In Chile, Jews face new dangers and old fears

President of Chile's Jewish community tells 'Post' neo-Nazi violence, Palestinian anti-Israelism, Islamism on the rise.

SHAI AGOSIN 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Shai Agosin)
(photo credit: Courtesy Shai Agosin)
Neo-Nazi violence, a large and influential Palestinian community lobbying against Israel and a growing hotbed of Islamic extremism in the north of the country – the Jews of Chile have quite a lot to worry about these days, Shai Agosin, the president of the country’s Jewish community, told The Jerusalem Post last Wednesday.
Agosin, who is currently leading a delegation of notable Chilean personalities to Israel, said life for the 18,000 or so Jews in his country is a little more difficult than it was when he took over from the community’s former president Gabriel Zaliasnik in 2011.
Chief among Agosin’s concerns are the worsening ties with the 400,000 or so Chileans of Palestinian descent, the largest such community in all of South America.
“If you compare the relations [between Jews and Palestinians in Chile] today with that from 20 or 30 years ago it is very different,” said Agosin. “Then you even had some marriages, but not anymore. We are very worried over what we see in Twitter and Facebook over comments equating Nazism to Zionism. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.”
Agosin said Palestinian- Chilean leaders like activist Daniel Jadue were responsible for radicalizing their community against Israel.
Last year, for instance, Chileans of Palestinian descent lobbied the government to recognize a Palestinian state while the country’s Jewish community adopted Israel’s official stance that such a measure would hurt chances of reaching a peace agreement.
After much back-room lobbying, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera eventually decided to recognize Palestinian statehood but with caveats. Both sides declared victory.
Despite last year’s political skirmishes with the Palestinian community, Agosin said he made an effort to remain fair with regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, the delegation he is leading – which includes Chilean politicians like Cecilia Perez Jara and television anchor Antonio Quinteros – will meet with Palestinian leaders like PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during their visit, in addition to Israeli ones.
“We have faith people will see the facts and be able to make up their own minds,” Agosin explained.
Another cause for concern for Jews in the South American country is the influx of Middle Easterners to Iquique, a coastal town in the north of the country. Agosin said immigrants from Lebanon and Iran have poured into the free port located on the edge of the Atacama desert and that authorities are worried it might turn into a center of Islamic extremist activity.
“Last Christmas they found an Iranian rocket [in the city],” Agosin said. “At the same time they also found a guy playing with chemicals and when they searched his house they found Salafist materials. These are just two examples.”
There is a worrying precedent on the continent. Ciudad del Este, a city in Paraguay near the border with Brazil and Argentina, is said to have become a center of Islamic fundamentalist activity ever since thousands of Lebanese Shi’ites made it their home in the 1970s and 1980s. Some believe it was even a staging ground for the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires. Agosin said secret services like the CIA and Mossad are keeping a watchful eye on developments in Icique to prevent such an outcome.
While some dangers are new, a few older ones persist. Last year a group of neo-Nazis in Chile brutally killed Daniel Zamudio, a gay man, because of his sexual orientation. His shocking death provided an opportunity for legislators to pass anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities including gays and Jews from hate crimes.
“In only three months they approved the ‘Daniel Zamudio law’ that was stuck in parliament for a decade and we were very much part of that,” Agosin boasted. “I am proud of the Jewish community because we were the only religious group working to pass the law.”
Agosin’s worries aside, the overall climate for Jews in Chile is good, especially when compared to other parts of Latin America like Venezuela, where half the country’s Jews left in less than a decade due to the economy and the politics of President Hugo Chavez.
“The situation in Chile is very good on the macro scale,” said Agosin. “You can’t compare Chile with Argentina, Bolivia or Peru. We are comparing ourselves to Israel, Australia and the US and this is a good thing.”
Agosin said the economy is even attracting many Jews from neighboring Argentina to move to Santiago.