What a BDS-Supporting President Means for Chile’s Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas

In Chile, home to a significant Palestinian community as well as a smaller Jewish enclave, the election of leftist Gabriel Boric may galvanize a shift in the politics of Israel/Palestine.

Jess Schwalb
March 10, 2022

Chile’s President-elect, Gabriel Boric, who will be sworn in on March 11th, celebrates his victory in Santiago, Chile, on December 19th, 2021.

AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo

When Gabriel Boric [Bo-reech] won Chile’s presidential election last December, Jewish media outlets around the world were quick to sketch a story about Jews caught in the political crosshairs. Because Boric has harshly criticized Israel, headlines framed the presidential contest as an existential dilemma for Chilean Jewish voters: On one hand, there was Boric, a young leftist, Taylor Swift stan, and former student organizer who called Israel a genocidal state and supported legislation to boycott goods produced in illegal settlements. On the other was his opponent Jose Antonio Kast, who courted far-right anti-vaxxers and MAGA hatters—to say nothing of the revelation, just weeks before election day, that his father was a registered member of the German Nazi Party.

Perhaps surprisingly for a country with a population of around 20,000 Jews, the controversy over the election was only the latest in a string of Chilean skirmishes over antisemitism and Israel/Palestine. In some ways, the situation that has emerged in Chile is familiar: Debate rages over whether criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and Jewish institutions, dominated by Zionist leadership, hedge their bets between left- and right-wing candidates in large part based on their support for Israel. But other dynamics are particular to Chile, where a small, insular Jewish community lives alongside the largest Palestinian diaspora community outside the Arab world. And while in the US allegiance to Israel spans both major parties, in Chile it is support for Palestine that is notably bipartisan. Leftists often compare Israeli state violence to Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship or to the ongoing repression of indigenous Mapuche communities, while the Chilean right, with large support from the conservative-leaning Palestinian community, has pushed for Chile to strengthen ties with the PA.

While Chile is hardly poised to negotiate an end to Israeli occupation—and in fact maintains strong diplomatic and economic ties with Israel—the recent election cycle brings an activist leftist who has expressed support for the Palestinian struggle into highest office. When Boric is sworn in as president on March 11th, he will inherit a range of challenges, including implementing a newly rewritten constitution, healing fractures over mass protest and police brutality, and confronting a growing far right. When it comes to addressing the political turbulence between Chilean Palestinians and Jews, his ascension may signal a shift on the horizon: Several local municipalities have (unsuccessfully) attempted to cut ties with Israel in recent years, and a radical Palestinian Chilean politician named Daniel Jadue nearly became the left’s candidate for president last year before losing to Boric in the primary. The last few tumultuous years in Chile, including the mass social uprising (“estallido social”) that began in October 2019 and prompted a nationwide referendum over whether to rewrite Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution, have forced both Palestinian and Jewish communities to reckon with the legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship, including the neoliberal economic order it imposed at gunpoint.

The elections also unearthed a resurgent Chilean Jewish left bent on broadening the community’s acceptance of non- and anti-Zionists. Still, few leftists hold positions of power within mainstream Jewish institutions. “The Jews who are public, who are communal leaders, [are] openly right-wing,” said Michelle Hafeman, a doctoral student and consultant for the Jewish weekly La Palabrita Israelí, “and this gave the impression that, as a collective, [Jews] all hold the same political line.”

Chile is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Levant: a mostly Christian, right-leaning community of around 500,000. Most arrived in Chile in the late 19th century, fleeing Ottoman conscription, and experienced rapid upward mobility. With a swanky country club and decent national soccer team—Club Deportivo Palestino—the community has successfully integrated into Chilean culture while maintaining cultural and political ties to Palestine; there is even a Birthright-esque “Operación Retorno” that brings young Palestinian Chileans to Bethlehem and Beit Jahour. While notable Palestinian communities also exist in El Salvador and Honduras, Chilean Palestinians have played a leading role in uniting diaspora communities in the region.

Palestinian Chileans complicate any easy expectations of political alignment. Though several served in socialist president Salvador Allende’s cabinet, many today take a rosy view of Pinochet’s legacy, praising the economic growth he facilitated and supporting right-wing candidates who promise to uphold the country’s neoliberal order. Whereas in most countries the Palestinian cause is the province of the left, the Chilean right is a major driver of diplomacy with Palestinians abroad. The Chile–Palestine Interparliamentary Group is led by a conservative whose party was founded by a Pinochet advisor. Former President Sebastian Piñera, a billionaire from the right-wing Chile Vamos coalition, officially recognized a Palestinian state in 2011 and visited the Temple Mount alongside PA officials in 2019.

