Parts of campus only open to those with palms painted red

In Chile, a pro-Palestinian campus occupation turns witch hunt for ‘Zionist’ faculty

Feeling abandoned by the university, at least two pro-Israel lecturers are preparing to leave UMCE in Santiago over fears for their safety amid student agitation

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Chilean students demonstrate during an anti-Israel protest in Santiago, Chile, May 24, 2024. (Pablo Rojas/AFPTV/AFP)

In April, Gladys Briceño removed a Palestinian flag that had been affixed without permission to the façade of a building in a public university where she teaches, near the Chilean capital of Santiago.

A musicology lecturer, who is not Jewish but who believes Israel has a right to exist, Briceño did this because she “didn’t think university facilities are the place to fly flags to make statements about controversial geopolitical conflicts,” she told The Times of Israel this week.

But in Chile, which has one of the largest Palestinian communities outside the Middle East, this action had major consequences for Briceño’s career and the entire university. The flag removal helped trigger an ongoing campus occupation by anti-Israel activists seeking the dismissal of “Zionist professors,” as they call Briceño and another faculty member, Noemi Grinspun, who is Jewish.

Occurring amid an uptick in violent antisemitism in Chile and beyond, the standoff (Spanish-language article) at the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences (UMCE) stands out amid a global wave of anti-Israel campus protests for its targeting of individual lecturers, who feel abandoned by their university administration.

The campaign coincides with weeks-long harassment of Chilean Jews at their community centers, a development that recently prompted the heads of Chile’s Jewish schools to tell students not to walk outdoors in their school uniforms for fear this would invite attacks against them.

Demonstrators protest against Israel in front of La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile on June 8, 2024. (AP/Esteban Felix)

At her home in Santiago, Briceño is preparing to retire from the Metropolitan University, where her courses have been student favorites for many years. She is retiring earlier than planned because she doesn’t feel safe at the university. “Because, in fact, I wouldn’t be safe on campus,” she said of her workplace of 24 years.

In a list of demands that the organizers of the May 29 occupation submitted to the administration, they wrote that the university should “disconnect” itself from “the Zionist lecturers Gladys Briceño and Noemi Grinspun.” They “inhabit and transgress on our university space, actively teaching hate speech in the classroom and through their social networks,” the organizers wrote.

Briceño and Grinspun, who both deny having ever engaged in hate speech, said the campaign against them featured antisemitic overtones. During a discussion with students in an early attempt at de-escalation, “several of them told me that the Jewish people are trying to exterminate Palestinians,” Briceño recalled.

“I think it’s an antisemitic campaign. They’re targeting Noemi and me because they identified us as Jews, mistakenly in my case, correctly in hers,” said Briceño, whose husband — who is also not Jewish — has family in Israel.

The so-called Central House on the campus of the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences near Santiago in Chile, pictured here on April 23, 2023. (Wikimedia Commons/Carlos Figueroa Rojas)

The campus occupation organizers also demanded their university sever ties with the Gordon Academic College in Haifa and all other Israeli institutions.

“Above everything else, what pains me most is that there was no attempt at a defense by the administration, by the rector. Nothing. They abandoned us, Noemi and me. They left us in the lurch,” Briceño said. (The Metropolitan University did not respond to a request for comment by The Times of Israel.)

Feeling unsafe and abandoned

Grinspun has lived in Israel since 2021 as a guest researcher at the University of Haifa, while still teaching at the Metropolitan University remotely via video link. Since the agitation against her began, the administration asked her to return to Chile and resume physical teaching. Like Briceño, she doesn’t feel safe enough to do so. Grinspun also thinks the demand is meant to make her quit.

“I don’t have any security, and they [the protesters] are very violent,” Grinspun told The Times of Israel. “They wrote about me on social media with my name, picture and everything.”

A screen capture of a banner that denounces Noemi Grinspun as a ‘Zionist’ that has circulated in social media in Chile since May 2024. (Instagram)

While Grinspun is distressed by the developments at her university, she is not shocked.

“It didn’t come by surprise. I knew something like this could happen. And also we thought about our son because I didn’t want him to go to university in Chile and to have those experiences. It’s very hard for Jewish students now. For adults, too, but we can manage. For students it’s more complicated,” she said.

