Gaza war is widening rifts even in Latin America

War in Gaza has led to sharp differences among world leaders, just as it has among populations. Nowhere is this clearer than in Latin America.

“What’s happening in the Gaza Strip isn’t a war, it’s a genocide,” President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil said at a recent news conference. “It’s not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children. What’s happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people hasn’t happened at any other moment in history. Actually, it has happened: when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

“Lula,” as he is widely known, has emerged as one of the world’s fiercest critics of Israel’s war in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called his comments disgraceful. They set off a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. “In my name and the name of the citizens of Israel,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz responded, “tell President Lula that he is persona non grata in Israel until he takes it back.”

Across the border in Argentina, the official attitude could not be more different. President Javier Milei is fascinated by Judaism. He quotes the Torah, wears a yarmulke when meeting with Jewish supporters, and paid homage at the grave of a revered Lubavitcher rabbi, Menachem Schneerson, during a visit to new York. Though born Catholic, Milei has described Pope Francis as an “imbecile” and a “son of a bitch preaching communism.” His comments on Gaza are equally direct.

“I want to emphasize our complete solidarity with the people of Israel following the terrorist acts committed by the terrorist organization Hamas,” Milei told an Israeli delegation that visited Buenos Aires in December. “I support Israel’s full right to defend itself against those terrorist attacks.” Milei visited Israel soon afterward, and his full endorsement of Israeli security policies led Netanyahu to praise him as a “great friend of the Jewish state.”

Other Latin American leaders have spoken out with varying degrees of equanimity and outrage.

President Gabriel Boric of Chile said that attacks Hamas launched against Israel “deserve global condemnation” but added that “the response has been disproportionate and is violating international humanitarian law.” Chile has recalled its ambassador from Israel in protest. So has Colombia, whose president, Gustavo Petro, asserted that “genocide is happening in Gaza and thousands of children, women, and elderly civilians are being cowardly murdered.”

Guatemala’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, spent part of his youth in Israel, where his father was Guatemalan ambassador. There he learned Hebrew and studied sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has spoken sympathetically about Israel, but he favors the creation of a Palestinian state, which Israel rejects.

And yet Jewish politicians in Latin America and those of Palestinian descent have been notably quiet. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador is one example. His Palestinian grandparents came from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and his father was a Muslim cleric. Yet he has visited Israel and held friendly talks with its leaders. After the Hamas attack in October, he wrote on social media that “the best thing that could happen to the Palestinian people is for Hamas to completely disappear. Anyone who supports the Palestinian cause would make a great mistake siding with those criminals.” Since then, Bukele has made no public comment on the Gaza war.

Neither has the woman who may soon become Latin America’s most important Jewish leader, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum of Mexico City, who is likely to be elected president in June. Never in history has anyone of Jewish heritage led a country as big as Mexico. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Scheinbaum has remained largely silent about events in Gaza. Both she and Bukele seek to avoid locking themselves into ethnic boxes.

This naturally displeases some of their compatriots. The dean of Jewish Studies at Hebraica University in Mexico City, Daniel Fainstein, said Sheinbaum is “not seen as, let’s say, one of us.” In El Salvador, much of the Palestinian-descended population is unhappy with Bukele. “In terms of the Palestinian cause of resisting occupation,” said Amy Fallas, a Salvadoran scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “he’s looking at Palestine’s way forward through business and technology, not through sovereignty.”

In Latin America, unlike in the United States, leaders with Jewish or Palestinian roots have largely avoided the intense debate over the Gaza war. Meanwhile, Catholic heads of state plunge into it.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

One Response

  1. Stanley A. Scarano
    Stanley A. Scarano at | | Reply

    I believe all peoples have a right to exist and to pursue their aspirations, but … not at the expense of other peoples… I am left confused and disillusioned by the Biden Administration and the major media outlets in their dissemination of misinformation and lies concerning the Gaza conflict. I have yet to hear any major news organization or media outlet mention or address Amnesty International’s 2022 Report on Israel… Amnesty International is one of the most respected Human Rights organizations in the entire world. The report is available on the internet with a simple search of: “Amnesty International’s 20222 report on Israel.”
    Is this “fake” news or is what we hear out of major news and media outlets and the Biden administration “fake” news?

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