Isaac Caro Grinspun is a Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Government at the University Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile. In January 2023, he took on the role of Director of the Department of Politics and Government at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado, where he has worked for more than 15 years. He is a distinguished expert in conflicts and actors in the Middle East and their impact on Latin America’s politics and foreign policies. Dr. Caro’s lectures and publications delve into international relations theories, sociology of international relations, and various manifestations of intolerance across the Latin American region, including Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and neo-Nazism. He has been interviewed by major TV channels, newspapers, and digital media platforms in Chile on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field? 

Religion, politics, and international relations studies are witnessing exciting debates arising from the civilizational paradigm and the Global South. Both in terms of civilizational clash and civilizational dialogue, the paradigm enriches the field of international relations beyond state-centric approaches. For instance, Huntington’s (1993) thesis on the clash of civilizations provides contemporary examples that highlight its relevance today. In 2022, with the development of the war in Ukraine, a confrontation occurred that, according to Huntington’s terms, can be seen as a clash of civilizations between the Western civilization and the Orthodox civilization. Huntington actually predicted that a civilizational conflict would emerge precisely along the “fault lines of civilization” that divide Ukraine into two, with the eastern side leaning more towards Russia and the western side more inclined towards the European Union. Furthermore, in 2023, in the current context of the conflict between Israel and the Hamas movement, we can observe that the support from the United States and Europe for Israel contrasts with the strong opposition experienced by the Arab and Muslim world to Israel’s retaliations in the Gaza Strip. Turkey’s position is notable as a NATO member, accusing the West of being responsible for the “massacres in Gaza” while defending that Hamas is not a terrorist organization.

Regarding the dialogue of civilizations, we find diverse personalities such as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the Palestinian Edward Said, the British historian Niall Ferguson, and the Indian Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Amartya Sen, among many others. All of them, with different nuances, question the clash of civilizations. In the context of the post-Cold War era, the dialogue of civilizations emphasizes explanatory categories such as peace, global change, and cooperation. In the Latin American context, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have played important roles in promoting a dialogue of civilizations through the development of national plans on dialogue and alliances of civilizations. These plans emphasize South-South cooperation, the importance of a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interreligious dialogue. In the case of Chile, the Embassy of Morocco stands out for overseeing the Mohamed VI Cultural Center for the Dialogue of Civilizations, which has organized seminars and published books, including one authored in Spanish by myself, on this topic.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

Two significant milestones in my personal life have led to profound changes in how I understand the world, both academically and professionally. The first milestone dates back to 1981 when I was studying sociology. As a result of a trip to Peru, I was arrested in the city of Ayacucho and, after two days, taken to Lima, where I was held for another 15 days in the Lima Prefecture. The Peruvian authorities accused me of being a Chilean spy. This intense experience shifted my perception of what it meant to be Latin American, something I had strongly advocated until that point. I quickly realized that there was no single Latin American identity; on the contrary, there were many Latin American identities, some of them conflicting and in collision.

The second milestone is related to my periodic visits to the city of Jerusalem in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I used to visit my father, an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, who was studying at a Yeshiva in the Old City, specifically in the Jewish Quarter. When I went to pick him up to accompany him to the Western Wall, I could see the Dome of the Rock from various parts of Jerusalem, which made me understand that this city was a focal point in the Middle East and the world. Through these visits, I began to delve into what was happening in Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, more broadly, the Middle East. 

Given your extensive expertise in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, how do you explain the recent multi-front attack by Hamas on Israel and the subsequent escalation of violence across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories? 

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is a multifaceted issue that remains unresolved. In previous conflicts between Israel and Hamas in 2008-09, 2014, and 2018, Israel’s aim was to dismantle the military infrastructure of Hamas and destroy the tunnels that served as shelters for storing weapons and ammunition. With the attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7, 2023, we can see that Israel’s operations in the Gaza Strip were a major failure. Israel has underestimated Hamas’s military capability to launch a massive attack like the one we witnessed a few weeks ago. Furthermore, it’s conceivable that Hamas felt emboldened to launch these attacks because of a perception that Israel was more vulnerable, given the deep internal divisions within Israeli society and politics. Prior to the attack, there were periodic demonstrations in major Israeli cities, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the controversial judicial reforms pushed by Netanyahu’s government. 

