This March 11, a new president took office in Chile. His name is Gabriel Boric. During the campaign, an old tweet of his reemerged : “The Jewish community of Chile sends me a small jar of honey for the Jewish New Year, reaffirming their commitment to “a more inclusive, supportive and respectful society. I appreciate the gesture but they could start by asking Israel to return the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. ». For K. Ariel Bohorodzaner, founder of the Jewish Students of Chile, sheds light on the political context that led to the election of this new president and leads us to the uncertainty that it implies for the Jewish community.
Gabriel Boric was elected on December 20, 2021. His election was a revolution in the Chilean political landscape. The outcome placed him in the final against José Antonio Kast, a far-right leader who praises Pinochet’s dictatorship. This political time has also seen great movements take over the public debate, a double movement, marginalizing once again the country’s Jews but also putting them at the heart of the debate.
To understand the current context of the situation of Jews in Chile and the relationship of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s newly elected president, with the Palestinian cause, it is essential to look back at the country’s recent history and at how the Middle East conflict came to Chile.
The largest Palestinian diaspora in the world
If there is an unprecedented political force in Chile, it is the Palestinian diaspora. The Palestinian community in Chile is the largest in the world outside the Middle East, with approximately 400,000 citizens of Palestinian origin, almost all of whom are Christians and come from cities with a strong Christian presence such as Beit Jalla and Nazareth. Their arrival in Chile dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when historic Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, and their migration was motivated by the Ottoman Empire’s discriminatory decree of compulsory conscription of Christians to the front lines. They arrived in Chile with Ottoman passports and were then colloquially called “Turks”. Since then, the Palestinian community has grown considerably and, although considered second-class immigrants, they have quickly integrated and successfully established themselves in various parts of the country.
As early as 1917, they founded the San Jorge Orthodox Church in the Recoleta neighborhood, famous for being the historical epicenter of the Palestinian community, with its characteristic “shuk” market. Note here, to understand what’s to come, that one of the candidates in the left-wing primary, Boric’s running mate and famous Palestinian community activist, Daniel Jadue, has been mayor of this neighborhood for almost ten years.
One of the most significant milestones in the history of this community was the creation of Club Deportivo Palestino in 1920, a professional soccer team that plays in the first division and has several titles to date. The club has since won the Chilean championship twice, once in ’55 and once in ’78, has been a finalist 4 other times and has won the Chilean Cup 3 times, the last time in 2018.
But Palestinian immigration does not date back exclusively to that time, as it has continued throughout the 20th century, following the unrest in the Middle East, including the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967. Recently, in 2006, the Chilean state, in a display of solidarity, granted asylum to dozens of Palestinian refugee families from Iraq, due to the humanitarian situation caused by the American invasion of the country. The Palestinians of Chile showed great solidarity in welcoming them and helping them integrate into the country.
A tiny Jewish community
There are 18,000 Jews in the country. The first recorded minyan was celebrated in 1910 and was held in the city of Temuco by Sephardic Jews coming from the Ottoman Empire. During the first half of the 20th century, many Jews arrived, notably escaping antisemitism in Europe, and also many Holocaust survivors came later, as my grandparents did, from Czechoslovakia and Poland.
The community grew quite a bit, and one remembers that in the town of Viña Del Mar, in the 1960s, there were even two kosher restaurants, which is unthinkable today. But there was a significant exile during the 1970s, when many right-wing Jews left the country, fearing President Salvador Allende’s Marxist government of the “Popular Unity”. And after the coup d’état of September 11, 1973, they were followed by another equally or even larger group of leftist Jews, who escaped the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Conservative communities have been the most prominent ever since those years. It is notable that since the beginning of the 2000s, the strong growth of the Orthodox community began with the establishment of the organization Aish HaTorah in the country.
Today there are three schools; the biggest is the secular Hebrew institute, then the Maimonides school, which is Modern Orthodox, and the Hebrew school of Viña Del Mar, where a small community resides and that many years ago had to open its doors to non-Jewish students to keep running. There are also small communities in other cities, such as Concepcion and Temuco, but the vast majority concentrates on Santiago.
A political force sometimes antagonistic to the Jewish community
The Palestinian community today is distinguished by the level of organization of its institutions, its commercial success, its socio-cultural influence and the enormous political representation it has achieved. Although it shares many characteristics with the Jewish community and has a history of good relations and fruitful partnerships, the last three decades have seen episodes of high tension. The turning point in this once harmonious relationship came with the opening of the Palestinian Embassy in Chile. The representation of the Palestinian National Authority in Santiago led to an ideological strengthening of the Palestinian community’s position towards radicalization and became its instrument of struggle and propaganda for the Palestinian cause. This modality became the main pillar of the Palestinian identity in Chile, which directed its political action towards a goal of demonizing the Jewish state in Chilean society. It was successful: in Chilean public opinion, the word Zionist has become the equivalent of an insult.
