BUDAPEST – For Chella Safra, it’s a bit of déjà vu. That same uncomfortable feeling she had being a Jew in Beirut after the 1967 Six Day War is palpable in the streets of the Hungarian capital these days.
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“Growing up, I never felt threatened,” Safra, the freshly elected treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, told Haaretz in an interview, “but we made sure never to mention Israel, Zionism or the Star of David. It got a little bit worse after the war when the Palestinians moved into South Lebanon. That was when being Jewish or pro-Israel became an issue.”
Safra, who moved with her family to Brazil in 1968, at the age of 18, is married to billionaire Moise Safra, also Lebanese-born, of the famed Jewish banking family. They have five children and 12 grandchildren and live in Sao Paolo. In 2006, her husband sold his stake in the family banking business to his brother Joseph for an estimated $2 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.
A well-known figure in the Brazilian Jewish philanthropic world, Safra said her new appointment is “the most important and international position I’ve held” and that in light of the recent surge in anti-Semitism in various European countries, she believes the World Jewish Congress, which lobbies governments around the world on behalf of Jewish causes, has its work cut out for it.
“The WJC must dedicate its attention now to try to stop these trends, intervene with the governments of the countries to find a solution and make available to everyone news of what is happening so that bad things will never happen again,” she said.
Delegates at the Plenary Assembly also re-elected Ronald Lauder for a second four-year term as president of the organization.
Like other delegates present at the gathering, Safra expressed reservations about the speech delivered Sunday night by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which was meant to reassure participants of his commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. “We heard him say that yes he’s well aware of what’s happening, but we didn’t understand quite well what would be the next step of action,” she said.
Still, Safra said she believes it was important that the WJC held its Plenary Assembly, which meets every four years, in Budapest this time rather than the usual venue of Jerusalem. “The fact that it was held in Budapest is significant because it addresses the first priority of our organization, which is to fight anti-Semitism. Being here itself gives a lot of support to the Hungarian Jewish communities and shows them that the Jewish people are for each other everywhere they are.”
A member of the executive board and the consulting board of Keren Hayesod of Sao Paolo, Safra also founded the women’s division of the foundation and serves as its honorary president. She has served as the Brazilian representative at the Jewish Agency as well as the editor-in-chief of Kol News, a Jewish magazine in Brazil. In addition, she co-founded Americas Amicas, an NGO dedicated to help women from disadvantaged backgrounds receive testing for breast cancer.
Unlike other Jewish communities in Europe and South America, said Safra, the Jewish community of Brazil does not feel threatened by anti-Semitism. “In Brazil, the Jewish community has a very good relationship with other communities living there,” she said. “Sometimes small incidents of anti-Semitism occur, but nothing significant.”
Although she is an activist in Jewish women’s causes, Safra admitted she has not been following closely the controversy over women’s prayer at the Western Wall that has drawn strong reactions around the Jewish world. Asked whether she supports the right of women to pray with a prayer shawl at the wall, she said: “I’m more from an Orthodox background, and I have always seen the tallit as something men wear, not women. For me, the most important thing is having my head covered.”
“We shouldn’t try to find problems, issues and discussions where it is not needed,” she added.
Although she has very fond memories of her childhood years in Beirut, Safra said she has no desire to return for a visit and that it would make her upset “to go back and not recognize the city where I grew up, where I have memories of the best time in my childhood.” At the moment, she said, “It’s a project put on the side.”