Do you believe that the US-sponsored Abraham Accords can withstand the ongoing conflict and offer long-term solutions for Israelis, Palestinians, and the Middle East region? 

I am convinced that the so-called Abraham Accords are positive for the entire region, but they must incorporate the Palestinian issue into the two-state formula to expect lasting and comprehensive peace. The same holds true for a potential agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has been in the making for some time. Addressing the Palestinian question would open up the possibility of regional peace. Fundamental issues must be taken into consideration, such as the complete disarmament of Hamas, a freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories as per UN Security Council Resolution 242 from the Six-Day War.

Simultaneously, it is crucial to make progress towards a nuclear agreement with Iran that prevents the country from possessing nuclear weapons. Only in this way can we achieve comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East. In the Middle Eastern context, Iran has pursued a foreign policy that, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, has emphasized promoting radical Shiite Islamism. This is evident in its explicit support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, the Assad government in Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In addition to this, Iran has had ongoing confrontations with Israel, even threatening to “wipe it off the face of the Earth.” This explains Iran’s opposition to any peace agreement based on the “two-state” solution, as well as its support since 1990 for creating fronts opposing peace initiatives that include Hamas. Moreover, Iran’s presence in Latin America also plays a significant role in the region’s stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, primarily through the special relationships it has cultivated with ALBA countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia. It is also noteworthy that Iran was directly involved in two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires, one in 1992 against the Israeli Embassy and another in 1994 against the AMIA.

As a seasoned IR theory professor, how much weight do you attribute to Samuel Huntington’s famous—and controversial—thesis on culture as a focal point for future international conflicts, especially in the context of events like the Israel-Hamas and Ukraine-Russia conflicts? 

Despite nearly three decades since its initial publication, there is little doubt about the enduring influence of Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory on international relations. As mentioned earlier, this civilizational paradigm has proven invaluable in understanding critical events along the so-called “fault lines,” including the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, the Ukrainian war, the Israel-Iran showdown, and the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

However, while acknowledging the paradigm’s strengths, it has inherent limitations. One of the most notable limitations is its inability to account for conflicts within the boundaries of each civilization. Take, for example, the Islamic civilization, where a deep-seated historical rivalry exists between its two principal branches, Shiite and Sunni, represented respectively by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Despite recent mediation by China to reestablish diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, substantial tensions persist. These tensions clarify the motivations behind Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s negotiations for a US-backed agreement aimed at countering the threats posed by Iran to both nations.

A more critical approach towards the clash of civilizations suggests that it is more accurate to speak of “clashes within civilizations,” an idea introduced by British historian Niall Ferguson. Drawing on his arguments, we can assert that two aspects of the civilizational paradigm operate simultaneously. One aspect is the “inter-civilizational” dimension, involving clashes between different civilizations, such as the clash between the West and Islam. Simultaneously, there is an “intra-civilizational” dimension, focusing on conflicts within civilizations, where the Sunni-Shia confrontation takes center stage. Negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia serve as an example that an “intra-civilizational” conflict—between Iran and Saudi Arabia—can carry more weight than an “inter-civilizational” conflict—between Islam and the West, assuming that Israel is closer to the West.

Your academic publications shed light on how antisemitism, islamophobia, and political extremism unfold in Latin America. How does hatred influence political and social perspectives on the Palestine-Israeli conflict across the region? 

There is a direct connection between the evolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the surge in antisemitism. Let’s examine data on antisemitism from Tel Aviv University. We can see that, in the past two decades, 2009 stands out as the year with the highest number of antisemitic incidents, both globally and in Latin America. These incidents are closely linked to the clashes between Israel and Hamas in December 2008 and January 2009. In this context, Venezuela and Bolivia severed diplomatic ties with Israel in January 2009, coinciding with a spike in antisemitic incidents, particularly in Venezuela, which had a prominent Jewish community. Another wave of antisemitism across the region occurred in 2014 when Israeli forces launched a ground invasion of Gaza. 