Many books could be written about all the communication campaigns against Israel, the tensions with the Jewish community and parliamentarians and opinion leader’s trips to Palestine. The official position of the Palestinian community became more and more extreme, even distancing them from the vision of the Palestine Liberation Organization and bringing them ideologically closer to armed combat. In parliament, the words and ideas of Hamas sometimes resonate more than those of Mahmoud Abbas. Although this shift has not caused any real security concerns among Chilean Jews, it is worth noting that when wars broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, the enormous media coverage that permeated society helped assign the stigma of both sides of the conflict to the communities, one in the role of victim and the other as executioner.
The success of this propaganda work is no accident: the Palestinian community is very well organized and has done its “Hasbara” work better than any pro-Zionist organization could have done. When they can, they papered the city with posters, as well as all public places and universities, proposed motions of condemnation in the Parliament, promoted communication campaigns with famous actors and politicians such as the famous #GazaAmor that popped up on social networks. They have gone so far as to install reproductions of the security wall on public streets, and have distributed fake eviction notices in the mailboxes of ordinary Chileans to raise awareness of the abuse that Palestinians suffer in Israel. These actions are just a few of hundreds.
A radical and uncompromising student leader
Gabriel Boric, for his part, is no stranger to this reality. On one hand, it is true that the extreme left is naturally anti-Zionist here, more easily inclined to support the Palestinian cause. But support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) boycott movement is absolutely transversal to the entire Chilean political spectrum and could even be considered one of the only causes to which both left and right-wing politicians jointly adhere. For example, Senator Ivan Moreira, an important figure in the UDI party is one of the main promoters of BDS. The party was founded by Jaime Guzmán, one of the most emblematic figures of the Pinochet dictatorship who was assassinated in the democratic era in the center of Santiago in 1991 by the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, a communist guerrilla group.
Gabriel Boric, therefore, is neither the only nor the greatest representative of the Palestinian cause in the political class, but his commitment, despite his young age, goes back a long way, and begins when he was a student leader.
Gabriel Boric was president of the law students of Chile University in 2009; that’s when he started his public career.
My main memory of Boric in University was when he was running for president of all the students of the University -Fech Federation of Students of Chile university. A crucial election in the context of half a year of strong student protests to achieve free higher education. I had classes of procedural law with the Dean that had to quit three years before because of pressure from Boric. It is normal to campaign through the classrooms, and usually, the teachers grant a few minutes to the candidates to address the students. One morning, I arrived at class with the Dean, and he wasn’t there. Instead, Boric was sitting and waiting for him, and he was 20 minutes late that day. Still, instead of talking to the students and going to other classes, he waited patiently for the Dean until he got to class, asked for his permission, and to the astonishment of all those present, he gave a very critical speech against the university’s administration and then asked the oblivious professor if he wanted to make any questions or comments; he shook his head and then left the class. He tried to make a point of the situation, and I understood that he was not afraid to stand against the system or authority. But I believe he paid a heavy price for it, and he later failed the BAR exam twice to become a lawyer, since it is an arbitrary oral exam where the commission can irremediably fail you by asking you anything they want.
The shock after the Waingortin case
Elected as a member of parliament, he voted against the trade agreement with Israel, proposing to summon the ambassador as a protest during the 2014 war. During a visit organized by the Palestinian community in Hebron, he appeared to take part in a fight with Israeli security forces.
But even more serious is the case of the naturalization of Rabbi Eduardo Waingortin in 2015. Waingortin is one of Chile’s most prominent rabbis. He has earned immense respect after living in Chile for more than 20 years and building the largest Jewish community in the country – he had been appointed Jewish chaplain of the Moneda Palace. A parliamentary initiative proposed to grant him Chilean citizenship. The vote, on a long list of candidates, was by name. Boric only objected to granting citizenship to Rabbi Waingortin and asked that the nomination be debated. His request was rejected and the reasons for this singling out were never offered for debate.
All those like me among the Jews of Chile who wanted to be optimistic, not wanting to automatically label Boric as an anti-Semite, had bitter hopes after this event. And unfortunately, this is not a unique case.
A Recenterring ?
The famous tweet was also a point of contention. Most of the world’s Jewish media highlighted Boric’s response to the Jewish community that had sent him a jar of honey for Rosh Hashana: “The Jewish community of Chile sends me a small jar of honey for the Jewish New Year, reaffirming their commitment to “a more inclusive, supportive and respectful society. I appreciate the gesture but they could start by asking Israel to return the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. » Two years later, he smoothly traded hostility for suggestion on the occasion of Hanukkah, tweeting, “I greet the Jewish community today at the beginning of Hanukkah. The holiday in which we celebrate the victory of courage against oppression, the struggle for freedom and becoming the light even in times of darkness.”
