No sooner did the World Jewish Congress issue a statement saying its president, Ron Lauder, and its Latin American Jewish Congress president had sent condolences to the family of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez than Lauder’s phone began ringing.
“Some of our members called and said, ‘What the hell is going on?” recalled Michael Schneider, the WJC’s secretary-general emeritus. “He didn’t know it was being made, nor did he endorse it. It was honestly a snafu and Lauder was not happy.”
Soon thereafter the WJC revised the statement, limiting the expression of condolences to Latin American Jewish Congress President Jack Terpins. The new statement also removed the accompanying picture taken in 2008 of Lauder speaking with Chavez. And it said the earlier statement had been a “draft” that had been sent in error.
The statement said that Terpins had sent condolences to Chavez’s family and supporters in the “hope that the Venezuelan leadership would continue its dialogue with the Jewish community in order to improve the situation of Jews in the country and internationally.”
It said Chavez had left a “mixed legacy” for the Jewish world — breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel and fostering close ties with the Iranian regime.
“As we pointed out in several meetings with Mr. Chávez and his government, including last month in Caracas with Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the Jewish citizens of Venezuela and the community there need the protection of the government,” the statement continued. “Mr. Maduro renewed the pledge given to us by President Chávez in 2008 that state-sponsored anti-Semitism would not be tolerated and that “a revolutionary cannot be an anti-Semite. We very much hope that these words of the late president will be his legacy.”
Schneider said Terpins made the comments “at the request of the local community. … This is an insecure community. At their request we have still maintained some kind of link with the Venezuelan government because we felt there should at least be one Jewish organization that has direct contact in case we can be helpful if the Jewish community there feels endangered or suffers some kind of attack.”
“There is always a balance when dealing with anti-Israel forces — what do you do to protect a Jewish community that is at risk,” Schneider added. “Provided you don’t do damage to a greater goal, sometimes you do help a community establish a link or a tie to a government that they have not had ties with.”
The persecution of Jews under Chavez was described by Ayelet Ben Naim, who lived in Venezuela during Chavez’s reign, in an article this week in the Israeli publication HaYom: “Chávez’s many anti-Jewish statements in the media, like calling Jews pigs, denying the Holocaust and accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians, contributed to an atmosphere of anti-Semitism that grew worse year by year. Suddenly it became frightening to walk down the street after dark, for fear of being harassed. Our synagogues and Jewish community buildings were spray-painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans and there was a feeling that Chávez was egging on the populace and speaking the “people’s language” against the Jews.”