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Latin American Jews contend with spike in anti-Semitism

Derogatory political statements and attacks on synagogues have increased since Israel's January war in Gaza.

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"I have the impression that the president hasn't been able to differentiate between the Israeli state and the Jewish religion, and in that lack of semantic differentiation of not making it clear what is a state and what is a religion, he creates confusion in the people as well as confrontation in fundamentalists," says Mr. Benshimol.

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Chávez has been a fierce critic of Israeli foreign policy. In January, he expelled Israel's ambassador and called Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza a "holocaust." And Chávez's friendship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a professed Holocaust-denier who famously said Israel would collapse, has also made Venezuela's Jewish community uncomfortable.

The rhetoric reverberates as far as Argentina, says Mr. Widder, turning on a video documenting Chavez's most recent statements condemning Israeli action in the Middle East.

Argentina has Latin America's biggest Jewish population with 230,000 residents, and even though a 1994 bomb attack at the Israelite Mutual Association that killed 85 is etched in the public memory, many say it is a tolerant society – much more than in decades past.

Venezuela, too, which has had less influence than its neighbors from the Roman Catholic Church, has historically been tolerant of religious groups. Julio Schlosser, secretary-general of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, says that most of the recent attacks here are coming from fringe radical groups, mostly on the left.

Anti-Zionism turns to anti-Semitism

Yet anti-Zionism has given anti-Semitism a new voice in Latin America. "It is politically incorrect to be anti-Semitic," says Mr. Elbaum, "but it is politically correct to be anti-Zionist."

Jewish leaders agree that the right to express views on the Israeli conflict is guaranteed, but say that political expressions have turned more personal. In January, protesters congregated outside a hotel owned by Eduardo Elsztain, a prominent Jewish businessman, claiming he is financing movements in the Middle East.

"We have always had protests against the Israeli Embassy but this was against an Argentinian citizen," Widder says. "What we do not know is if this was an isolated case or a precedent."

It was followed by the attacks at the anniversary celebration in May. At least five people, from a group identified as the Front for Revolutionary Action, a leftist radical group, were arrested on charges including violation of antidiscrimination laws. Their supporters, who have protested their arrest, say that the case criminalizes criticism of Israel.

Marches throughout the region have used incendiary rhetoric and symbolism, in some cases superimposing the Star of David with a swastika.

"It is not criticism of Israel," says Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "It is pure and simple anti-Semitism."

Charlie Devereux contributed from Caracas, Venezuela.

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