Most members of the country’s much smaller Jewish enclave are descendants of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s and—like Chilean Palestinians—flourished in the country’s textile and business industries. Today, historian Valeria Navarro-Rosenblatt told me, most Jewish institutions can be found in Santiago’s ritzy Las Condes and La Barnachea neighborhoods. Chilean Jews’ political commitments have been wide-ranging: While there were left-wingers who served in Allende’s cabinet, an estimated 15% of the community fled Chile when he was elected in 1970, fearing the antisemitism that Jews experienced under European socialism and communism. In 1973, when a US-backed coup murdered Allende and installed military dictator Augusto Pinochet, many leftist Jews escaped or were forcibly exiled. Of the Jews who stayed, several supported Pinochet (a few even served in his cabinet), and many thrived as US economist Milton Friedman turned the country into a laboratory for his most dramatic neoliberal economic policies, privatizing the country’s healthcare, education, and pension systems at the expense of Chile’s poor and working class. “Many Jews of this period were businesspeople, and there was a sense that at least with Pinochet there would be order, a respect for their livelihoods,” Navarro-Rosenblatt said.

The Jewish community, led by hardline Zionist communal institutions that boast strong ties with Israel, has repeatedly clashed with Palestinian Chileans—and Chilean politicians in general—over the bounds of acceptable criticism of Israel. In 2019, Boric found himself in hot water with the Comunidad Judía de Chile, an umbrella organization with a mission of “strengthening ties with the state of Israel,” after the organization sent him a Rosh Hashanah gift of honey. Boric tweeted his thanks, then asked the group to petition Israel for the return of the occupied territories. In response, the former president of the Comunidad wrote an impassioned op-ed calling Boric’s tweet an act of “manifest antisemitism” because he was “[blaming] collectively Jews of Chilean origin for the actions of another country, Israel.” (After meeting with a Jewish group, Boric apologized for the tweet.)

Tensions between the country’s Palestinian and Jewish communities frequently arise around Palestinian Chilean politican Daniel Jadue, mayor of Santiago’s Recoleta neighborhood, who was initially favored to win last year’s primary elections. Unlike the many Palestinian Chileans who support right-wing parties, Jadue is a communist who touts his creation of a people’s pharmacy and bookstore, cooperative structures that feature municipal ownership and subsidized prices, as examples of the broad state intervention he believes will shrink Chile’s massive inequality. Though his political career began with Palestine solidarity work, he was not endorsed in the primary by the Federación Palestina, a nonpartisan communal umbrella organization. Some of his comments about the global pro-Israel lobby—references to Zionist groups taking control of alternative Chilean media outlets; statements about having a problem with Zionists, not Jews—received international condemnation from the likes of the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, and in 2020, he was crowned one of the year’s top ten antisemites by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (in 2019, the organization gave the top spot to Jeremy Corbyn). The president of Club Palestino, the country club in Santiago, defended Jadue and derided the Wiesenthal Center for using allegations of antisemitism “to quiet those who criticize Israel.”

During Jadue’s months as frontrunner in last year’s primary, a page resurfaced from his high school yearbook describing him as a future leader of the PLO who would “clean the city of Jews.” The ensuing fracas—in which Chile’s congress passed a resolution denouncing the page—got enough attention that three US congresspeople wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to intervene in the country’s “dangerous climate” of antisemitism. (Though Jadue lost the primary by a surprising margin of over 20 points, it was unclear how much the yearbook actually harmed his campaign.) Jadue dismissed allegations that he was an antisemite, calling them a politically-motivated distraction: “A country in the middle of a sanitary and economic crisis . . . but right-wing elected officials are voting for me to explain what other people wrote in a high school yearbook from 35 years ago! #letsgetserious.”

Even as Jadue’s loss showed the limited appeal of his communist platform, it also kickstarted an effort by non- and anti-Zionist Jews to gain more visibility in Chilean politics. Though many Jews—including some progressives, such as the sociologist Daniel Chernilo and the activist Tamara Benquis, who published a letter in Haaretz about the yearbook scandal—seemed outraged at Jadue’s comments, a small group organized in support of his campaign under the name Judíos y Judías Por Jadue. The organization’s co-founder Yoel Bitran explained that the group emerged from a sense of urgency, “to try to explain that being in solidarity with the Palestinian cause is not antisemitic,” and to counter the narrative that all Chilean Jews support a right-wing agenda at home and policies that support Israel’s interests abroad. The group soon attracted other leftist Jews in search of a political home. Even after Jadue lost the primary, the Jews who had been galvanized by his campaign continued to organize forums and write op-eds contesting the mainstream Jewish community’s assertion that criticsm of Israeli is antisemitic. “They came out of the shadows,” Bitran said. “It was people who were a bit more outside of the community, who were invisible . . . people who had been excluded from Jewish life in Chile.”

