January 14, 2008
Let's use diplomacy, not public protests
By DINA SIEGEL VANN
The dangerous antics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his alliance with Iran, his open hostility toward the United States and a number of anti-Semitic incidents have generated widespread concern about the fate of the small Jewish community in this oil-rich South American nation.
How best can we in the American Jewish community be helpful, while ever mindful of the local community's interests? The situation is extremely delicate. American Jews cannot presume to know better than the Venezuelan Jewish leadership what they face on a daily basis and how best to respond.
Shouting and screaming from the safety of the United States may feel good to some, but the goal of the exercise is not to satisfy their needs; rather, it's to ensure the safety and well-being of thousands of Venezuelan Jews who have repeatedly said that such behavior is likely to exacerbate the situation.
In my role at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), I have visited Caracas four times in the past three years, most recently in November 2007. The AJC regularly hosts the leaders of Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), the Jewish community's umbrella organization, one of AJC's international partners, while we remain in almost daily contact.
Support for Venezuelan Jews
Venezuela Jewry's heightened sense of vulnerability has resulted above all from two outrageous police assaults, in 2004 and 2007, on Hebraica, the Caracas complex housing the Jewish community center and school, as well as incendiary anti-Semitic reports in major media.
Venezuelan Jews are well aware that they enjoy strong support not only from mainstream American Jewish organizations, but also from the U.S. government and important neighbors in South America, notably Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Last year, then First Lady Kirchner addressed the 40th anniversary of the CAIV in Caracas. Her words of support were unmistakably clear. Attended by diplomats from many nations, as well as U.S. and Latin American Jewish leaders, the gathering sent a strong message to the Chávez government.
The best assistance American Jews can provide, apart from helping sustain Jewish life in Venezuela and across Latin America, is to support efforts to strengthen the democratic and pluralistic characteristics of these societies. In December, more than 30 leaders of 14 Latin American Jewish communities, including Venezuela, gathered in Miami for a three-day AJC advocacy workshop that touched on these very issues.
Chávez's ascension to power came amid pervasive socio-economic gaps and corruption. Many in decision-making positions in the U.S. government have rightly, if belatedly, concluded that public confrontation with his regime should be avoided when possible. Thus, without changing its fundamental attitude, Washington has recently used quieter diplomacy and even partial engagement with a major supplier of oil to the United States -- another reminder of the consequences of our nation's dependence on oil from hostile sources.
Pressure U.S. government
So, while remaining in close contact with the CAIV and urging the Venezuelan administration to respect the constitutional rights of the Jewish community, we should continue to convey our concerns to the State Department, Congress and the Organization of American States, as well as those friendly governments in the region who view with concern any assaults against Jews. Chávez may or may not care what the United States and American Jewish groups think, but he can't easily dismiss the concerns of key countries in his region and others important to his regime.
Also, Americans should focus on pressing the U.S. government to support stepped-up efforts to reduce endemic poverty and inequality in our hemisphere. That is a longer-term antidote to Chávez and populist leaders like him who feed off the wide gaps in Latin American societies. Strikingly, more and more Latin American Jewish communities recognize the need to join these efforts if the future is to hold promise for everyone.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Jewish community is not alone. Support has come from many quarters. That support and solidarity must be sustained. We seek to ensure that it will.
Dina Siegel Vann is director of AJC's Latino and Latin American Institute in Washington, D.C.