CARACAS (JTA) – Argentina’s first lady is attempting to ease the chilly relations between Hugo Chavez, the bombastic left-wing president of Venezuela, and the country’s embattled Jewish community.Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is widely expected to launch a bid to succeed her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in Argentina’s presidential elections in October, will be the guest of honor this weekend at commemorations marking the 40th anniversary of the Jewish community’s umbrella association in Caracas.Fernandez, a senator from Buenos Aires province, told the Clarin newspaper that she was traveling to Venezuela “to bring Chavez and the Jewish community closer together.”Her visit, to talk to regional Jewish leaders who are using the event to hold a meeting of the Latin American Jewish Congress this week, also is intended as a solidarity mission.Relations between Chavez and the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, the main community body, are at a historic low following Chavez’s warm embrace of Iran and Syria, his verbal attacks on Israel and comments that some construed as anti-Semitic.”This is the worst I’ve seen the situation here in 40 years,” Rabbi Pynchas Brener, chief rabbi of Caracas’s Ashkenazi Jews, told JTA.In a speech last December, Chavez reportedly referred to “the descendants of the same people who crucified Christ,” saying they “have taken over all the wealth of the world.”While that drew international criticism — including a demand for an apology from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, protests from the World Jewish Congress and complaints from Jewish leaders in Brazil — their counterparts in Caracas remained quiet. Venezuelan Jews maintained that the comments were not directed specifically at their community, and some dovish U.S. Jews argued that the comments were not directed against Jews at all but rather against capitalism in general.But Chavez has repeatedly lashed out at Israel in the harshest terms, particularly during the attack on Lebanon last year. On several occasions he accused the Jewish state of “committing genocide.””The Israelis criticize Hitler but have done something worse,” he said.Chavez withdrew his ambassador to Israel three years ago and recalled his charge d’affaires last year to protest the war in Lebanon, leaving Venezuela without diplomats in Israel.The 25,000-strong Jewish community was rocked by a 2003 raid by armed policemen on a Caracas Jewish school — ostensibly to search for weapons, a charge the community dismissed as ludicrous — and has watched nervously as Chavez has strengthened his ties with Iran and Syria. Earlier this month, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro led a high-profile visit to Tehran and Damascus, where he signed cooperation and trade agreements.However, Chavez has distanced himself from statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust and arguing that Israel should be destroyed.Chavez’s alliance with Iran has brought him into conflict with Kirchner’s regime, which in recent months has stepped up its pursuit of those responsible for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and wounded some 300. At the same time, oil-rich Venezuela is an important strategic partner for Argentina.Brener said the attention caused by Fernandez’s attendance and the presence of Jewish leaders from around the world could have a positive effect.”This event is partly to show that the international community is with us,” he said. “This president is very sensitive to international opinion. This will be good.”If Fernandez can broker a meeting between Chavez and Jewish leaders, she’ll be following in the footsteps of her spouse, who arranged a meeting between Chavez and Rabbi Israel Singer, former leader of the World Jewish Congress, on the sidelines of a trade summit in Argentina last year.Before his surprise firing this week, Singer had been among those slated to attend the Caracas event. While his attendance is now in doubt, organizers are expecting a delegation from the World Jewish Congress as well as representatives from the American Jewish Committee and the Latin American Jewish Congress.WJC Secretary-General Stephen Herbits will be attending.”We believe this is an important message to show solidarity” with the Venezuelan Jewish community, he told JTA.Jewish leaders from communities across Latin America, Europe and Israel also are expected to attend the meeting.
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