World Jewish Congress officials lost the plot when they called a recent meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez "successful", saying that he had joined the struggle against antisemitism.
Chavez must have been delighted to hear WJC secretary-general Michael Schneider tell the media that "when it comes to antisemites, we are on the same page". His assertion that "Chavez was certainly not an antisemite" was based only on Chavez's assurances. Beyond announcing that his ambassador to Israel, who had been recalled during the Lebanon war, would resume his duties, the Venezuelan tyrant has yet to display any meaningful initiative to reverse his longstanding hostility to the Jewish people.
To his credit, WJC president Ronald Lauder was more circumspect and declined to comment. But Schneider and his colleagues ignored the fact that this wretched man, Chavez, has become the most loathsome antisemitic head of state outside the Muslim world.
In a Christmas speech, he alleged that "the descendants of those who crucified Christ control the world's wealth". Chavez describes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "a fighter for just causes", a "brother" and a "revolutionary". He boasts of his close ties with President Bashar Assad of Syria, and enthusiastically provides a haven in Venezuela for Hizbollah terrorists; he described the Second Lebanon War as a "new Holocaust" comparable to Hitler's actions against the Jews.
Chavez has also intimidated the 12,000 members of the Venezuelan Jewish community, 25 per cent of whom have emigrated since he assumed power. His government sanctioned antisemitic media campaigns. Just six months ago, Chavez authorised a police raid on the Caracas Jewish community, Club Hebraica, on the spurious grounds that illegal weapons were being stored there.
Clearly oblivious to international concern about the expanding Iranian presence in his region, Latin American Jewish Congress president Jack Terpins informed the media that Iranian influence in Venezuela "is an internal problem". He stressed that "the meeting could not have been better", adding that "the world Jewish community is now calmer about President Chavez. He has demonstrated that he is a great friend of this community."
To top off this Alice in Wonderland diplomacy, Chavez is also reported to have agreed to assist the WJC in interfaith dialogue with Christians and Muslims. Do they really want to forfeit any semblance of Jewish dignity?
Ideally we would prefer to treat foul-mouthed antisemites like Chavez as lepers. But the harsh realities of political life sometimes oblige our leaders to talk to tyrants; a meeting between international Jewish leaders and President Chavez was appropriate even were it only to provide support for the embattled local Jewish community. Yet the rules of diplomacy do not require the Jewish party to absolve an antisemite of his past sins.
In this context, the WJC blundered in failing to make explicit representations concerning Chavez's antisemitic and anti-Israel policies. They were also premature in dispensing a clean bill of health to one of the key personalities leading the international anti-Jewish campaign. Worse, their failure to relate to these issues in subsequent media interviews may transform this encounter into an utterly counter-productive exercise.
In recent years, our greatest challenge has been to demonstrate that demonisation of Israel is simply a new version of antisemitism - substituting hatred of the individual Jew with hatred of the Jewish state. Now we have the WJC secretary-general allowing a leader openly embracing Iranian Shoah-deniers and demonising Israel to be regarded as an ally by a body representing world Jewry.
If any reputable non-Jewish organisation or government behaved in such a manner, we Jews would be the first to protest.
Isi Leibler is former head of the Australian Jewish community and former chairman of the World Jewish Congress governing board