American empire in the Middle East. Israel is the cause of the conflict in the region. This territory 6,000 years ago belonged to the Canaanites and the Philistines. These lands belong to the Palestinians.”
The Venezuelan president has also enthusiastically identified himself with Hizbullah and was widely displayed together with its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in posters throughout Lebanon stating that “Israel needs to be judged for its crimes.” He also provides a haven in Venezuela for Hizbullah terrorists.
During the Second Lebanon War, Chavez recalled the Venezuelan ambassador to Israel in response to what he described as a “new Holocaust” comparable to Hitler’s actions against the Jews being perpetrated with “gringo” planes provided by the US.
Chavez also intimidated the 12,000 members of the Venezuelan Jewish community, 25 percent of whom have emigrated since he assumed power. His government sanctioned vicious anti-Semitic media campaigns and a proliferation of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda and graffiti at all levels. As recently as six months ago, Chavez authorized a police raid on the Caracas Club Hebraica on the spurious grounds that illegal weapons were being stored there. The synagogue has also been subject to repeated vandalism. In June this year, Alexis Navarro, the Venezuelan ambassador to Russia, alleged that a failed coup against Chavez had been orchestrated by Mossad intelligence snipers who were “Venezuelan citizens but Jews.”
It is therefore mind-boggling that Schneider could blithely inform the media that “there may have been some differences on some issues such as Iran and also the Middle East,” but after Chavez had assured him “that he was certainly not an anti-Semite,” the meeting was a “success.” In effect, certain World Jewish Congress leaders are legitimizing the man who maintains warm relationships with Holocaust deniers and demonizers of Israel, enshrining him with a mantle of respectability in the struggle against anti-Semitism, when he merely paid lip service to the cause by saying that he “opposed anti-Semitism.”
Clearly oblivious to the growing international concern about the expanding Iranian presence in his region, Latin American Jewish Congress president Jack Terpins casually informed the media that the question of Iranian influence in Venezuela “is an internal problem between Venezuela and Iran.” He stressed that “the meeting could not have been better and that a new era has begun,” adding that “the world Jewish community is now calmer about President Chavez. He has demonstrated that he is a great friend of this community.”
To top off this Alice in Wonderland diplomacy, Chavez is also reported to have agreed to assist the WJC in its interfaith dialogue activities with Christians and Muslims. Last month, WJC representatives at King Abdullah’s interfaith conference in Madrid displayed their impotence by failing to raise the issue of Saudi anti-Semitism. But if their intention is to now coopt this loathsome tyrant to promote interfaith relations, they would be forfeiting any semblance of Jewish dignity and their groveling would have descended to an all-time low.
Ideally we would prefer to treat foul mouthed anti-Semites like Chavez as lepers. But the harsh realities of political life sometimes oblige Jewish leaders to converse with tyrants and leave no stone unturned in efforts to ameliorate onerous situations. A carefully planned meeting between international Jewish leaders and Chavez was therefore entirely appropriate, even were it only to provide support for the embattled local Jewish community. But the rules of diplomacy in such an encounter do not require the Jewish party to absolve an anti-Semite of his past sins merely because he agrees to a meeting.
In this context, the WJC leaders blundered in failing to make explicit representations concerning the global anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies conducted by the Venezuelan regime. They were also premature in dispensing a clean bill of health to one of the key personalities leading the international anti Jewish campaign. Worse, their failure to even relate to these issues in subsequent media interviews may transform this encounter into an utterly counterproductive exercise.
In recent years, our greatest challenge has been to demonstrate that demonization and delegitimization of Israel is simply a new version of anti-Semitism – substituting hatred of the Jew as an individual with hatred of the Jewish state. Now we have the WJC secretary-general and some of his colleagues lauding Chavez and bestowing upon him the dubious distinction of being the first leader openly embracing Iranian Holocaust deniers and shamelessly indulging in demonization of Israel to be treated with deference and regarded as an ally by a body purporting to represent world Jewry. If any reputable non-Jewish organization or government behaved in such a manner, we Jews would be the first to protest.
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