Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Latin American Solidarity
KeywordsIsrael Palestine Jewish diaspora Arab diaspora Jewish-Arab relations Tricontinental Congress Palestinian Liberation Organization Zionism
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is defined broadly as the political and military encounters between Israel and Palestine over ownership of the land considered sacred to both Israelis and Palestinians. In addition to disputed territories, the racial, religious, and social differences between Israelis and Palestinians have also contributed to the ongoing conflict. After decades of discussions and campaigns to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, the United Nations established the State of Israel in 1947. Since that time, Israel and Palestine have entered into war several times. Over the past century, tens of thousands of people from both Israel and Palestine have died in conflicts between the two nations. The conflict has had repercussions worldwide, particularly for Jewish and Palestinian communities in other countries that align themselves with one side or the other of the conflict. Latin America has a particular relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to patterns of immigration to Latin America as well as to the political alliances of various groups throughout Latin America over the course of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has drawn myriad reactions throughout the world. Latin America is no exception. Home to some of the world’s highest urban concentrations of Jewish populations as well as to many large Arab populations, Latin America has figured prominently in worldwide geopolitics regarding Jewish-Arab relations.
In the 1947 UN resolution to create the State of Israel, 13 Latin American countries voted in the affirmative (Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela) while six countries abstained (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico). Only Cuba opposed Israeli statehood. In 2015, it was estimated that Latin American support of Palestine was at an all-time high, partially, as some have noted, because of the so-called Pink Tide in twenty-first-century Latin America. This “Pink Tide,” or Return of the Left, consisted of a resurgence of leftist leadership throughout the region and specifically sought to vindicate claims against colonialism on which the platforms of the 1960s New Left had been predicated (Tharoor 2014). As widespread support for the Left in Latin America has begun to wane, however, so too has support for Palestine (Baeza 2017). Currently, debates surrounding the two-state solution and the one-state solution are prevalent throughout discussions on international diplomacy in many countries of Latin America, just as they are in other regions of the world.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a significant issue for international diplomacy for countries throughout Latin America and has garnered attention over the last century. Throughout the past decades, Latin America has been characterized by a shifting climate of debate and solidarity with Israel or with Palestine in the region.
Arabs in Latin America
Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil have some of the largest Arab communities outside the Arab World. Brazil, for example, has a higher Lebanese population than Lebanon itself (Dyke 2014). Most Arab-Latin Americans have ancestors who immigrated from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Unlike Jewish immigrants to Latin America, however, many Arabs who immigrated to Latin American countries practiced Catholicism in their native countries or converted to Catholicism upon moving to Latin America. As such, the region’s Arab populations tend to be much more assimilated into mainstream society and are less likely than Jewish Latin Americans to form official organizations to articulate support for global issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Jews in Latin America
Jews have a long history in Latin America that dates back to immigration in the sixteenth century after the expulsion of Jews and other “Moriscos” from Spain in 1492. Sephardic Jews immigrated to Brazil, Santo Domingo, Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Peru, many of them living as so-called Crypto-Jews. Due to the Inquisition’s presence, these Jews publicly converted to Catholicism but privately continued to live as Jews within their homes. A much larger wave of Jewish immigrants would arrive in Latin America beginning in the late nineteenth century through the 1950s, predominantly Ashkenazi, escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, later, the Nazi threat throughout Europe. Today, Jewish communities in Latin America can be found in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
Zionism in Latin America
Latin America as a region has a unique relationship with Zionism, for some founders of Zionist movements advocated for the establishment of a Jewish state in Argentina. In the 1890s, Baron Maurice de Hirsch established Jewish colonies in the Argentine pampas, receiving thousands of Jews fleeing from Eastern European pogroms. For decades, Argentina would thus occupy a central space within the Zionist imaginary. In the first years of the 1900s, Zionist groups would in turn appear in Chile and Brazil. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 provoked a significant amount of conversation and action relating to Zionism in Argentina, Chile, and Cuba. After World War I, contributions from throughout Latin America were made to Keren Hayesod and Keren Kayemeth, the two main financial organizations associated with Zionism. In 1945, the first Latin American Zionist Conference was held in Montevideo, Uruguay. For a brief period in time, Zionists throughout Latin America had largely harmonious relations with leftist groups in their countries, but this relationship would not last (Avni 1996), in part because of the revolutionaries’ solidarity with Palestine explained below.
Tricontinental Congress (1966)
Despite the prevalence of pro-Zionist solidarity in Latin America, solidarity throughout the region with anti-imperialist and decolonization movements has led to a great deal of support of Palestine. The Tricontinental Congress was held in 1966 in Havana, Cuba. The Congress consisted of delegates from throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia (hence the “Tricontinental” name). The event was designed to foster and solidify lines of ideological solidarity among the liberation and revolution leaders within countries of these regions. An important outcome of the Congress was the creation of the OSPAAL (Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, Africa y América Latina). Che Guevara delivered the keynote address to the Tricontinental, a speech which was influential in fostering lines of identification among liberation activists in attendance. The Conference proclaimed that Zionism was by nature an imperialist movement and thus asked for delegate countries to break diplomatic ties with Israel. Solidarity with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was a key resolution of the 1966 meeting.