After Jadue’s surprise loss, the left seemed to coalesce around Boric. Though he was not the revolutionary many in the streets had hoped for, Boric was no moderate: He rose to national prominence as a leader with the powerful Universidad de Chile student federation (FECH) in 2011, when students across the country marched against the Pinochet-era privatization of Chilean higher education. His Frente Amplio coalition, an alliance of socialists, dictatorship resistors, and other former student leaders, had gathered a once-disparate left and transformed it into a formidable political force. Many hoped Boric would unite the fractured country after years of tumult and tear gas. “We’ve had two years of instability, of pandemic, of expressions of violence, of damage to buildings, of burning of the metro stations,” said Claudia Heiss, who heads the University of Chile’s undergraduate political science program. Though some on the left feared he had tamed his radical streak in order to win the general election, Boric promised to fulfill some of the protests’ loudest calls for reform, including a wholescale revision of the country’s founding document through a popularly elected Constitutional Convention.

Others voted less for Boric than against his opponent, Kast, a founder of the far-right populist Republican Party. As with most Chilean elections of the last decades, the legacy of the dictatorship was on the ballot: When Kast was a student organizer in 1988, he campaigned in favor of extending Pinochet’s rule; his older brother served as head of Chile’s central bank during the dictatorship. Meanwhile, Boric vowed to overhaul the dictatorship’s neoliberal economic model, which has produced vast and rising economic inequality. Alejandra Díaz Scharager, an actor and co-founder of the Jewish–Palestinian theater company Colectivo Natuf, was appalled by Jewish leaders who framed the two candidates as equally troubling. “Kast is the descendant of a Nazi,” Scharager said. “As a Jew I didn’t understand how this could be preferable to someone who has criticized a country on the other side of the world.” While debates over the candidates’ alleged antisemitism made international headlines, Heiss, the political scientist, believes it was actually Boric’s economic platform that rattled well-off Jewish voters. “The right wing is panicking . . . because they are heads of industry,” she said. “It’s an issue of class, not an issue of being Jewish.”

In presenting the choice between Kast and Boric as an exercise in selecting the lesser evil, international Jewish press outlets mostly cited institutional leaders who claimed to speak on behalf of all Chilean Jews. “Part of the problem that people like myself and others have is that we are not part of the Jewish community,” said Chernilo, the sociologist. “But we see ourselves as Jewish, and we need to talk about Jewish life in Chile as something much broader, much more diverse, much more pluralistic.”

Leftist Jews are attempting to foster that pluralism. After Boric’s primary win, Judiós y Judías Por Jadue evolved into a new group, Judíxs Antisionistas Contra el Apartheid. Bitran says this new organization is modeling itself after the US leftist group Jewish Voice for Peace, and hopes to broaden Chileans’ perception of both Jews and antisemitism. Benquis, who volunteered for Boric’s general election campaign, also formed an organization called Progresivim during the height of the 2019 estallido in order to coordinate groups of Jews to attend demonstrations together. Another Jewish activist, Claudio Mandler, left his post as president of the liberal Zionist Centro Progresista Judía (CPJ) to found a small, pluralistic group called Agrupación Judía Diana Aron with Scharager, the actor. (The group’s name honors a Jewish partisan in the MIR, an anti-dictatorship revolutionary group, who was kidnapped and murdered by the military regime.)

Mostly, though, these groups are small, scrappy, and focused on building community with other Jews excluded from mainstream institutional life—converts, children of intermarriage, and leftists of various stripes. In the meantime, Jewish institutions continue to manufacture concern over Chilean politicians’ speech about Israel. In December, three days after Boric won the election, the Comunidad Judía de Chile co-hosted a webinar entitled, “With Gabriel Boric, could Chile be the first country with a BDS law?” In reality, however, as Comunidad president Gerardo Gorodischer reassured listeners, Boric’s platform does not currently contain a plan to boycott Israel. “Without a doubt, for [Boric] the conflict [in Israel/Palestine] shouldn’t be a big issue—the world we are in is full of conflict,” Gorodischer said. “Clearly, he will not be Israel’s best friend, but he also won’t be its number one enemy. I think we’ll have to wait and see.”

This piece has been updated.

Jess Schwalb was the 2019–2020 Jewish Currents fellow and currently lives in Chicago.