(JTA) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro met Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi between 2003 and 2013, on Sunday in a meeting aimed at “strengthening peace diplomacy,” reported local media.
“I had a pleasant and cordial encounter with Shlomo Moshe Amar Shlita, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, who gave me his blessing and expressed good wishes for the people of Venezuela,” Maduro tweeted.
Several other Venezuelan officials attended the meeting at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, including Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez, which was held “in the framework of the peace dialogue and the consolidation of the pluripolar and multi-center world,” reported the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs ministry’s news website.
During the meeting, Maduro awarded the Libertadoras y Libertadores medal to Rabbi Isaac Cohen, the spiritual leader of the Venezuelan Israelite Association, who has been living in the country for over 40 years.
Born in Morocco in 1948, Amar is the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Last year, he lashed out at Reform Jews, saying they were worse than Holocaust deniers for defying Orthodox Jewish law on gender separation and insisting on the right to mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall.
In 2016, he stoked controversy when he called homosexuality an “abomination.”
Ten years before, Amar submitted a draft bill that would remove the conversion clause from Israel’s Law of Return. This would prevent converts from all streams of Judaism, including Orthodox Judaism, from having automatic citizenship rights in Israel, and restrict the Law of Return to applying only to Jews by birth whose mothers were Jewish.
In 2017, Venezuela’s foreign minister expressed to his country’s chief rabbi “the desire to establish full relations with the State of Israel,” eight years after the South American nation expelled its Israeli ambassador.
“We suggested to start with a period of courtship, which means a beginning through consular relations, so that later it will become a marriage, which would be Israel’s own embassy again in Venezuela, as we have always had here,” Cohen told AJN News website then.
“I am an Orthodox and Zionist rabbi, and for me it is Jewish pride to have the flag of the State of Israel hoisted here in Venezuela, as in any country where there is a Jewish community. That gives us peace and tranquility, it’s fundamental,” he added.
Antisemitic rhetoric was often employed by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s political godfather, to deflect criticism from the country’s deep financial crisis and charges of corruption.
In 2006, the Venezuelan government downgraded its relations with Israel in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. Chavez recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv after criticizing Israel for employing “Hitler’s methods” against Lebanese civilians.
Venezuela is home to some 9,000 Jews, down from about 25,000 in 1999. Many Jews left, mainly for Florida and Israel, due to a deteriorating financial and social climate, along with a growing antisemitic environment established under the Chavez and Maduro regimes.