Chilean youth fights to halt Nazi meeting

NEW YORK — 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, the 20-year-old has crusaded against neo-Nazis in the past. 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 the Chilean capital of Santiago.

He first founded the Jewish community magazine Der Ruf, or The Cry — whose name is taken from the slogan of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Rovner then launched a campaign to gather 1.5 million signatures against the Nazi meeting, each signature representing one child who perished in the Holocaust.

Rovner's activism goes beyond protesting the meeting. He also is intent on challenging what he said 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," said Rovner, who studies at Catholic University in Chile.

"We cannot allow such things to happen without protesting."

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 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 names of National Renovation members who either belonged to or sympathized with the Nazi movement was instrumental in the party signing an agreement barring neo-Nazis from its ranks.

Despite these successes, Rovner and Der Ruf are facing an uphill battle against neo-Nazism in Chile.

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 said.

"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 said. "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."

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," said 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 said, referring to the 1992 and 1994 attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina's capital.

Fischer said that while Jews in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America are widely accepted — he notes that there are Jewish senators and cabinet ministers, and even Chassidim 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."

Several Chilean political parties that support passing anti-discrimination laws to make neo-Nazi activities illegal are backing Rovner's appeal.

Rovner and Der Ruf also 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.

"We have to make ourselves heard. To protest is the only way to stop the Nazi congress."