(JTA) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a far-left leader who has likened harassment of his country’s government officials and their families living abroad to the treatment of Jews under the Nazis, welcomed a senior Israeli rabbi in Caracas with an eye toward “strengthening peace diplomacy.”
Maduro met Sunday with Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic rabbi in Israel from 2003 to 2013 and currently the chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
In 2017, Venezuela’s foreign minister expressed to his country’s chief rabbi “the desire to establish full relations with the State of Israel,” eight years after the South American nation expelled its Israeli ambassador.
“I had a pleasant and cordial encounter with Shlomo Moshe Amar Shlita, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, who gave me his blessing and expressed good wishes for the people of Venezuela,” Maduro tweeted.
Several other Venezuelan officials attended the meeting at the Miraflores Palace, including Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez. Maduro awarded the Libertadoras y Libertadores medal to Rabbi Isaac Cohen, the spiritual leader of the Venezuelan Israelite Association, who has been living in the country for over 40 years.
In 2017, Cohen told the AJN News website, speaking about possible renewed ties between Israel and Venezuela: “We suggested to start with a period of courtship, which means a beginning through consular relations, so that later it will become a marriage, which would be Israel’s own embassy again in Venezuela, as we have always had here.
“I am an Orthodox and Zionist rabbi, and for me it is Jewish pride to have the flag of the State of Israel hoisted here in Venezuela, as in any country where there is a Jewish community. That gives us peace and tranquility, it’s fundamental.”
In 2006, the Venezuelan government downgraded its relations with Israel in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. The late president Hugo Chavez recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv after criticizing Israel for employing “Hitler’s methods” against Lebanese civilians.
Chavez, Maduro’s political godfather, often employed anti-Semitic rhetoric to deflect criticism from the country’s deep financial crisis and charges of corruption.
Maduro said earlier this year that opposition rallies in Caracas were reminiscent of rallies during the rise of Nazism and fascism in pre-World War II Europe.
“We are the new Jews of the 21st century that Hitler pursued,” he said. “We don’t carry the yellow Star of David, we carry red hearts that are filled with desire to fight for human dignity. And we are going to defeat them, these 21st century Nazis.”
Venezuela is home to some 9,000 Jews, down from about 25,000 in 1999. Many Jews left, mainly for Florida and Israel, due to a deteriorating financial and social climate, along with a growing anti-Semitic environment established under the Chavez and Maduro regimes.
Amar has stoked controversy in Israel, saying last year that Reform Jews were worse than Holocaust deniers for defying Orthodox Jewish law on gender separation and insisting on the right to mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. In 2016, he called homosexuality an “abomination.”
Ten years earlier, Amar submitted a draft bill that would remove the conversion clause from Israel’s Law of Return, preventing any Jew by choice from having automatic citizenship rights in Israel.