In the present day, it’s becoming increasingly evident that 2023 might exceed previous years in terms of antisemitic incidents, as we’ve witnessed in various regions across Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. Antisemitism, particularly in its form of anti-Zionism, is notably prevalent within some Latin American states and radical left-wing circles in Latin America. This positionality frequently translates to support for the Palestinian cause, involving implicit criticism of Israel to the point where its legitimacy and right to exist as a state are questioned. Let me explain this with an example. In the major countries within the ALBA alliance, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, the rise of antisemitism is closely tied to their relationships with Iran. This connection led them to sever diplomatic ties with Israel in early 2009 during the conflict with Hamas. Furthermore, we can observe how the Communist Party of Chile, following the events of October 7, 2023, has issued statements condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestine without any condemnation of Hamas. This reflects the influence of anti-Zionism, or the rejection of the State of Israel, as one of the underlying elements of antisemitism.

When it comes to Islamophobia, there has been a consistent increase in Europe and the United States, partly fueled by the terrorist attacks that occurred in 2001 in the United States, 2003 in Spain, and 2005 in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, in the following decade, especially after the attacks in Paris in 2017, Islamophobia continued to surge, surpassing the levels seen in 2001. Following these incidents, Islamophobia overtook homophobia as the dominant narrative of hatred and intolerance in European countries such as Spain. There is a noticeable inclination to make sweeping and detrimental generalizations about Muslims and Arabs in the wake of attacks in Western democracies. This trend is also observable in Latin America, particularly in the media and on the internet, where Muslims and Arabs are frequently portrayed as terrorists, and Islam is depicted as a religion that promotes violence. For instance, a report from 2017 by the Web Observatory in Argentina shows a surge in Islamophobic content in the country’s major digital newspapers, with a 53% increase following the Manchester attacks in May 2017 and a 50% rise after the Stockholm attack in April 2017.

Much of your academic work has contributed to advocacy efforts, especially when it comes to fostering mutual understanding between Palestinian/Islamic and Israeli/Jewish communities. What notable successes and challenges have you encountered with these initiatives? 

Religion must be factored in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict is not only about statehood and territories as geopolitics may suggest. There are religious and cultural elements that posit challenges, but also opportunities for positive change, regarding the historic conflict between both nations. Governments in the Global South and religious organizations have created significant initiatives to promote religious dialogue within and beyond their jurisdictions. For instance, Argentina’s Catholic Church has been a successful supporter of religious dialogue in the country. Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, played a key role in fostering dialogue initiatives. His committed involvement led to the establishment of an Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Argentina, which has organized joint activities involving the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. 

In Chile, we have the National Office of Religious Affairs (ONAR), which operates under the Ministry General Secretariat of the Presidency. The ONAR’s main goal is to foster interreligious dialogue across the country. Successful initiatives include conversation programs between Jewish and Palestine communities in Chile within the framework of the Chilean Consensus for Palestinian-Israeli Peace Group. This group organized discussions in Palestinian and Jewish community settings, such as the Palestinian Stadium and the progressive Jewish organization Meretz-Hashomer located in Santiago. It is s also worth mentioning the meetings organized by the Embassy of Morocco to Chile, which has sponsored some of my publications on civilizational dialogue. 

As for the challenges, I believe that many of these initiatives need to maintain consistency over time and expand their reach to a broader audience. Both goals have proven difficult due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the political polarization within Palestinian and Israeli support groups. In addition, Chilean universities affiliated with different religious congregations, such as the Alberto Hurtado University, the University of the Andes, and the Cardinal Silva Henríquez University, could play a vital role in promoting religious dialogue to address conflicts and find pathways to reconciliation and peace.

What is the most important advice you could give young International Relations scholars? 

While it may sound cliché, the core message we need to convey to younger generations is the imperative to preserve our existence as a species. To achieve this, we must strive for a better world free from the looming threat of weapons of mass destruction. Central to this mission is the strengthening of peace education, with a particular focus on the importance of nuclear-free zones, such as the one established in Latin America since 1967.

Equally essential is an educational emphasis on human rights, highlighting the values of diversity and gender equality. It is imperative to reinforce these educational efforts and take all necessary measures to turn back the metaphorical hands of the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic timepiece created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that signifies how close we are to global catastrophe. As International Relations scholars, we have an imperative to advocate for peace, democratic systems, and the respect for human rights. 

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