Chile’s fire

How would Chileans feel if they were all held accountable for any Chilean tourist’s (mis)deeds?

Rotem Zinger 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 nurture.
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 steppes.
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.
Singer 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.
But 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 guilty.
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.
Considering the 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.
Most anti-Semites in today’s world are remarkably practiced in accompanying their invective with such instant disclaimers – by now an expected part of the pattern.
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?