How the War in Gaza Plays Out in Chile’s Domestic Politics

by April 2024
Chile’s President Gabriel Boric greets members of the Palestinian community in Chile at a ceremony called ‘From Belen (Bethlehem) to Chile’ during the Christmas season, December 20, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado.

Several left-leaning Latin American governments have criticized Israel for its response to the October 7 attack, including Mexico, Colombia, and Brazi. But Chile’s young president, Gabriel Boric, stands out for consistent harshness, which extends to his view of Chile’s Jewish community.

Ethnic Politics in Chile

Chile hosts Latin America’s largest Palestinian community, an estimated 400,000 people, mainly descendants of Christian Arab immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Arriving in Chile as small retail traders, Palestinians have become leaders in business, the professions and politics. The community has prominent communal institutions, most famously the “Palestino” soccer team, whose players dress in white, black, green and red uniforms. The Palestinian community dwarfs the successful but much smaller Jewish community of approximately 16,000.

Chile’s Palestinian community historically stayed clear of Middle Eastern issues, but this changed when a newer, more politicized generation came to the fore, including notably Daniel Jadue, the Communist mayor of Recoleta, a district in Santiago with a large Palestinian population. Jadue, who unsuccessfully competed against Boric to be the leftist coalition’s presidential nominee, has championed the Palestine issue.

Mayor Jadue recently stated: “Being Jewish starts from a conception of being part of the chosen people, so if you are already part of a chosen people, you do not believe in the equality of all human beings… the most Nazi thing I have seen in my life.” He asserted that being Jewish and being of the left was a “contradiction.” After being sharply criticized by two prominent leftists of Jewish descent, one a Communist member of Congress, he did not apologize but said he was referring to an “ideology.” Rather than condemn Jadue’s remarks, Boric’s spokesperson said that his administration would not interfere in this debate between “two key political actors.”

President Boric, who is not of Arab ethnicity, is not as openly hostile to Jews as Mayor Jadue, but he has nevertheless made clear his negative view of Israel. Shortly before his inauguration in March 2022, he affirmed that Israel is a “genocidal and murderous” state. And he uses a trope not uncommon in Latin America of holding Chile’s Jewish community responsible for Israel’s actions.

When in October 2019, elected to the Congress, Boric received a jar of honey from Chile’s Jewish communal organization in honor of Rosh Hashanah, he responded by tweet saying: “The Jewish community of Chile sent me a jar of honey for the Jewish New Year, reaffirming its commitment to a ‘society more inclusive, respectful and with solidarity.’ I appreciate the gesture but they could begin by asking Israel to return the illegally occupied Palestinian territory.”

More recently, in a gesture seemingly related to the Gaza crisis, Boric chose not to appear at the Jewish community’s annual Hanukah event held at the Presidential Palace, although he had participated in it the previous year.

A pro-Palestinian rally in front of the Israeli embassy, in Santiago, Chile, March 4, 2024. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Campus Politics Gone National

Chile has a history of antisemitism including some affinities with Nazi Germany before, during and after the Second World War. But that doesn’t appear to be the source of Boric’s views on Israel. Rather he is a product of campus politics. A student activist at the University of Chile, he joined a “new left” party which took him into Congress as a radical alternative to the moderate left and right parties which had previously dominated national life.

After months of protests, known as the “social explosion,” generated a national crisis, he ascended to the presidency in 2022, backed by both the new leftist parties and Chile’s Communists and promising great “transformations.” In addition to traditional leftist demands for more attention to social welfare and a rollback of earlier privatizations in healthcare and pensions, Boric’s campaign gave attention to identity politics.

In particular, Boric and his supporters espoused the cause of the indigenous Mapuche people of southern Chile, whose history of dispossession parallels that of Native Americans in the United States. He strongly supported a convention to rewrite Chile’s constitution, which produced a draft in which Chile was to be recast as a “pluri-national” state with a separate judicial system for native peoples and guaranteed seats for them in the legislature. (The draft constitution ultimately was rejected in a referendum.)

