As an avid Chile fan and someone who has visited the country a myriad of times, what is your assessment of the evolution of its Jewish community?
I first visited Chile as an American Jewish Committee (AJC) staff member in the 1980s. Since then, I have been fortunate to return on many occasions. I felt an immediate chemistry with Chile and it has only increased in the ensuing years. That’s not just “happy talk” — what people are expected to say publicly about another country, but the absolute truth. And one of the main reasons I felt, and feel, this way is because I connected instantly to the Jewish community. I could easily have visualized myself as part of the community, if my family’s journey had gone in a different direction. The warmth, Jewish and Zionist pride, history, and cohesion all attracted me. And, of course, I know the present-day challenges faced by the community, and admire the courage and determination to confront those challenges in a serious, sustained and sophisticated way. The community feels part and parcel of Chile, as it should, and no one is going to make them believe otherwise. We at AJC have steadfastly stood alongside the community for decades, and will continue to do so.
As you’re aware, there are around 500,000 Palestinians in Chile. Their influence has permeated media, academia and Congress where systematically anti-Israel resolutions have been introduced. In fact, Chile might become the first country in the world to adopt legislation boycotting Israel. How will all of this impact Chile’s image abroad?
While Chile has a growing and well-deserved reputation for its social and economic development and as an alluring tourist destination, it is also becoming known as a hotbed of anti-Israel activism that seeks to penetrate many sectors of society. And that’s precisely, of course, because of the radicalization of some segments of a Palestinian community that arrived a century ago, which is largely Christian, and once enjoyed close ties with the smaller Jewish community. This worrisome trend has been noted not only in the Jewish world, but among some governments, including in Washington.
In the context of deep national polarization in Chile, what role should minorities and the issue of inclusion play to bridge these gaps?
In any polarized democratic society, be it Chile or the United States, championing the political center — and keeping lines of communication open and flowing — becomes still more important. In the U.S., AJC is strictly nonpartisan, avoids the extremist elements on both sides of the political spectrum, and seeks to foster a restoration of trust, confidence, and spirit of compromise among political moderates. We Jews have a profound stake, I believe, in preventing the extremists, be they from the right or left, in prevailing and undermining the very values that have made our countries beacons of freedom, pluralism, and inclusion. History, including in Chile, has painfully shown us where extremism can lead.
Why do you think that Jews, in Chile, Latin America and elsewhere, are not perceived as a vulnerable minority? Why does antisemitic speech and violence persist despite the weight and lessons of history?
Fortunately, since the deadly terrorist attacks in Argentina and Panama during the 1990s, we haven’t witnessed the kind of violent antisemitism in Latin America which we have seen in parts of Europe and, more recently, in the United States. At the same time, we have welcomed the decision by the Organization of American States to appoint Fernando Lottenberg, a dear friend from Brazil, as its first commissioner to fight antisemitism. As Jew-hatred spreads — whether spurred by conspiracy theories, classic tropes against Jews, calls for Israel’s destruction, or COVID claims — and conveyed rapidly by social media platforms, we all need to be on guard and alert 24/7.
How do you help society understand that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem but a societal issue undermining democracy and a culture of human rights?
Yes, of course, antisemitism begins by targeting Jews and, by doing so, seeks to undo the fundamental protection of human dignity for all that needs to be the bedrock of any truly democratic society. So it must be confronted for that reason alone. At the same time, antisemitism, it is abundantly clear, threatens the fabric and fiber of a nation, its core values, and its foundational principles. For example, the racist who kills Blacks in the U.S., I assure you, has no love for Jews or Muslims; the antisemite who kills Jews has no love for other minority groups; and the xenophobe who assails immigrants has no love for others he sees as “undermining” his concept of national identity. In other words, antisemitism may start with Jews, but it rarely ends with Jews. As a social cancer, it must be dealt with early before it can metastasize, with all the malignant consequences thereof.