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When Jews made friends with Pinochet the tyrant

The Chilean dictator fostered links with the Jewish community in his own country, and with Israel

    Augusto Pinochet
    Augusto Pinochet Photo: Getty Images

    Next week the Glasgow Film Festival will close with a showing of Nae Pasaran! (They Shall Not Pass!) which tells the story of how engineers at the Rolls-Royce East Kilbride factory in 1974 refused to repair aircraft engines that belonged to the Chilean armed forces.

    Led by General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean air force, flying British Hawker Hunter jets, had bombed La Moneda presidential palace and overthrown the elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende. A brutal dictatorship was established in which over 3,000 people were killed or "disappeared" and some 40,000 suffered torture and imprisonment.

    The death of Allende and the coup was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and shocked the governing Israeli Labour party – especially since Allende had accepted an invitation to visit the country from President Zalman Shazar.

    Allende had been close to the Histadrut and to Israel’s Marxist Zionist party, Mapam – whose political secretary, Naftali Feder, had been present at the presidential inauguration in 1970.

    Allende expressed his concern for oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union and, despite the large Arab community in Chile, for the plight of Jews in Arab lands. Some 200 Israelis were working in Chile to study methods of irrigating arid land. Allende argued that the Middle East conflict could only be solved "within the concept of the Jewish state’s right to existence and survival".

    This experiment in building a different society had inspired many young left-wing Zionists to delay their aliyah in order to help the Allende government. The Zionist Left Front had broken Jewish communal ranks by inviting Allende to address them during the election campaign. They too became targets during Pinochet’s reign of terror – not as Jews, but as leftists. Several left-wing Zionists were protected by housing them at the Israel Embassy in the capital, Santiago, for many months before being escorted by diplomats to the airport en route to Israel.

    Unlike Argentina in the 1970s where the military junta killed a disproportionate number of Jews, Pinochet’s regime did not embrace antisemitism as state policy. Instead his underlings visited synagogues on Yom Kippur to express their goodwill and regularly met communal leaders.

    General José Berdichevsky Scher, a fluent Yiddish speaker, who was instrumental in the coup bombing, was appointed ambassador to Israel. Miguel Schweitzer Walters was ambassador to the UK and Sergio Melnick was consulted on economic questions. In contrast, those Jews who had served in the Allende administration such as Enrique Testa, the head of the Sephardi community, were hunted down. Jaime Faivovich, the former mayor of Santiago, sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy. Volodia Teitelbaum, the head of the Communist party, escaped to Italy.

    Many middle-class Jews who had left Allende’s Chile for mainly economic reasons now returned to appreciate a new-found stability. Many were relative newcomers from Europe where they had experienced both fascism and communism and carried with them a deep fear of persecution and instability. Yet the draconian nature of the Pinochet regime worried those Jews who had a sense of history, but refused to turn a blind eye to what was happening. There was a split in a small community of 25,000 souls.

    The newly appointed rabbi, Angel Kreiman, attempted to obtain safe conduct permits for Jewish leftists and was close to the Committee for Peace, established by clergymen shortly after the coup. Rabbi Kreiman signed a petition along with the Catholic Cardinal Silva and the Lutheran Bishop Frenz which asked the regime to grant an amnesty to political prisoners. The rabbi’s activities were criticised by conservative elements within the community who wished to hear no criticism of Pinochet. He consequently moved to the Sephardi Sinagoga Maguen David in Santiago.

    Rabbi Kreiman meandered carefully between Pinochet and his own liberal conscience. In one conversation, Pinochet told him that his government was going to ban the film of Fiddler on the Roof because it showed revolutionaries waving a red flag and advocating the overthrow of the Tsar.

    Pinochet admired Israel’s armed forces, but simultaneously was careful to cultivate the Arab states. Chile therefore opposed the Zionism is Racism resolution at the UN, but hosted the Pan-American Arab Congress in Santiago in 1978. The PLO attended Pinochet’s reception.

    The general’s coup coincided with the Yom Kippur war – many states under Arab economic pressure broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. Labour governments under Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin were diplomatically isolated and economically vulnerable.

    This hostility forced Israel to pursue a policy of cultivating regimes in the 1970s which were considered pariah states by the international community.

    A redacted CIA intelligence report of February 5 1988 stated that Israel sold the Chilean air force 100 Shafrir air-to-air missiles in 1976 and 50 more in 1980. This was followed by 150 Sherman tanks and Westwind 2 aircraft. The report concluded: "In our view, Israel, even under a Labour government, is unlikely to jeopardise its military relationship with Santiago to support a restoration of democracy in Chile."

    Despite a US arms embargo, Israel trained personnel and provided equipment which could be used against Pinochet’s opponents. In 1989 Eitan Kalinsky and his wife were sent as Israeli emissaries to teach at the Jewish school in Santiago. They attended the now public protests against Pinochet’s regime and were amazed to note that the riot-control vehicles had been manufactured by Beit Alfa, a left-wing Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz.

    The political landscape however was changing. An invitation to Pinochet to visit Israel in the 1990s by the import company, Machshirei Tnuah, hoping for a purchase of military vehicles, was vigorously opposed by ministers in Rabin’s government.

    In 1998, when undergoing medical treatment in London, Pinochet was arrested under an international arrest warrant for human rights violations. After a protracted political and legal struggle, he was released from house arrest on grounds of ill-health and returned to Chile whereupon he remarkably recovered his mental faculties.

    Despite criticism from several British Jews, lay and spiritual leaders maintained a studied silence – broken by the late Rabbi Micky Rosen of Yakar in Jerusalem in a scathing sermon during a Friday night service. A JC editorial called for Pinochet to be brought to justice and commented: "For Jews, it should be no less clear-cut whatever the faith, creed or background of the victims of such crimes. In this context, the argument by a Chilean Jewish group that the Pinochet regime was not antisemitic is irrelevant — indeed, almost obscene."

    Pinochet died peacefully in his bed in 2006, beset by hundreds of criminal charges, laid at his door. 

    In 2015 Israelis Lily Traubman and Daniel Silberman whose fathers has been tortured and "disappeared" during Pinochet’s dictatorship, together with Lily’s daughter, Tamara,  presented a request to the Israeli Defence and Foreign Affairs ministries for details of Israeli-Chilean security and political relations during this period.

    Traubman, of Kibbutz Megiddo, was told by the Defence Ministry that it was unable to examine all 19,000 documents before release. Questions of national security – more than 40 years after the coup – were invoked. An appeal to the Tel Aviv District Court forced the Defence Ministry to part with 800 documents while admitting that the total number actually ran into the tens of thousands.

    Many would argue that Israel stood on the wrong side of history in this dark period and that Jewish leaders in this country and others looked the other way. In Chile itself, it was respect for the status quo and the good name of the community that displaced Jewish values.

    Colin Shindler is a historian and the author of ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’. He will be appearing at Jewish Book Week on Sunday March 11 at 8pm 

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