24-year-old Israeli Leads Student Protests in Chile

Israeli-born Noam Titelman is at the forefront of the often violent protests demanding free tuition and reforms in the country's education system.

As the student protests resumed in Chile’s capital, Santiago, Israeli-born student Noam Titelman was leading the way. In the newest wave of unrest last weekend, street battles raged between angry students and police, whose special forces stormed a university building firing rubber bullets and tear gas. About 140 students were arrested and many wounded from both sides were taken to hospitals around the city.

Titelman, 24, the new president of the Student Federation at Santiago’s Catholic University, said the police conduct is “a clear answer to the heads of the universities, who have so far cooperated with the police, as to who is leading this dirty and violent struggle.”

For the past year, university and high school students in Chile have been demanding that the government implement far-reaching reforms in the education system. The students are demanding free tuition and the allocation of more funding toward improving the level of public universities, which are ranked below the expensive private institutions that cater to the rich.

The network of private schools is the legacy of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s government and was originally intended to circumvent the public universities, which fostered leftist activism.

The first phase of the student protest was led by Camila Vallejo – dubbed “beautiful Camila” by the media – a communist student, whose photos appeared in newspapers around the world. But now Titelman, who studies business management and literature, has become the new face of the student demonstrations.

“My leftist friends think I was named after Noam Chomsky. I like the idea… so I don’t confirm or deny it,” he says.

“My grandparents came to Chile from Central Europe. They were Holocaust survivors,” he told an interviewer on Radio Paula FM in Chile. “It was their story, anti-Semitism, that sharpened my sensitivity to wrongdoing and discrimination. They were victims of that fear their whole lives. They always had a packed suitcase ready under the bed – just in case.

“These things travel emotionally from generation to generation. My parents, Eduardo and Daniela, met in the United States as students. After graduating, they couldn’t go back home because of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. They went first to France and then to Israel, where I was born 1987,” he said.

When Noam was 9 years old, the Titelman family left Israel and returned to Chile. “My parents came to the conclusion that life there was too complicated. My family and I are for peace, for a Palestinian state, and that’s something that is hard to live with there.”

Titelman says that as an Israeli-Chilean, he is sometimes regarded with prejudice. “They think that as a Jew, I automatically must also be a fascist who hurts Palestinians. People have forgotten the long tradition of Jewish socialism, going back to Karl Marx.”

Several months ago he won 53% of the vote in elections for the presidency of the Student Federation at Catholic University, one of Santiago’s oldest and largest universities, with some 23,000 students.

Titelman is not considering going into politics at the end of this period of struggle and studies. “What attracts me is literature, languages, economics and, above all, social activism,” he says.