Boric and his supporters view the Israel-Palestine issue through the lens of Western colonial oppression. In fairness, one must note that he condemned Hamas’ attack (while balancing his condemnation with criticism of Israel’s occupation policies) before subsequently devoting his attention to denouncing Israel’s response, ultimately recalling Chile’s ambassador back from Israel for consultations.

An Israeli Ambassador’s Bumpy Ride

Israel’s ambassador in Santiago Gil Artzyeli has been outspoken in objecting to his host country’s decisions, including Chile’s joining South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice against Israel. Artzyeli complained that he has been denied senior-level access at the foreign ministry.

When, after arriving in Chile at the end of 2022, he went to the Presidential Palace to formally present his credentials, Boric without warning refused to receive him. The Chilean Foreign Ministry later apologized for the discourtesy (which the Israeli government had characterized as “unprecedented”) and Boric subsequently accepted his credentials.

Artzyeli’s defense of Israeli actions after the October 7 Hamas attack has rankled many in Boric’s coalition, with some even suggesting he should be expelled. He irked the Boric administration when he used a meeting with Interior Vice Minister Manuel Monsalve on the security of his embassy to raise his concerns regarding Chile’s policy towards the Gaza crisis. The foreign ministry insisted that this was the wrong channel and that he should have raised the issue only with it.

Protesters holding Palestinian flags outside La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace. Screenshot from a video by Reuters / Rodrigo Gutierrez, Nina Lopez.

Israel Banned from an Air Show

The most recent step which Boric has taken was to bar Israeli participation in Chile’s International Air and Space Fair (Spanish Initials FIDAE). One of Latin America’s most prominent aerospace events, FIDAE is held biennially and took place from April 9 to 14. The show typically showcases products from aviation firms from around the world, as well as fly-bys from some of the latest aircraft on the international market.

Israel has participated in FIDAE in the past, and indeed, has long had a close defense relationship with Chile. Most notably, its Galil light rifle is standard issue for Chile’s armed forces, and an Israeli system is the backbone of Chile’s military communications network. The decision to refuse to invite Israel provoked sharp reactions in Chile. The center-left and centrist parties, which provide (sometimes reluctantly) support for Boric in Congress, and the conservative opposition uniformly condemned the decision. Some saw it as a gratuitous swipe at a country with which Chile has long enjoyed good relations. Others feared damage to Chile’s own defense capabilities, although Boric has not gone as far as Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, who has halted defense cooperation with Israel.

A Pet Cause

Several other Latin American leaders, for instance Brazil’s Lula da Silva, have taken similar positions against Israel. But Brazil is a huge country with ambitions to act on the global stage, including on Middle Eastern issues, as when it once sought to mediate between the United States and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. In contrast, many in Chile ask why a small state, without a compelling need to take a high profile position, has been so vocal. The answer seems clear: This is Boric’s personal issue.

A disturbing element of President Boric’s rhetoric is the way he holds his country’s Jewish community responsible for Israel’s policies. Boric and the fellow members of his coalition take gratuitous shots at Chile’s Jews for failing to join the chorus condemning Israel. Nevertheless, the Jewish community (and Israel as well) have defenders in Chile.

Boric, at the halfway point in his term, is an increasingly isolated and unpopular figure. And despite the turbulence of recent years, Chile remains a relatively stable, democratic state. Still, in light of the way in which once flourishing Jewish communities in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua vanished after extremist governments came to power, the state of Chile’s Jews bears watching. They have a right to ask why they are such a preferred target of slights by their country’s president.

Richard M. Sanders
Richard M. Sanders is Senior Fellow, Western Hemisphere at the Center for the National Interest. He is also a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former US diplomat, he served at the US Embassy in Chile and at the State Department as Director of the Office of Brazilian and Southern Cone Affairs.
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