This resolution was, however, met with considerable objection by some intellectuals and journalists throughout Latin America who accused the Tricontinental’s position on Israel to lack nuances such as distinguishing between pro-imperialist and anti-imperialist Israelis (Kahan 2016; Kilstein 2011). Fidel Castro would underscore the Congress’s support of Palestine in his closing remarks to the Tricontinental conference, although it would be another 7 years (1973) before he broke diplomatic relations with Israel and opened a PLO office with diplomatic status in Havana. In the wake of the success of the Cuban revolution in 1959, Cuba was in many respects an ideological leader of leftist causes throughout Latin America in the 1960s, with many revolutionary and liberation groups aligning themselves with Castroism.
Solidarity with the Palestinian Liberation Organization
In light of the Tricontinental’s support of the PLO, many revolutionary political groups throughout Latin America – some officially aligned with the Tricontinental, others not – would establish links with the PLO. The ideological affinity between revolutionary groups throughout Latin America and the PLO was to be found in their analogous struggles against imperialism: Latin America against the USA and the Arab World against Israeli imperialism.
Groups that allied themselves with the PLO included Argentina’s Montoneros, El Salvador’s Revolutionary Democratic Front/Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FDR-FMLN), Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), and Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also “made fraternal contact” with Chile’s Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario (MIR) (Elkin 1998). Similarly, “many saw the PLO in the same continuum as other revolutionary, guerrilla groups in the 1970s and ‘80s that were battling the last vestiges of colonialism or repressive governments backed by the West” (Tharoor 2014). Ongoing Cold War politics played a major factor in solidifying these lines of solidarity. In 1974, Fidel Castro would bestow upon PLO leader Yasser Arafat the Bay of Pigs Medal, “awarded to Cuban citizens or foreigners who have excelled in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or who have done great deeds for peace and progress of mankind” (Hatuqa 2016).
The Arab-Israeli or Six-Day War
The Arab-Israeli, or Six-Day War, which lasted from June 5 through June 9, 1967, followed closely on the heels of the 1966 Tricontintental Congress and its declaration of solidarity with Palestine. The conflict would galvanize Jews, Zionists, and those in solidarity with Palestine. The war is known as a turning point in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Afterwards, Cuba would condemn Israel for its attacks on Palestine. In Argentina, the conflict would prompt many Jewish intellectuals and journalists to question how to reconcile their Jewish identities with their revolutionary beliefs and commitment (Rozitchner 1967).
1973 Arab-Israeli War
The 1973 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Ramadan War or the Yom Kippur War, was another key moment for global geopolitics, for worldwide Arab and Jewish communities in particular. The conflict lasted from October 6 through October 25, 1973, and was fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. Continuing Castro’s solidarity with Palestine evinced through the Tricontinental Congress’s position, Cuba deployed troops to support the Arab states in the conflict. Many Jews from throughout the world, including Latin America, went to fight on the Israeli side of the armed conflict.
On July 18, 1994, a bomb exploded at Buenos Aires’s Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), killing 85 people. It was the largest terrorist attack in the Americas before September 11, 2001. For decades, a formal conclusion was not reached to the investigations, although the predominant theory of the crime is that Hezbollah, the anti-Zionist militant group based in Lebanon, placed the bomb. In 2006, Hezbollah was charged with the AMIA bombing. The bombing immediately drew international attention from worldwide Jewish groups. In 2015, Alberto Nisman, the chief investigator of the attack, was found dead in what was first declared a suicide but, on closer examination, appeared to be a murder. The case of Nisman’s death would also garner significant attention from Jewish communities worldwide.
The Pink Tide and Israel-Palestine
The narrative of imperialism that pervaded revolutionary discourse in the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America would resurface during the recent Pink Tide, or Return of the Left, in twenty-first-century political leadership in Latin America. As a part of this renewed anti-imperialist discourse, allegiance with Palestine and anti-Zionist positions would also become more prevalent in the political leadership of this time. As President, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet (2014–Present) drew comparisons between her forced exile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973–1990) to the situation of Palestinian refugees who are not allowed to reenter their country in the 2010s. At the same time, Fidel Castro promised oil to Palestine as a way of helping them to maintain strength and visibility as an international power. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007–2015) promised support for Palestine, as would Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff.
In light of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine and the shifting political landscape within the Latin American landscape, the conflict is likely to continue to evoke a broad range of reactions throughout the region. Future studies would do well to take into account the ongoing conversations and meetings between Latin American political organizations and those of Israel and Palestine.
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