At the University of Chile, another Santiago-based public institution that is the country’s oldest and most prestigious, students and lecturers have had to paint their palms red as a display of solidarity with Palestinians to be allowed into some parts of the campus by occupying protesters. That university suspended (link in Spanish) its ties with Israeli counterpart institutions earlier this month to appease the protesters.

Children of the Palestinian community in Chile attend a demonstration against Israel in front of the UN building in Santiago, Chile on Oct. 10, 2023. (AP/Esteban Felix)

Grinspun is leaning toward staying in Israel permanently following the incident at UMCE, she said.

A climate of intimidation

The campaign against Grinspun and Briceño is part of a broader pattern of anti-Israel harassment that escalated on October 7 following the Hamas onslaught on southern Israel that saw some 1,200 people murdered and 251 taken hostage to Gaza. The public outcry against the ensuing war with Hamas has bled over to antisemitism on several notable occasions, according to Ariela Agosin, the president of the Jewish Community of Chile organization, which represents the country’s 20,000-odd Jews.

“Some people who wear a kippah receive screams or other forms of intimidation on the street. So the atmosphere is not easy,” she said. Students of Chile’s three Jewish schools have been instructed to change out of their school uniforms, which feature logos with Jewish symbols, on their way to and from school, she said, adding this was “very terrible.”

Children of the Palestinian community rip a banner with the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamín Netanyahu during a demonstration against Israel outside the Israeli embassy in Santiago, Chile on October 19, 2023. (AP/Esteban Felix)

Last month, an angry crowd gathered with Palestinian flags outside a Jewish community center in Santiago, later moving to demonstrate outside the nearby synagogue where a wedding was taking place (link in Spanish). Some protesters accosted the guests, and “some stones were thrown,” Agosin said. About half of Santiago’s dozen or so synagogues have been vandalized since October 7, she added.

On campuses, “Jewish lecturers keep a low profile,” said Gabriel Colodro, the head of the Chilean Community in Israel, a nonprofit that assists immigrants from Chile.

“It’s their livelihood, the money that feeds their children. Of course, they just keep quiet and wait it out,” Colodro said.

His confidence in the long-term viability of Chilean Jewry decreased dramatically after October 7, he said.

Gabriel Colodro. (Courtesy of Colodro)

Part of the problem, many Chilean Jews believe, is that protesters feel emboldened by the government led by Gabriel Boric, a far-left politician who became president of Chile in 2021.

In 2019, he spurned a Rosh Hashanah gift, a small pot of honey, that the Jewish Community of Chile had sent lawmakers.

“I appreciate the gesture but they could start by asking Israel to return the illegally occupied Palestinian territory,” Boric wrote on X (then Twitter) about Chilean Jews, many of whom cited this post as proof that he is antisemitic. Boric is the only Chilean president who has declined to meet with representatives of Chilean Jews, Agosin said.

Chile’s President Gabriel Boric gives his ‘State of the Nation’ annual message to the country at the Congress in Valparaiso, Chile, on June 1, 2024. (Francesco Degasperi/AFP)

His government has recalled its ambassador to Israel, as have several other Latin American countries after October 7. Some 37,000 Palestinians have died as a result of the operation, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 15,000.

Keeping Judaism vibrant

Despite the difficulties posed by the anti-Israel agitation in Chile, the community still maintains a vibrant existence, Agosin, the Jewish community leader, said.

Some major university administrations have resisted pressure to sever ties with Israel, she noted, and Israeli and Chilean Jews have many friends and allies in Chile. Immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Chile has been low, with only about several dozen making the move annually in recent years.

Ariela Agosin with Sergio Widder, left, and Gerardo Gorodischer, right, in Chile in 2023. (Courtesy of JDC)

Agosin, a lawyer who has three children living in Chile, paused before replying to a question on whether she believed the community would be able to maintain its vibrancy in the coming 20 years.

“That’s a tough question,” she said. “But I feel like things will change. First of all, in two years we’ll have a new government and the war will have ended. So hopefully things will be easier then.”

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