In Latin America, Palestinian Activists Are Correcting False Narratives
Date: 
January 30 2024
blog Series: 

Pablo Abufóm, writer and activist, Chile 

Like many Chilean-Palestinians, Pablo Abufom hails from a family of Orthodox Christians who migrated from Beit Jala to Latin America in the early decades of the 20th century. The Palestinian diaspora is well integrated into Chilean society. For Abufom, though his militancy for the Palestinian cause wasn’t constant, it lingered in the background, especially during critical periods, such as the first Intifada.

Nevertheless, and despite his involvement in left-wing spheres —such as the Chilean student movement, which profoundly influenced the country’s politics —Abufom refrained from joining local Palestinian organizations or the national branch of BDS.

"In Chile, [descendants of the first] Palestinian migrants often belong to affluent families. So, they hold pro-Palestinian political positions and are very progressive when it comes to Palestine… but they can be very regressive on local matters,” he explains. "The disconnect lies in how the Palestinian community fails to identify with the Indigenous struggle in Chile against colonial oppression."

Drawing parallels between the global Palestinian situation and that of the Mapuche people in Chile — an Indigenous ethnic group facing political and economic marginalization, along with forced displacement from their ancestral lands — Abufom emphasizes: "My commitment to Palestine isn’t just national or ethnic; it's a humanitarian and political commitment that can’t be separated from broader societal issues."

Chile's unique landscape includes surprising pro-Palestine views among even far-right politicians, some of whom — despite their political ideologies — support Palestine due to personal connections or shared social circles. “There are hardcore Pinochetistas, even, that have been consistently pro-Palestin[e] throughout the years.” Attempting to unite various factions in response to the ongoing attacks against Gaza is exceptionally challenging, given that left-wing spheres and movements have traditionally aligned with the cause of Palestinian liberation. 

Yet, Abufom remains hopeful. "I believe this could lead to new leadership within Latin American Palestinian communities. We need to articulate a social and political force that can shape the narrative on Palestine in our respective countries. A global alliance — including Jews around the world and anti-Occupation Israelis — is essential if we are to find a solution. Perhaps this is the time."

Farid Kahhat, academic and organizer, Peru

Considering how small the Peruvian-Palestinian community is, it’s surprising how Farid Kahhat —a soft-spoken academic — has become such a well-known figure in the national media. While his expertise lies in international relations, he’s mostly known as the de-facto spokesman for Palestinians whenever a new Israeli assault arises. 

A second-generation Peruvian, Kahhat has witnessed the challenges of mobilizing and raising awareness about the Palestinian cause in a country so geographically and culturally distant from the Middle East. Unlike Chile, however, sympathies in Peru tend to be clearly aligned along ideological divides. “The right tends to close ranks with Israel. They obviously view Israel as beneficial to Western powers and see the conflict through the lens of Islamophobia. Moreover, they associate Hamas with Sendero Luminoso.” 

Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) was a Maoist far-left guerrilla group that was active in the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Widely condemned across the political spectrum for its brutality, Shining Path deployed violence against some of the poorest rural communities in Peru. The trauma inflicted by this group over Peruvian politics is enduring, with protestors and organizers often referred to as terrucos (slang for “terrorists”). 

“The Palestinian community in Peru — at least in part — belongs to the capital’s elite, which tends to be very conservative and associates protests with terrorism,” Kahhat explains. He mentions some of the recent protests, which saw Peruvian-Palestinians marching next to left-wing organizations and political parties who often adhere to the Palestinian cause out of solidarity. 

Yet, despite growing public interest and sympathy with the Palestinian cause, Kahhat admits he’s exhausted. Being a vocal Palestinian means there’s “always a price to pay,” he says. He's faced repeated accusations of terrorism and found himself barred from several media channels. 

“Whenever the conflict worsens, I know that thousands of Palestinians will die, and I’ll receive hundreds of attacks. It can be incredibly frustrating to pay such a steep personal price, all while knowing it won’t prevent a single death,” he confesses. 

Traditionally, the Peruvian-Palestinian diaspora has congregated at the Club Union Arabe Palestino, a country club that often holds social and sporting events. The club sometimes organizes discussions on Palestinian liberation and international law, featuring Kahhat as a speaker. While they often congregate small audiences, interest has recently been so high that they’ve run out of chairs during their most recent events. 

This gives Kahhat reason for hope. A new generation of Palestinians in the diaspora and exile is actively reconnecting with their heritage, holding a more progressive perspective than their ancestors. “It’s very refreshing. Most of them aren’t even members of the Club. They’re less closed-off, less elitist, and have learned about Palestinian solidarity because of their interest in social justice.”

He’s taken it upon himself to mentor some of them. “I will keep doing what I do; that’s a given. But I’m reaching retirement age, and I think it’s time for [a new generation to lead] a renewal.” 

Odette Yidi, academic and director of the Institute of Arab Culture of Colombia

“I’m 100% Palestinian,” Odette Yidi says, her words carrying a distinct Caribbean-Colombian accent over the phone. She explains that her entire family came from Bethlehem — some before the Nakba, and others after. Her maternal grandmother was the last family member born in Palestine. 

Colombia is home to one of the largest Palestinian diasporas in the region. In Barranquilla, where Odette resides, most Palestinians were Orthodox Christians at the time of their arrival, some of them almost a century ago. It’s now a diverse and arguably fragmented diaspora, shaped by factors such as class and religion; a reflection of the history of uprooting and displacement that has long defined the Palestinian experience. 

