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May 7, 2012 12:43 pm

Chilean Jews Welcome New Law, 7 Years in the Making

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Shai Agosin, president of the Chilean Jewish community, at the 2012 American Jewish Committee Global Forum. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

That is how Agosin, president of the Comunidad Judaia de Chile (Jewish community of Chile), described his state of mind at the 2012 Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Washington, DC, following Wednesday’s news that a joint commission resolved four discrepancies in Chile’s new anti-discrimination law.

The law—introduced seven years ago and finally passed by Chile’s Congress last month in the aftermath of the murder of Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year-old gay activist—describes illegal discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction that lacks reasonable justification, committed by agents of the state or individuals, and that causes the deprivation, disturbance or threatens the legitimate exercise of fundamental rights.”

Although he was not Jewish, Zamudio’s murderers carved swastika on his chest. Agosin noted that the Jewish community of Chile has been harassed by incidents of anti-Semitism directed both against individuals and the general Jewish population. Incidents have ranged from neo-Nazi demonstrations against schools and synagogues to attacks on individuals, and are an going problem in the mountainous South American country.

The Jewish community, says Agosin, seeks to be an integral part of the anticipated social change occurring in Chile. Despite challenges, it maintains a strong infrastructure including schools, synagogues and hospitals. It is actively attempting to change the general population’s perception of Jews and Israel through inter-communal affairs and the introduction of Israel to public officials.

El Paso, Texas native Jeanette Braun—who grew up in Santiago, Chile, where most of her family remains—said Chile “has evolved tremendously, both economically and socially. Now, there is much more tolerance, but there’s a long road ahead.” Chile, she said, had in the past lacked education regarding events outside its borders. The anti-discrimination law, she said, is “a great start to be able to respect minorities—not only religious, but also sexual orientation.”

The Chilean Jewish community amounts to about 20,000 among a country with 17 million people, including some 300,000 Palestinians—the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East. It is largely Ashkenazy, with roots in Germany, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine. Many Jews came after World War I, others followed after the Second World War. The Palestinian influx came during the first half of the 20th century.

The majority of the Chilean-Palestinian community is Christian. Until the 1980s, relations between the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Chile had been what Braun called “very close.” But in the years after the First Intifada, the Palestinian population of Chile—despite the fact that many are Christian—became significantly nationalistic, joining the Muslim population in seeing Israel as an “invader,” Braun said.

“[The Intifada] produced a huge shift in the way people relate,” said Braun. “Throughout most of the 20th century, there were very close relationships mutual respect and very peaceful coexistence.  Things have changed.”

The younger generation of Chilean Palestinians, many born after the Intifada, is “very vocal” and has a vision of Israel as “an evil country they do not even recognize,” according to Braun. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, and Jewish schools and institutions attacked with graffiti.

National Chilean media has defamed the Jewish community and Israel with inaccurate reporting and false information, Braun said. She noted that when wildfires broke out in the Torres Del Paine (Towers of Pine), an Israeli hiker was accused and arrested.  Politicians claimed that Israelis traveling to Chile have a “hidden agenda” and were responsible for the calamity.

JointMedia News Service asked Braun what she sees as the future of the Chilean-Jewish community, and she said she expects “more assimilation and more inter-faith marriages; it’s a trend that has been going on for years.”

“There is a perception that there’s no one to marry within the community,” she said. Rabbis, she said, are making efforts to ” bring such families back.”

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