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Jewish leaders meet in Venezuela

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, right, meets with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner in Venezuela in July 2004. (Office of the Argentine Presidency)

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, right, meets with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner in Venezuela in July 2004. (Office of the Argentine Presidency)

CARACAS (JTA) — Venezuela’s Jewish community faces the most
difficult situation of any in the world except for Iran’s, according to
the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.

“Outside the Arab world, this is the most
troubled place in the world for Jews,” Stephen Herbits told JTA while
visiting Caracas for a meeting of the Latin American Jewish Congress. “I’d say
it’s just behind Iran in terms of how bad it is. The situation is not yet
desperate here, but they certainly have to be very alert.”

Herbits is one of some 70 Jewish leaders
attending the meeting, which was timed to coincide with the 40th
anniversary of CAIV, the umbrella organization of the Venezuelan Jewish community.

Claudio Epelman, assistant director of the
Latin American Jewish Congress, said the issue of Iran dominated a closed-door session Thursday.

“Iran is the biggest issue for Latin
American Jewry,” he told JTA.

Hugo Chavez, the left-wing Venezuelan president, has moved
increasingly closer to Tehran in the past year, and recently signed some
$17 billion worth of bilateral trade and economic cooperation agreements, many in the oil sector.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map and is believed to be developing nuclear weapons. One of his closest allies is Chavez, who also has delivered vehement criticism of Israel in recent months and has made statements that some commentators interpreted as anti-Semitic.

“On the one hand you have Iran
strengthening its economic and political ties with countries in the region — primarily Venezuela, but also Ecuador and Nicaragua,” Epelman said. “On the
other hand, Argentina is still pursuing Iranian officials as part of its
investigation into the AMIA bombing.”

He was referring to the 1994 bombing of the main Jewish community center in Argentina, which killed 85 people and injured some 300. Iran is widely believed to be behind the attack.

Many of the communal leaders who came to this week’s meeting — from the United States,
Canada, France, Spain, Israel and countries across Latin America –- said an
important reason for attending was to show solidarity with the
Venezuelan Jewish community.

“We’ve come to express our affection,
respect and love for the Jewish community in Venezuela,” said Michael Salberg, international affairs director for the Anti-Defamation League.

“We’re here to show Venezuela and the rest
of the world that Jewish ties remain stronger than ever,” Epelman said.

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