Rotem Singer, a 23-year-old Israeli tourist, was accused of starting a forest fire. His arrest triggered an avalanche of anti-Semitic sentiments.
On December 27, 2011, a massive forest fire raged through the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile and destroyed an area of about 125 sq km. Hundreds of military personnel and fire fighters were deployed at the scene to fight the blaze and managed to bring the fire under control on January 2, 2012. The area is a popular tourist destination due to its striking mountain peaks, and thousands of tourists visit the region at this time of year.
Regional prosecutor Juan Melendez announced that 23-year old Rotem Singer, an Israeli national, had been detained on suspicion of starting the forest fire. As he was led to the courtroom, taunts of “filthy Jew” were yelled as the suspect.
Mr. Melendez stated that Singer acknowledged his responsibility in negligently allowing the fire to start while camping in an area of Chile's Torres del Paine Park, where such fires are prohibited. Rotem Singer was charged with burning his hiking group’s toilet paper, resulting in flames that grew out of his control.
A member of Singer’s hiking group told authorities they saw Singer start a fire that he was unable to properly extinguish, reported La Tercera, leading to his arrest.Another member of the hiking group, Mandi Gisser, refuted these claims to local media, saying Singer did start a fire, but she saw that it was properly snuffed out.
One newspaper, El Cidudadan, argued that Singer was part of an Israeli group sent to set the stage for an Israeli invasion of Chile. “It is easy to imagine... the Israeli military... arriving in the middle of nowhere in no man’s land to claim power, accommodation and natural resources,” the paper wrote. The leader for the 25,000 strong Jewish community in Chile, Shai Agosin dismissed the article and said that the comments were both anti-Semitic and ridiculous.
In the wake of the fire in Chile’s Patagonia region, the outburst of anti-Semitic attacks and charges included outrageous claims made by Chilean politicians. Congressman Fuad Chahin, the vice president of the Christian Democratic Party, wrote on his Twitter account, “I bet that the Israeli ‘tourist’ that burned Torres del Paine is one of those sent by his State after killing Palestinian children.”
Senator Eugenio Tuma, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chilean Senate and member of the Party for Democracy, blamed Israel for financing and sending military personnel to the Chilean Patagonia as therapy for post-traumatic stress associated with their belligerence against the Palestinians.
Other Hate-filled comments were posted on Chilean news web sites linking the fires to a 19th century anti-Semitic conspiracy theory known as the “Andinia Plan.” The conspiracy theory suggests Jews want to gain control of the land in the Patagonia region and are carrying out that plan by destroying the ecological preserve. There have also been reports that some local hostels are now carrying signs that read “no Israelis allowed.”
B’nai B’rith President Allan J. Jacobs and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin sent a letter to Chilean Ambassador to the United States Arturo Fernandois, expressing its “grave concern over the outburst of anti-Semitic activity that occurred in Chile after the arrest of the 23-year-old Israeli backpacker, who is suspected of having accidentally ignited the fire of the Torres del Paine National Park.” “Undoubtedly, the fire is a national tragedy, and we share the Chileans’ sorrow for this very unfortunate incident. But blaming the State of Israel or the Jewish people as a whole for the ‘alleged’ actions of a tourist is absolutely unacceptable and irrational.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expressed outrage over the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories circulating on Chilean web sites blaming Jews and the State of Israel for “deliberately setting” the tragic fire in the environmental preserve of Torres del Paine Park in the Chilean Patagonia.
Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued a statement that included:
The outrageous and bigoted scapegoating of Jews and Israel in the Patagonian fires needs to stop right now. It is shocking that the fires are breathing new life into age-old conspiracy theories about Jews wanting to take over Patagonian land, and it is even more troubling that some of these anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are apparently being fueled and spread online by members of the Chilean parliament who hold positions of authority.
