Prominent Jewish groups urged President Hugo Chavez on Friday to prevent what they called anti-Semitic attacks on the opposition's presidential candidate by Venezuelan state media.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned a column that described the Jewish ancestry of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski and labeled him a secret follower of Zionism, which it called "the most rotten sentiments represented by humanity."
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League also voiced concern.
"Blatant and persistent anti-Semitism is used by President Chavez and his government apparatus as a divisive political tool," Abraham Foxman, the organization's director, said in a statement.
"What we are seeing at the outset of Venezuela's presidential elections is an attempt to cast the opposition candidate as a 'traitorous Jew' who is unworthy of the presidency," Foxman said.
The column written by Adal Hernandez was posted on the website of state-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela on Monday.
Publication of the column came amid a wave of attacks on Capriles by Chavez and his allies after the state governor handily won Sunday's primary to represent the opposition against Chavez in the Oct. 7 presidential election.
Referring to Capriles in a televised speech Wednesday, Chavez likened Capriles to a pig and accused the opposition leader of concealing his ideological leanings and trying to mislead government supporters that he shares some of the president's left-leaning ideals.
"You are not going to be able to disguise yourself, even if you look for advisers, masks. Dress yourself up however you dress yourself up. Pig's tail, pig's ears, pig's nose: It's a pig," Chavez said, laughing along with pro-government lawmakers.
Chavez, a former paratroop commander known for making scathing verbal attacks, accused Capriles of representing the interests of Venezuela's wealthy elite. He called the opposition leader part of the South American country's bourgeoisie, warning government backers not to be deceived.
Mario Silva, a staunch Chavez ally who hosts a late-night talk show on state television called "La Hojilla," or "The Razor Blade," recently suggested that Capriles is gay.
Citing an alleged police report, Silva said police officers spotted Capriles engaged in a sexual act with another man. Capriles denied the accusation.
While homosexuality is accepted by many Venezuelans, politicians often use sexual orientation as a means of insulting rivals.
Capriles occasionally boasts of his sexual exploits with women. "I'm like a ship captain: I have a woman in every port," he told The Associated Press during an interview last year.
The column that raised anti-Semitism concerns said Capriles "has a platform opposed to our national and independent interests" and urged Venezuelans to reject "international Zionism" by re-electing Chavez.
Like the vast majority of Venezuelans, Capriles practices Roman Catholicism but his mother came from a family of Sephardic Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and sought safety on the Caribbean island of Curacao before settling in Venezuela.
Oddly, the column also accused Carpiles of involvement in a group that promotes "the national Aryan race," referring to a racial concept promoted by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Capriles has not publicly commented on the column and did not respond Friday to telephone calls and emails seeking a response.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles, California-based Jewish human rights group, announced Friday that its director of international relations, Shimon Samuels, sent a letter to Chavez asking him to prevent further anti-Semitic attacks against Capriles.
"We urge President Chavez to put an end to this campaign that will surely become more threatening as the election date approaches," the letter states. "Chavez carries the ultimate responsibility for his own media outlets and can personally stop their hate-mongering."
Information Minister Andres Izarra did not immediately respond to telephone calls and emails seeking comment.
Chavez has repeatedly denied allegations of tolerating or promoting anti-Semitism. Representatives of his government strongly criticized an anti-Semitic column published by Venezuelan state media in 2009, preceding the break-in and vandalism of the largest synagogue in Caracas, where intruders stole a database of names and addresses.
Chavez strongly condemned the incident and vowed to punish acts of anti-Semitism.