NEW YORK (Jul. 6)
When Yoram Rovner, a Jewish Chilean engineering student, heard last year that an international Nazi congress was scheduled to take place in his country, he decided he could not let it happen — at least not without a protest.
A member of Jewish youth groups, Rovner, 20, has often crusaded against neo- Nazis. That is why he recruited a group of 10 fellow students to protest the First Ideological Meeting of the National Socialists International, scheduled for April 2000 in Santiago, Chile’s capital.
After founding the Jewish community magazine Der Ruf, or The Cry — whose name is taken from the slogan of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — Rovner also launched a campaign to gather 1.5 million signatures against the Nazi meeting, each signature representing one child who perished in the Holocaust.
Yet Rovner’s activism goes beyond protesting the meeting. He is also intent on challenging what he says is the predominant attitude in the small Chilean Jewish community — a desire not to make waves.
“The Jewish leadership in Chile tries to maintain a low profile,” says Rovner, who studies at Catholic University in Chile.
“We cannot allow such things to happen without protesting. We are a group of students trying to do something against the Nazi congress.”
On June 21, Rovner and 100 young people demonstrated against an attempt to legally register the Nazi Party in Chile. The protesters wielded pictures of 100 children who perished in the Holocaust and received a great deal of press coverage, that, according to Rovner, “made a strong impact.”
Since the protest, the Chilean government has taken an official stance against the Nazi congress as well as the legalization of the Nazi Party, and Rovner and Der Ruf have also launched a public campaign against “the many” members of Chile’s right-wing political party, National Renovation, who sympathize with the neo-Nazis.
Der Ruf’s publication of the members of the right-wing party who either belonged to or sympathized with the Nazi movement was instrumental in National Renovation signing an agreement barring neo-Nazis from the party.
Despite these successes, Rovner and Der Ruf are facing an uphill battle against neo-Nazism in Chile. They are currently planning a protest of neo-Nazi seminars aimed at inaugurating teen-agers into the movement.
Rovner has been repeatedly threatened by neo-Nazis who have labeled him a “Jewish skinhead,” an “ultra-Zionist,” and an “extremist.” Rovner also believes that someone from the Jewish community, out of fear of neo-Nazi backlash, has been threatening Der Ruf in an attempt to delay its activities.
“I am shocked when I learn that people are afraid to speak about Judaism or being Jewish in newspapers because they feel it creates anti-Semitism,” Rovner says.
“If this silence continues, history may repeat itself, and we must prevent that from happening.”
Rovner admits the fight could be a difficult one, given Chile’s history of anti-Semitism and a rise in neo-Nazi activities in Latin America.
“There has always been anti-Semitism in Chile,” Rovner says. “In the 1930s, local factions of the Nazi Party were found throughout Chile, and since then, there have been many movements in Chile supporting Nazi policies.”
Rovner is countering the rise in right-wing groups by distributing material of his own.
“They are distributing anti-Semitic papers and we are trying to fight that.”
Rovner says many Chileans do not know where to go to find information about the Holocaust and that the subject is not given much attention in Chilean schools, as it is difficult for students to find Holocaust resources in Spanish. This lack of information, combined with a lack of legislation regulating hate speech, make neo-Nazis believe they can find a home in Chile, Rovner says.
Rovner and his Der Ruf colleagues are “asking the present government to promote anti-discrimination laws, so that the next government can make the decision not to allow the Nazi congress to take place.”
The government in Chile will change hands in March 2000, just one month before the Nazi congress is set to happen.
Experts agree that Rovner’s group faces an uphill battle not only within Chilean society, but also within the Jewish community.
“The Chilean Jewish community is very passive in a sense,” says Nathan Fischer, a Chilean Jewish doctor who now lives in West Hartford, Conn.
“People are very scared of attacks such as the bombings of the Jewish agencies and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires,” he says, referring to the 1992 and 1994 attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina’s capital.
Fischer says that while Jews in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America are widely accepted — he notes that there are Jewish senators and Cabinet ministers, and Chasidim who are part of the Chilean government — “there is also a duplicity, as many Nazis came to Chile and South America after World War II.”
However, not all Chilean Jews characterize the community as inactive.
“The Jewish community in Chile is very cautious, and also very committed to Jewish issues, although it is politically divided,” says Marjorie Agosin, a professor of Latin American literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Agosin’s family left Chile many years ago. Her great-grandparents were the founders of the Jewish community in Valparaiso, one of Chile’s largest cities.
“The fact that the Nazis chose Chile for their congress shows that Chile is perceived as somewhat of an anti-Semitic society, with a history of fascist governments and dictatorships,” Agosin says.
“Many people are afraid to face that. We do care — if we don’t, we will give in to the Nazi congress. We must not allow the next century to start with hatred.”
Several Chilean political parties that support anti-discrimination laws that would make neo-Nazi activities illegal are backing Rovner’s appeal.
Rovner and Der Ruf have attracted attention in the Chilean media. Chile’s national television network twice aired an in-depth report on the proposed congress.
Rovner said that pressuring the government is the only way to prevent the congress from taking place.
“Whether the congress takes place or not depends entirely on the things we do in Chile to pressure the government. We have to make ourselves heard. To protest is the only way to stop the Nazi congress.”
Even though Fischer has never personally met Rovner, he admires the student’s actions and spirit.
“Yoram really touched my heart,” he says. “He is fighting a lonely crusade.”