Rotem Zinger 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s always distressing when large swaths of nature preserves go up in flames.
Until some regeneration occurs, the charred remains tug hard at our
heartstrings. Nobody knows this better than we Israelis, in whose arid
land not much grows without intensive cultivation, protection and effort. Here
hardly any damage can be repaired without immense toil and
Having seen our own beautiful (and for this country quite
unique) Carmel woodland reduced to ashes last year, we can empathize better than
most with Chile after fires devastated stretches of the Torres del Paine
National Park in Patagonia. Israel, having amassed matchless expertise in
reforestation has indeed offered Chile help in rehabilitating the stricken
11,000 hectares, a third of which is native forest and the rest grasslands and
But this, sadly, isn’t our link to the disaster. Israel loomed
large in this episode because of the arrest of 23- year-old Israeli backpacker
Rotem Singer, who was arraigned for having ignited the blaze. The charges
against him were never very clear but the prosecution contends that he started a
bonfire to incinerate soiled toilet paper and didn’t fully extinguish it. It
doesn’t appear that he’s accused of arson but more of negligence.
himself rebuffs any connection with whatever ravaged the national park. His
traveling mate, Mandi Gisser, is equally adamant that Singer did nothing
wrong. For one thing, Singer camped a full kilometer away from the
estimated conflagration’s starting point and it was almost a day before Chilean
firefighters first appeared on the scene.
Two days later, the authorities
began questioning campers, among them Singer, who speaks no Spanish and whose
translator was barely proficient in English. With severely flawed communication,
Singer was soon singled out as the solitary suspect.
To be sure, even
local investigators aren’t unanimous in blaming him, citing among others, the
fact that Chile’s normally rainy southern regions are now extraordinarily
parched, due to record heat waves and prolonged droughts that have rendered
scrubland outstandingly combustible. Moreover, multiple fires burned.
misunderstandings and alacrity to pin the blame on an individual miscreant
aren’t uncommon when things go horribly wrong. It’s what happened subsequently
that taints this episode in particularly sinister colors – and this is quite
besides the facts of the case and regardless of whether Singer is innocent or
He was hauled to court almost as if walking a gauntlet,
accompanied by shrill screams of “filthy Jew.”
Visibly shaken and
confused, he was threatened with physical harm. Even after having been released
on bail in the town of Puerto Natales, Singer is fearful, lying low lest he
become the victim of vigilante “justice.”
There’s little he can do to
avoid danger. He remains under strict restrictive conditions and must report
regularly to the police. His passport was confiscated and he’s forbidden from
venturing beyond the Patagonian region until his trial.
repulsive manifestations of raw hate that greeted Singer’s first appearance in
court, it isn’t inappropriate or unwarranted to wonder what sort of fair hearing
he can expect to receive.
Whatever the truth in this case, and no matter
what set the Patagonian wilderness alight, it surely should have nothing to do
with the fact that Singer is a Jew. Yet for the spectators who filled the
courtroom, his identity was the one pertinent factor and it sufficed to
eradicate all doubt regarding his culpability.
It didn’t just end with
the howls of a hot-under-the-collar mob. Alejandro Navarro, the head of the
Chilean Senate’s Environment Committee, rushed to demand that Israel pay
compensation. Navarro, who is notorious for extreme anti-Israel and pro-Arab
pronouncements, was as quick to deny anti-Semitic motives.
anti-Semites in today’s world are remarkably practiced in accompanying their
invective with such instant disclaimers – by now an expected part of the
Nonetheless, what needs to be pointed out to Chilean public
opinion is that a core component of Judeophobia through the centuries was
denouncing a large irreproachable collective for one person’s alleged
transgression (whether or not proven).
How, for example, would Chileans
feel if they were all held accountable for any Chilean tourist’s (mis)deeds?