Chile’s Jews Opt to Give New ‘Israel-bashing’ President a Chance to Prove Himself

After Sunday’s election, members of the community are realizing it’s not so bad to keep a possible Chilean Bolsonaro out of office, especially since Gabriel Boric’s acceptance speech was so moderate

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Chile's President-elect Gabriel Boric and supporters of the left-winger who beat his far-right opponent José Antonio Kast in Sunday's election.
Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric and supporters of the left-winger who beat his far-right opponent José Antonio Kast in Sunday's election.Credit: Javier Torres / AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Many Chilean Jews, perhaps the majority, did not vote for Gabriel Boric, the 35-year-old leftist presidential candidate who won Sunday’s election. They were deeply concerned by his hostility to Israel and his ties to the Communist Party.

But after taking a day to process the results, many seemed ready to give the former student protest leader the benefit of the doubt and move on.

Gerardo Gorodischer, the president of the local Jewish community, says he drew encouragement from Boric’s victory address, describing it as “open and inclusive.”

“It seemed to calm down many of those who were a little bit anxious and concerned about him,” he said by phone from his home in the capital, Santiago. “So, we will wait and see.”

The Jews of Chile, Gordischer notes, were feeling far more jittery six months ago when Daniel Jadue, the Communist Party leader accused of antisemitism, appeared to be the front-runner. At the time, many Jews were talking about leaving the country.

But that’s not the case today, according to Gorodischer. “People aren’t in a hurry to move,” he says, noting that the Chilean parliament is almost evenly split between the right and left following elections last month, which means Boric is limited in how far he can push the country in a new direction.

“We have already met with members of his staff in an effort to open up communication channels with the Jewish community, and I hope this will continue,” Gorodischer says.

Boric has been known to describe Israel as a “genocidal” and “murderous” state, raising deep concerns in the largely Zionist Jewish community. He has also demanded that the Jewish community publicly denounce Israel for its policies on the Palestinians.

Chilean presidential candidate Jose Antonio Kast, from the Partido Republicano party, at a rally in Concepcion, Chile, on Tuesday.Credit: GUILLERMO SALGADO - AFP

Better than the far right

Contrary to projections of a neck-and-neck race, Boric beat José Antonio Kast, the far-right contender, on Sunday by 12 points. A populist who opposes abortion and LGBTQ rights and has been accused of xenophobia, Kast was considered very friendly to Israel. As a result, many Jews were willing to overlook his family connections to the notorious Pinochet regime and possibly even Germany’s Nazi party of yesteryear and vote for him.

Yonathan Nowogrodski, a former chairman of the Zionist Federation in Chile, estimates that only about half of the estimated 18,000 Jews in the Latin American country are part of the established Jewish community, about which it’s reasonable to assume that a majority voted for Kast. As for the unaffiliated Jews, who tend to be younger, he speculated that the majority supported the winning candidate.

Nowogrodski, who describes himself as a “center-left Zionist Jew,” did not vote. As the grandson of a communist who was forced into exile during the Pinochet regime, the 43-year-old engineer says he couldn't bring himself to vote for Kast.

Yonathan Nowogrodski, who describes himself as a “center-left Zionist Jew,” did not vote but believes Boric was the better candidate.Credit: Courtesy Yonathan Nowogrodski

At the same time, he had deep concerns about what he describes as Boric’s “track record of bashing Israel.” Chile’s president-elect, he notes, signed a letter supporting a boycott of imports from West Bank settlements. “It’s not that I support the settlements,” he says. “I definitely do not, but if you want to defend human rights, you have to do it all over the world – not just in one part of it.”

Still, of the two candidates, Nowogrodski believes that Boric, who will be Chile’s youngest president ever, is better suited to govern.

Tamara Benquis, a lawyer in the civil service who advocates for children’s rights, voted for the left-wing candidate without any remorse. She says his victory has made her feel much calmer.

“Had the candidate of the extreme right won, it would have meant a great setback for human rights, women’s rights and the rights of sexual minorities in this country,” says Benquis, 29, who is active in several progressive Jewish groups in Chile, was a member of the Federation of Jewish Students and worked for the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

She voted for Boric because the progressive values that he represents are more in line with her own, she says, and while she had concerns about his positions on Israel, her fears were allayed thanks to a very unusual opportunity.

In April, Benquis let it be known that she was interested in joining Boric’s party. When his campaign managers found out, they asked if they could film a video of him visiting her home and signing her up. And that’s how this young Jewish lawyer found herself hosting Chile’s future president in her little apartment. A good part of their discussion focused on the Jewish experience in Chile and Israel, she says.

According to Benquis, Boric impressed her as someone who “respects all religions, including Judaism,” and believes in self-determination for both the Jews and the Palestinians, as well as in Israel’s right to exist. Their conversation further strengthened her resolve to vote for him, she says.

New party member Tamara Benquis meeting with the future president, Gabriel Boric, in her apartment last April.Credit: Courtesy Tamara Benquis

A Nordic Chile?

David Altman, a professor of political science at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, believes Boric’s victory is “a good thing for the Jewish community, as well as all other minorities in Chile.”

And while he understands why members of the Jewish establishment were concerned about the left-winger, he says “the other choice would have been a person who’s a good friend of Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Orbán who wants to pull Chile out of the United Nations, or at least out of some of its institutions, and to set limitations on the rights of women.”

Altman, who has lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew, doesn’t expect any major change in relations between Jerusalem and Santiago following Boric’s victory. “Chile hasn’t been one of Israel’s best friends, but neither are the two countries enemies,” he says.

Although some of Boric’s statements about Israel raised concerns, Altman notes that in an attempt to appeal to more centrist voters, Boric recently softened his rhetoric and started sounding “more pragmatic and more presidential.”

“I believe he will be more balanced than we expected,” the Jewish political scientist says. “But we should definitely expect a shift in policy. Instead of trying to emulate Brazil or the United States, Chile will now be trying to emulate the Nordic countries. Its policies will be more in sync with the agenda of Israel’s Labor and Meretz parties than with Trump and Bolsonaro.”

Political scientist David Altman, who has lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew, doesn’t expect any major change in relations between Jerusalem and Santiago following Boric’s victory.Credit: Courtesy David Altman

Gabriel Zaliasnik, a lawyer and prominent member of the Jewish community, made no secret that he intended to vote for Kast – not so much out of great love for the populist candidate, but because of his disgust with Boric’s anti-Israel rhetoric.

A day after the election, he changed tack. Responding to right-wing attacks on Chile’s president-elect, Zaliasnik tweeted: “My differences with Gabriel Boric are public, but it would be wrong to call him an anti-Zionist. He has been critical of Israel’s actions, but as far as I know, he does not negate its existence or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. So, let’s be careful.”

Zaliasnik, who once headed the Jewish community, notes that Boric has expressed his determination to learn more about issues he’s not familiar with. “The history of Israel and the Jewish people is definitely one of them,” Zaliasnik says. “If he keeps his word, we can expect that Chile’s position on the Middle East conflict will be fair.”

Among Jewish supporters of Kast, David Jankelevich was a rare breed: He cast his vote for the far-right populist without any qualms. In fact, Jankelevich, who served for three straight terms as a council member in Las Condes, an affluent part of Santiago, describes himself as a close friend of the defeated candidate.

“This is definitely not good news for the Jews of Chile,” he says about Boric’s victory. Still, Jankelevich says he’ll wait six months before he makes any moves. And if his worst fears are realized, “I may join my eldest son, who lives in Barcelona.”

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