This clear difference in tone denotes an obvious attempt to moderate the discourse, which Boric’s allies began a short time ago in their positions and proposals. During Michele Bachelet’s presidency, between 2014 and 2018, the Communist Party was part of the ruling government forming the “new majority” and Boric’s coalition was more left-wing at the time. The new president was still part of the student movement and positioned himself in opposition to the leftist government. One of the clearest shifts in this re-centering movement is his distancing from the Communist Party and Mayor Daniel Jadue.
As mayor of Recoleta, he freely took advantage of his position and the municipal budget to spread anti-Israel propaganda. Jadue is a well-known Palestinian communist in national politics. He was president of the General Union of Palestinian Students and coordinator of the Palestinian Youth Organization of Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2021, the Simon Wiesenthal Center named him one of the 10 worst anti-Semites in the world. This deep-rooted anti-Semitism is established from a very young age. In various testimonies, his classmates say that the perfect gift for him would have been a Jew to practice precision shooting or that he aspired in the future to clean the city of Jews.
Boric beat Jadue in the primary of the far-left political bloc Apruebo dignidad, even though their governing programs were very similar and aligned on most issues. Jadue now intends to put pressure on the new government to respect the common platform of propositions and will otherwise denounce it. He seems to feel and fear Boric may recenter.
Knowing his history of antisemitism and his words, one could easily conclude that no Jew would ever support Jadue. But as is customary, this is even the case here, marginally: a group called Jews for Jadue supported him in his presidential campaign, giving the left an unexpected opportunity to downplay his positions. Daniel Jadue also sometimes likes to publicly quote his Jewish friends or mentions his presence at Jewish weddings.
A poisonous campaign
Far from making Chile the only country in the world where the candidate’s position on Jews or Israel is a central factor, there was a disturbing development in his past campaign. The pivotal role of several issues around the Jewish community must be taken with the utmost seriousness and interest. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism were used as an electoral weapon. And this divided the Jewish community. In these elections, the use of these issues have been heartbreaking, especially in the presidential runoff between José Antonio Kast, the ultra-conservative Catholic candidate from the far right, and Gabriel Boric, the progressive from the far left.
The most surprising phenomenon of the campaign was the way the following arguments took on considerable importance in the propaganda of both sides and largely transcended an intra-communal debate. The country’s social networks were abuzz with questions: « How do you explain to your children that you voted » – for Kast, the son of a Nazi who wants to pardon Pinochet’s henchmen -For an anti-Semite who supports Hamas and wants the destruction of Israel. »
Also, a rumor-spreader, denouncing the financing by Hezbollah and Hamas of Boric’s campaign. After the 2019 social riots, it is these debates and the one about preserving the political and economic legacy of the military regime that have overshadowed the necessary discussion around the reforms that millions came to demand during the protest movement. The hijacking of the Palestinian or Jewish cause in an attempt to clarify these elections is more than crude and poses an enormous danger to the cohesion of the country and the place of its Jewish community. These issues are becoming another weapon in the virulent and extremist campaigns that have divided and polarized Chilean society for decades. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this campaign has reinforced an even greater animosity and suspicion towards Jews. Even more so in the most extremist and dangerous sectors of society, which in themselves already had very little sympathy for the Jews.
A historical occasion
Since he won the election, he has tried to earn the people’s and especially the investors’ trust, sending a much more moderate message than he had at the beginning of the campaign. An interesting phenomenon was the logical lack of people this coalition had to fill up the positions of the forming government. He brought many people from the center-left coalition and distanced himself from Daniel Jadue.
But some appointments did not fail to create controversy. For example, the appointment of Galo Eidelstein Silberau, a Jewish communist party activist and supporter of Jadue, to the post of undersecretary of the armed forces. He was criticized for his lack of legitimacy or even the danger of this appointment following the bankruptcy of the Arcis University, of which he was a leader. The university had received funds from Venezuela and experienced embezzlement.
The most complex and crucial aspect of Boric’s government’s upcoming maneuvers is how it will renew the current constitutional assembly, which many accuse of having been kidnapped by radicals – it risks becoming a venue for delusional wishes, totally unworkable, and a huge threat to Chile’s economy and democracy.
Boric took office this month. Anyone who had known him at the university can testify to his intransigence and radicalism. At the same time, in this campaign he has shown a surprising turn toward the center-left, which he had always criticized, especially for its policy of perpetuating part of Pinochet’s legacy. For his first time in government, he has a historic opportunity to lead the country and the Constituent Assembly towards a more just and inclusive society, the one he promises. But he could also choose to conform to the regional trend, which will lead us to populism and economic collapse. And to the increasing endangerment of the Jewish community.