Chile’s Gaza sympathisers rally behind Palestinian football colours
Club Deportivo Palestino has become a focal point for tensions between Santiago’s sizeable Arab and Jewish communities
In Patronato, a poor quarter of Santiago, the Palestinian community meets at the Beit Jala cafe. It’s just a step away from San Jorge, Chile’s oldest orthodox church founded by the first Palestinian migrants in 1917. Here the elders sip their coffee and savour oriental pastries. The walls are covered with photographs of Beit Jala, the village from where most of the Palestinians in Chile originated.
“I’m a third-generation Chilean,” says landlord Juan Bishara. His grandfather arrived in the 1950s. He speaks mostly Arabic to his customers, apart from to the younger Spanish-speaking generation. The community has one secondary and two primary schools. “Our neighbourhood is know as the Arab quarter, though a lot of shops are now run by more recent migrants, from Korea and Bolivia,” he adds.
Chile is home to the largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East. There are no official statistics but estimates suggest between 150,000 to 400,000 people of Palestinian origin from first- to third-generation migrants. In keeping with their ancestors, 95% are Christians, which has helped integration. More than three-quarters of them moved here between 1900 and 1930, mainly from four villages: Belen, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Beit Safafa. The parents of historian Juan Sakalha left the Christian village of Tayebh, 12km from Ramallah, in 1915, arriving in Valparaiso (120km north of Santiago) after a gruelling journey. They passed through Beirut, Marseille, Panama, São Paulo and Buenos Aires, crossing the Andes on donkeys.
Most were small farmers or artisans, but literate. They settled in the capital and beyond. “There isn’t a single village in Chile lacking a curate, a policeman and a Palestinian,” according to a well-known saying. In Santiago they chose Patronato because the rents were low and it was close to the main market. In 1910 newcomers headed for Jorge Shahuran’s general store on the corner of Patronato and Santa Filomena. Here they could get assistance settling in and pass on news from home. The community started publishing its first paper, Al-Murshid, in 1912.
Their greatest source of pride is the Club Deportivo Palestino professional football side. Established in 1920, it is the world’s only top-division club to sport the Palestinian colours. It has its own ground, at La Cisterna. In January players replaced the number one on their jerseys with an elongated map of pre-1948 Palestine. They won their next three matches. But the 70,000-strong Jewish community protested against such “political exploitation of soccer” and accused the Palestinians of importing a conflict that they claimed had more to do with religion than territory.
The Football Federation of Chile summoned Palestino president Maurice Khamis Massu and banned the jerseys, fining the club $15,000. The players then tattooed the map of Palestine on their forearms. The controversy became news across the world and now the club’s jerseys, particularly number 11, have been selling like hot cakes. “A win by Palestino is a joy for the suffering Palestinian people. The terrible events in Gaza have strengthened our links with Palestine and our roots,” Massu says.
He was three when his family arrived in Chile, following the creation of the state of Israel. He is a member of the Belen 2000 foundation, which awards scholarships to children in Palestine and sends doctors to work there.
The Palestinian Federation of Chile is made up of several organisations including Palestino. It “has gained in importance in recent years as the conflict over Gaza has deteriorated”, president Mauricio Abu-Gosh says. “Our aim is to raise public awareness of the Palestinian cause and promote the unity of the Palestinian community in Chile.”
It is certainly influential, accounting for 10% of senate seats and 11% of the lower chamber, representing a broad political spectrum reaching from the Communist party to the Conservatives. Palestinians head nine local councils, and there are 26 municipal councillors of Palestinian origin. Deputy interior minister Mahmud Aleuy’s family hails from Palestine.
Abu-Gosh acknowledges the existence of a “horizontal lobby” that has scored several “big successes”. In 2008 Chile welcomed 130 refugees fleeing the conflict in Iraq. The socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, held a reception for them at the Moneda palace, seat of the presidency, on the anniversary of al-Nakba (in May 1948, when Palestinians fled or were expelled from lands for the creation of Israel). Bachelet did not attend the ceremony at the Israeli embassy celebrating the creation of Israel. In 2011, the then conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, visited Palestine and endorsed its claim to statehood.
In August, as Israel resumed military operations against Gaza, Bachelet, re-elected in March, recalled the Chilean ambassador to Tel Aviv. Thousands of people demonstrated in Santiago in solidarity with Palestine. The ambassador only resumed his functions once a ceasefire had been arranged. Several neighbouring countries followed suit, the exception being Argentina, home to the largest Jewish community (250,000-strong) in Latin America.
Gerardo Gorodischer, leader of the Jewish community in Chile, deplores “the confusion between Jews and Israel” and the rise of “antisemitism unprecedented in Chile”. He goes so far as to say: “We are enduring a pogrom, without the Chilean government lifting a finger. The most prosperous people are thinking of moving to the United States.” He claims that the Israeli flag was burned at several pro-Palestine demonstrations. Palestinian leaders maintain this was the work of “radical groups which are not representative of the community”.
“I’m a Chilean, a Palestinian and a communist,” says Daniel Jahud, 47, leader of the local council at Recoleta, part of which overlaps with Patronato. He is proud of the fact that Salvador Allende, the socialist president overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973, should be buried in the district he governs. “Looking back in history the various religious communities co-existed peacefully until the artificial creation of the Israeli state by Europeans,” he says. “The conflict is not about religion. Relations are poor, not with Jews but with the Zionists who represent the Israeli government in Chile.”
Integration was difficult in Chile. The country was very conservative and treated the Palestinians as second-class immigrants, unlike the British, Germans and French who had won over the aristocracy. But despite cultural differences Palestinians were soon assimilated into the middle classes. Some families now command the biggest fortunes in the country. In the 1930s they built powerful textile industries, the Banco de Crédito e Inversiones and an insurance company. In the early years, in the face of hostility many Palestinians married outside their community and even in the 1970s this pattern was true of over two-thirds of marriages.
Another, more upmarket rallying point for the community is the Palestinian Club at Las Condes, a residential neighbourhood. Founded in 2007 its parks and gardens spread over 11 hectares, with palm trees and superb views of the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. It has an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts and football pitches but no oriental architecture. The club house is all timber and glass. Anuar Majluf, the club’s thirtysomething head of communications, says he feels more Chilean than anything else, nevertheless acknowledging that the “Gaza conflict has rekindled the Palestinian identity in Chile”. He tempers that view by adding: “We’re not attempting to import the conflict, rather it is important to us.”