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Venezuela's Chavez to meet Jewish leaders amid concerns about anti-Semitism in state media

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that he will meet later this month with the country's Jewish leaders, who are expressing concerns about anti-Semitism in some state media.

David Bittan, vice president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations, said the delegation plans to present Chavez with a file of examples from state media. He did not give details, but in previous years his organization has cited anti-Semitism in cartoons in government-friendly newspapers and commentary on pro-Chavez websites.

"We don't think it's a government policy," Bittan said in a telephone interview. "We're sure measures will be taken."

Chavez said the meeting will occur in mid-September. He said that some opponents have wrongly tried to paint him as "anti-Jewish," which he said is false, and that he holds respect for Jews.

Chavez is a close ally of Iran and has been strongly critical of Israel. He severed ties with Israel in January 2009 to protest its military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Bittan said the Interior Ministry recently decided to step up security at synagogues and Jewish community centers to prevent any possible incidents this month during Jewish new year celebrations.

Other incidents have ignited worries of anti-Semitism in Venezuela.

In January 2009, a Caracas synagogue was ransacked and vandalized, and authorities later arrested 11 people, including eight police officers, suspected of participating. Chavez condemned the attack, and investigators have said they believe the intruders forced their way in to steal cash that they believed was kept there.

In February 2009, unidentified attackers lobbed a small explosive at a Jewish community center in the capital, damaging its doors but not hurting anyone.

In recent years, anti-Semitic graffiti has periodically appeared on the walls of a main synagogue in Caracas, and has been promptly painted over.

Venezuela's Jewish community numbers nearly 15,000.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, a Chavez ally whose country has a large Jewish population, said on Twitter that she is pleased about plans for the meeting in Caracas. Chavez replied on Twitter: "It will be a good meeting."