We welcome the statements made by the Presidents of the Party for Democracy and the Christian Democratic Party who distanced themselves from the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements made by the parliamentarians belonging to their parties. We urge other politicians and civic leaders to speak out so that anti-Semitism does not rule the day. We call on the Chilean parliament to pass anti-discrimination laws that would provide a legislative platform to condemn these anti-Semitic and xenophobic statements.
The Jewish community of Chile, numbers approximately 21,000 out of a total population of 14.5 million. Most of the Jews are descendants of refugees from Germany and are religiously unaffiliated. The Representative Committee of Jewish Organizations in Chile (CREJ) encompasses all the Jewish communities and organizations in the country. There is a large Jewish school and several publications cater to the needs of the community.
In contrast, the Palestinian community in Chile numbers 300,000 and is one of the largest in the world. Several Palestinian organizations have been active in pressing leading Chilean figures to condemn Israel and encouraging neo-Nazi groups to join their activities. Notable among these groups is Patria Nueva Sociedad (PNS), or Homeland New Society, a neo-Nazi movement, whose anti-Semitism gives them a common objective with some of the Palestinian organizations.
The publication Diario Estado Palestino, edited by Club Palestino uses extremely inflammatory language against Israelis and Jews. Eugenio Chachuán, who runs a research center, Centro de Estudios Arabes, within the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Chile, has declared himself anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Israel. According to Argentinean intelligence, Chile is one of the Latin American countries most vulnerable to an Islamist terrorist attack, possibly because it is a democratic country with no anti-discrimination laws to curb extremist activity.
Previous to this incident with the Israeli tourist, Chile experienced other anti-Semitic sentiments in the year of 2010. On August 12, 2010, The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expressed deep concern about anti-Semitic incidents in Chile targeting Jewish community leaders and institutions, and called on the country's officials to publicly condemn such acts.
Vandals desecrated cemeteries and spray-painted anti-Semitic graffiti on synagogues and Jewish schools in the cities of Concepcion, Temuco, and the capital, Santiago. In Santiago, Chile’s capital, unknown vandals scrawled “Juden Raus” (German for “Jews out”) on the walls of the Chaim Weizmann School. In a separate incident, a video was posted on the Web showing a group of people urinating in a Jewish cemetery in the city.
In August of 2010, the president of Chile’s Jewish community, Gabriel Zaliasnik, was given police protection. Zaliasnik told The Jerusalem Post that his house was being guarded by a police detail after he and his son had received threats of violence. “I am 43 years old, and I don’t recall something like this,” he said. “We’ve had eight different anti-Semitic events in different parts of the country.”
Later in the year of 2010, in November, anti-Semites in Chile sprayed swastikas and anti-Semitic pictures on the walls of Jewish youth center in Santiago in an escalation of hate actions against Jews. The HaShomer HaTza'ir (Young Guards) youth group told police they discovered the swastikas when they left a weekend charity activity.
Rotem Singer, the 23-year-old Israeli tourist suspected of causing a forest fire in Chile's national park, was released from custody to the village of Puerto Natales on Jan. 1, 2012, and must report to a local police station once a week. His passport was confiscated and he is forbidden to leave the Patagonia region in southern Chile until his case is heard.
The local prosecutor told Chilean CNN that Singer was maintaining his right to silence until he could see an Israeli attorney, since he doesn't speak Spanish. At worst, he could be sentenced to 60 days in prison, and fined up to $300.
Chilean Environment Minister Maria Ignacia Benitez, however, said that the government would sue the perpetrators. "[The fire was] obviously caused by tourists' negligence. It could have been accidental, and most chances are that it was accidental, even though we can't be certain," she said.
Singer's father denies his son caused the fire, which burned down over 11,000 hectares. "He was a long distance from where the fire began," Hezi Singer, told Army Radio. "Rotem is confused and frightened. They brought him a translator we know nothing about, and a local attorney who isn't exactly doing his job. They were probably looking for a scapegoat who doesn't speak Spanish."