In many ways, Odette personifies the emerging wave of Palestinian diaspora members who are actively shaping Arab presence and activism in Latin America. These are third and even fourth-generation Latinos, many of whom have never stepped foot on their ancestral lands, nor speak Arabic. Yet, they align themselves with the cause for Palestinian freedom while fully integrating the Palestinian struggle with their Latin American identity. 

“I think 9/11 was a defining moment for us,” Yidi explains. “The entire world started to equate Arabs and Muslims with terrorists, and we obviously resented the accusation.” She credits the massive waves of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment that spread globally for encouraging Palestinian diaspora members to begin identifying by their family origin and to publicly reclaim their Arab identity. “The same thing seems to be happening now: we’re seeing fourth-generation [Latin Americans] – with no direct tie to Palestine — who are starting to identify as Palestinians and as Palestinian advocates.”

Yet, she acknowledges that organizing in Colombia can be extremely difficult. The country has just undergone a peace process after decades of violence and widespread human rights violations. “Colombia is an extremely violent society, both physically and symbolically, and our relationship with Israel has always been complex,” she reflects. 

Yidi explains that, after 9/11, the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) found common ground with both the United States and Israel, which identified themselves as countries actively combating terrorist threats. In lieu of a more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern politics, Colombians identified Palestinians with the FARC, the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group involved in the Colombian conflict that started in 1964 and has since claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. 

However, Colombia’s current president, Gustavo Petro, has arguably been one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause amongst his peers, refusing to condemn the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 and tweeting in solidarity with Palestine ever since. He has openly and repeatedly condemned the Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people. Yidi, however, isn’t convinced this is good news for the Palestinian cause. “I think this has led people to steer clear of Palestinian affairs due to political animosities towards Petro,” she reflects. Yet, she acknowledges that having a president willing to break the long-standing tradition of pro-Israeli Colombian governments might herald positive changes. “It was a shock for many, but it seems that people are slowly beginning to realize we’ve been complicit in an extremely violent colonial process.” 

Mohammed Manasra, activist with Sanaúd-Juventude Palestina, Brazil

Unlike many Latin American Palestinians, Mohammed Manasra doesn’t consider his Palestinian identity a distant or remote issue. He arrived in Brazil just a decade ago, joining the recent wave of Muslim Palestinian immigrants fleeing Occupation and apartheid. He describes his life in al-Khalil (Hebron) as dire. “Terror lurked in every corner,” he reflects grimly. “Israeli terrorists suffocated us daily.” 

Despite how hard things were in al-Khalil (Hebron), Manasra describes leaving his motherland as both a sacrifice and an act of resistance. “I had to leave to try and keep my family in Palestine (...)My leaving meant those who remained could still hold onto hope,”. He explains that being able to send money back home means his family can remain at their ancestral home, rather than allowing the occupation to take full hold of the land.

He perceives the Palestinian diaspora in Brazil as distinct within the region. Unlike what happened in Chile, Colombia, or Peru, the majority of Palestinians in Brazil arrived well after the Nakba. Most of them are Muslims. Anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia have made integration difficult. “Countries in the Global South have shaped their views from mainstream media over the years, so Arabs are seen as barbarians, and Muslims as terrorists,” Manasra explains. 

Moreover, national-level organizing has also proven hard. “Communities tend to cluster in the same places, to recreate outside of Palestine what they had back there. So, each city in Palestine has its diaspora in a corresponding city in Brazil. You won’t find a specific diaspora scattered across different cities.”

But it’s not just territorial segregation that has made organizing difficult. Manasra blames the colonial process for creating fragmentation within Palestinian communities. As an organizer, he has experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to find common ground among the diverse clans and groups that constitute the Palestinian diaspora. “The internal divisions caused by colonization persist, and wherever colonized people relocate, so do these divisions,” he argues.

Manasra recognizes tragedy tends to bring the diaspora together, but also worries that genocide alone isn’t enough to lead to sustained unity. The precarity and instability brought about by colonization mean that people struggle to see beyond their family’s well-being and survival, he argues. Organizing in favor of their homeland can be extremely complex when this scale of priorities remains in the country they’ve relocated to. 

Zionism is also an incredibly strong force in contemporary Brazil, and not just among the Jewish community. Brazilian Evangelism is also overwhelmingly Zionist, and economic elites throughout the country tend to favor Israel. Though Lula’s new government might herald a shift, the rise of the extreme-right led by Bolsonaro meant that Brazilian-Israeli economic and military ties intensified. Publicly expressing support and solidarity with Palestine can be a risky business. Manasra claims that he’s seen people face increasingly violent threats, which in some cases turn into physical violence. 

Yet, he finds solace in community. The organization he belongs to — Sanaúd —brings together Palestinian youth and members of other Arab diasporas in solidarity. Together, they work to organize locally in Brazil, as well as to aid those who have remained in Palestine. “Harm that’s done to any of us affects all of us. We stick together and try to change things.”

About The Author: 

Jimena Ledgard is a writer, journalist and audio storyteller from Lima, Peru. Her work often deals with social and spatial inequality, political violence and shifting cultural landscapes. You can follow her work on Twitter/X  and Instagram.

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