Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, has denied accusations that he is anti-Semitic and claimed that he is, in fact, of Sephardic Jewish descent, according to a report in the Venezuelan news site Apporea.
Apporea quoted Epelman as having said, during the recent World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest, Hungary, that the growing ties between Iran and various Latin American countries, especially Venezuela, "are driving the rise of anti-Semitism in the region.”
Chavez was known to be a good friend of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who travelled to Venezuela to attend his funeral. He frequently criticized Israel and in 2009, during the counterterrorism Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, cut off Venezuela’s diplomatic ties with Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador from Caracas.
"I'm sorry about the statements by Claudio Epelman, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, whom I know and have received in Venezuela many times, who said that there is anti-Semitism in Venezuela,” Maduro said in response to the statements, according to Apporea.
“He can accuse me, but leave Chavez out of it,” he added.
“We reject this campaign. We are a humanist people, we are not anti-Semitic,” Maduro said, emphasizing that “there has never been anti-Semitism in Venezuela. Here we welcome all religions. We are an open-hearted people.”
He insisted that while his country has differences with Israel, those differences have nothing to do with the Jewish people.
"We have differences with the state of Israel ... We reject the state of Israel’s attack on Damascus, the Syrian people and attacks on the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian people,” said Maduro, who added that his country will continue to fight against the “repressive state of Israel.”
He added, however, that, “if there are a people that have a socialist tradition, it is the Jewish people. And we respect their history.”
Maduro then claimed, according to Apporea, “My grandparents were Jewish, from a Moorish background, who converted to Catholicism in Venezuela ... The mother of [Minister of Communication and Information] Ernesto Villegas, also comes from that tradition.”
Anti-Semitism in Venezuela has sky-rocketed in recent years, resulting in a dramatic reduction in Jewish population. Before Chavez came to power, the Jewish community amounted to approximately 30,000, while today its numbers reach a mere 9,000.
Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism noted in September that Venezuela has witnessed a rise in “anti-Semitic manifestations, including vandalism, media attacks, caricatures, and physical attacks on Venezuelan Jewish institutions."