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Chile, Israel, and Easter Island: a Modest Proposal

Chile, a long, thin, picturesque wine-producing country on the Pacific, is no stranger to bad government. In the 1960s, Salvador Allende’s extreme left-wing policies brought the country to economic ruin. Chile’s military, with the support of the American copper company that had the most to lose from Allende’s mess, overthrew the elected president in a sanguinary coup assisted by the US. The new military rulers tortured and murdered thousands, including the poet Pablo Neruda and the singer-songwriter Victor Jara. They turned the national stadium in the capital, Santiago, into a concentration camp. Pinochet’s grisly fascist regime passed away; but the Chilean left seems to have inherited, not the socialist policies of enlightened civilization (guaranteed medical care, housing, education) but the “socialism of fools”— anti-Semitism. The behavior of recent Chilean heads of state, and most egregiously, the sitting president, towards the Chilean Jewish community and Israel— and just now, its studied offense to the newly-appointed envoy of Israel should be a wake-up call for the country’s Jews to sell off, pack up, and get out. Chilean diplomatic staff and their families and pets at present in Israel should be escorted, politely but firmly, onto the next flight out of Ben Gurion airport.

But that scarcely seems enough. Chile, after all, has amply demonstrated its hatred and contempt for the Jewish people and Israel. Severing relations is natural and proper, but since that is what Chile would want in any case, it does not go far enough. This enemy needs to be punished. And that is where my modest proposal comes in.

In the nineteenth century Great Britain encouraged Chile to seize Easter Island. The small island, one of the most isolated human societies, is thus the only Spanish-speaking territory in Polynesia today, and is under Chilean rule. There had been at least 4000 people on the island before the late 1850s; Peru invaded it and enslaved the native population. Epidemics, ill treatment, and exile decimated the people. By the beginning of the 1870s there were 111 islanders still alive— most on Tahiti, where they had been spirited away to safety by Christian missionaries. Chile, the new owner, was scarcely any better: it leased the island to an English firm as a big sheep farm: the surviving natives were driven from their farms and villages and enclosed within barbed wire in the island’s only town, the port of Hanga Roa. When the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950s sailed his boat the Kon-Tiki and wrote his tendentious book Aku-Aku (all in an effort to prove that Easter Island’s unique civilization came from the east, and ultimately, of course, from “Aryan” supermen), the Easter Islanders were still third-class citizens in their own country. He couldn’t have cared less.

Easter Island has nothing to do with Easter: a Dutch sea captain just happened to “discover” it on Easter Sunday of the year 1722. The real name of the place is Rapa Nui, or more precisely and traditionally in the local language Te Pito O Te Henua, the Navel of the World.

Rapa Nui had developed the only indigenous writing system in Polynesia, a beautiful script called Rongorongo. Only 25 texts, on polished wood tablets, in this hieroglyphic system survive, and Rongorongo remains undeciphered. There had been more texts as late as 1859, as well as schools where priestly children read and wrote them, but Christian pillagers of the island burned nearly all of these, as the scriptures of the devil. In addition to the famed cyclopean stone statues of royal ancestors, the moai, the people of Easter Island fashioned delicate, exquisite wooden sculpture: house spirits, protective lizards, antic birds and fish. I’ve spent time on the island studying its language and culture, have published some scholarly work on those topics, and curated an exhibition in 2013 at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of art “acquired” (that is, stolen) from Rapa Nui by a Boston brahmin alumnus on one of his leisurely cruises over a century ago.

In the years before the pandemic, Rapa Nui had about 6000 legal residents. Since all archaeological sites are under the protection of the Chilean park service, a visitor pays a hefty fee upon landing.  That’s in addition to the $300 an American has to fork out to enter Chile in the first place. Plus of course the flights from Santiago and back, and astronomical hotel fees. Rapa Nui is more expensive than Tahiti, and about 200,000 tourists a year were coming! We’re talking big bucks for the colonial occupier. The Americans built a very long runway for the island’s Mataveri airport, in case a space shuttle overshot California or something. I’m sure some of my US tax dollars go to paying for access to that, too.

In the course of my wanderings around Hanga Roa I met members of the independence movement. It agitates for peaceful separation from continental Tilé (the Rapanui language has no “ch” sound). There is every reason to speak Spanish (I’m Sephardic myself and am strongly partial to the language) and to welcome ordinary Chileans, among whom are some of the nicest, warmest human beings I’ve met. But there is no reason at all for Chile to own Te Pito O Te Henua.

So I suggest the State of Israel, by way of reciprocation to the Chilean state, extend official diplomatic recognition to the tiny ancient people of the Navel of the World and welcome their ambassador to our own navel of the universe, holy Jerusalem. Israeli agricultural know how saved the Central Valley of California, where I live, as a going concern when water got scarce. The Rapanui people are ingenious farmers: imagine what our combined talents might yield. Judaism is the Western religion that has not done “Easter” Island harm. We have more than enough experience of having our holy books burned by bigots (the Talmud in Paris in 1242; Hitler’s thugs seven centuries later; and plenty in between). I bet Israeli scholarship teaming up with Rapanui experts could crack the Rongorongo code. (I’ve got some useful ideas about how.) And the people of the little island, reborn after a genocide as severe in its way as our own, would be able to keep all their tourist bucks without the thuggish Chilean president and his corrupt bureaucracy skimming off rather more than the top. It’s time.

Shalom and Iorana!

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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