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‘A Policeman, A Pastor and A Palestinian’: The ‘Chilestinians’ as a Model for Palestinian Unity

I was only introduced to the term ‘Chilestinians’ last February at a conference in Istanbul, during a presentation by the Director of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, Anuar Majluf.

When Majluf referred to the well-rooted Palestinian community in Chile, who number between 450,000 and half a million, using that unfamiliar and peculiar phrase, I smiled. Others did, too.

It is quite rare that a conference on Palestine, anywhere, would include such an upbeat atmosphere as that introduced by the Chilean-Palestinian leader, as the current discourse on Palestine is one that is saturated with a deepening sense of political failure, disunity and betrayal.

I say ‘Chilean-Palestinian’ for the sake of convenience because, later on, I realized that the term ‘Chilestinians’ was not coined haphazardly, or jokingly.

Dr. Lina Meruane, a Chilean scholar of Palestinian descent, told Bahira Amin of the ‘Scene Arabia’ online magazine, that the term ‘Chilestinians’ is different from ‘Chilean-Palestinians’ in the sense that it is a demarcation of a unique identity.

“It’s not a hyphenated identity, but the fusion of two identities that belong together and have no issues belonging together,” Meruane said. Amin refers to this as a ‘third space’ which was created in diaspora, over the course of 150 years.

It might come as a surprise for those of us not familiar with the Palestinian experience in Chile to learn of the old adage, “for every village in Chile you will find three things: a policeman, a pastor, and a Palestinian.” But the saying, indeed, expresses a historical bond between Palestine and a country that is located on the extreme south-western coast of South America.

The immense distance – over 13,000 kilometers – between Jerusalem and Santiago, might in part, explain the reason why Chile and its large ‘Chilestinian’ population did not occupy its deserved status in the collective imagination of Palestinians everywhere.

But there are other reasons too, leading among them the fact that successive Palestinian leaderships have failed to fully appreciate the immense potential of Palestinian communities in diaspora, especially the Palestinians of Chile. The latter’s story is not only that of struggle and perseverance, but also of great success and vital contributions to their own society and to the Palestinian cause.

Starting in the late 1970s, the Palestinian leadership labored to politically engage with Washington and other Western capitals, culminating in the pervading sense that, without US political validation, Palestinians would always remain marginal and irrelevant.

Palestinian calculation proved disastrous. After decades of catering to Washington expectations and diktats, the Palestinian leadership returned empty-handed as the Donald Trump administration’s ‘Deal of the Century’ has finally proven.

Political decisions have their cultural repercussions as well. For at least three decades, Palestinians have re-oriented themselves politically and culturally, disowning their historical allies in the southern hemisphere, as a whole. Worse, the new thinking widened the chasms between Palestinians in Palestine and their own brethren, like Palestinian communities in South America who held even tighter to their identity, language, music and love for their ancestral homeland.

What is so unique about Palestinians in Chile and other Palestinian communities in South America, is that their roots go back decades before the destruction of Palestine and the establishment of Israel on its ruins in 1948.

Israel often claims that its Palestinian victims lacked a national identity in the modern sense. Some scholars, at times well-intentioned ones, concur, claiming that a modern Palestinian identity was largely articulated after the Nakba – the ‘Catastrophic’ destruction of historic Palestine.

Those who are still stuck at this historical distortion must introduce themselves to Palestinian historians like Nur Mashala and his must-read book ‘Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History’.

‘Chilestinians’ offer a real living example of the true strength of the collective Palestinian identity that existed before Israel itself was violently imposed on the Palestinian map.

‘Deportivo Palestino’, a prominent football club that plays in Chile’s Primera division, was unofficially established in 1916 and, officially, four years later. I learned from the ‘Chilestinian’ delegation to Istanbul that the founders of the Palestinian community in that country established ‘Palestino’ to ensure their children never forget the name, and that they continue to chant the name of Palestine for many years to come.

The football club – known as Palestine’s ‘second national football team’ – will soon celebrate its one hundred year anniversary, a celebration that is likely to take place amid the predominant chant of ‘Gaza resists; Palestine exists’.

Palestino’s La Cisterna stadium in Santiago, a towering edifice adorned with Palestinian flags, is not only a testament of the tenacity of Palestinian identity, but the generosity of Palestinian culture as well, as the stadium is one of the city’s largest communal hubs bringing people from all backgrounds together in an ongoing celebration of everything that we have in common.

To avoid any reductionist understanding of the Palestinian experience in Chile, and all of South America, we must accept that, like any other society, Palestinians there have their own divisions, which are often governed by wealth, class and politics.

This division reached its height during the US-backed coup of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1973. But the rift did not last long, as the ‘Chilestinians’ united once more following the Israeli engineered massacre of Sabra and Shatila, in South Lebanon, in 1982.

Since then, the Palestinian community of Chile learned to accept their political differences, while agreeing that their rapport with Palestine must be their unifying common ground. For years now, the ‘Chilestinians’ are working hand in hand with other Palestinian communities in South America to accentuate the need for unity, distancing themselves from the political disharmony and factionalism that has wrought havoc on the Palestinian political identity in Palestine itself.

Slowly, Palestinians of South America are merging back to occupy a center stage in the larger Palestinian stream, not only as part and parcel of the collective Palestinian identity, but also as a role model that must be fully understood and even emulated.

Not a day goes by without me checking my sports app to follow the progress of ‘Deportivo Palestino’. I know that many Palestinians in other parts of the world do the same, because despite the distance, language, and time difference, ultimately, we will always remain one people.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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