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As Coronavirus Rages in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s Embrace of Israel Puts Jews at Risk

With COVID-19 claiming 1000 lives a day, Jair Bolsonaro waves Israeli flags at anti-lockdown, anti-democracy protests. For a Brazil already convinced Jews put him in power, it’s an invitation to further anti-Semitism

Daniel Gouri de Lima
Daniel Gouri de Lima
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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters at a protest against the president of the Chamber of Deputies, coronavirus quarantine and social distancing. Brasilia, May 3, 2020
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro at a protest against the president of the Chamber of Deputies, coronavirus quarantine and social distancing, replete with Israeli flags. Brasilia, May 3, 2020Credit: UESLEI MARCELINO/ REUTERS
Daniel Gouri de Lima
Daniel Gouri de Lima

Across the globe all manner of figures, from the political fringes to the mainstream, are flooding social media and TV shows with their take on why the coronavirus, fake or real, was concocted by the meddling Jew. It was Soros, it was the Mossad, it was the Rothschilds trying to tank the economy. Their posts feel like standing in a European town square during the Black Death.

But in Brazil, led by Jair Bolsonaro, a man more concerned with protecting his sons from a corruption probe than safeguarding his citizens from a global health crisis, you see a different manifestation.

It locks in from both sides of the political spectrum like a vice: From the left, Jews are deemed responsible for putting in power a petulant, authoritarian ignoramus who downplays a pandemic because he’s incapable of dealing with it, while powerful voices from the right tell Jews that if they don’t support Bolsonaro (who’s "doing his best" to fight the coronavirus) then they "ain’t Jewish." 

Brazil is now second only to the United States in confirmed COVID-19 cases (558,000 and rising). That makes perfect sense if you observe how closely the president in Brasilia is echoing his conspiracy enthusiast colleague to the north.

Besides shoving the Trump-touted "miracle drug" chloroquine so hard down the public’s throat that it pushed his health minister to resign (after he fired the previous one for contradicting him on social distancing, all in the span of six weeks), Bolsonaro also borrowed one of Trump’s most controversial plays, and then ran it a step further. 

Bolsonaro doesn’t just support anti-lockdown demonstrations by tweet, he attends them, accompanied always by a standard bearer carrying three national flags: those of Brazil, the United States and, yes, Israel

Brazil’s president speaks next to an Israeli flag at anti democratic rally

He’s been doing it every Sunday for a month now. The rallies are led by far-right supporters calling for shuttering the Supreme Court and a return to a military dictatorship. For the last event, this Sunday, Bolsonaro rode out to greet his fans on horseback.

Weeks before, he was filmed talking to paramilitary supporters, some of whom reply by flashing what looks like a Nazi salute. Last month, Bolsonaro's coronavirus slogan ("Work, unity and the truth will set Brazil free") was criticized for its proximity to the Nazi motto on the gates of Auschwitz.

Israel’s ambassador to Brazil and the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the practice when it started in early May, but Jewish groups in Brazil were quick to condemn it, warning that it both falsely misrepresented the Jewish community as supporting the rallies’ agenda, and effectively hijacked the Israeli flag as political capital by Bolsonaro, who uses it to galvanize his powerful evangelical Christian base.

As Sergio Storch, a human rights activist and senior member of J-AMLAT (the South American equivalent of J Street) told me before Bolsonaro won the 2018 election, his "insistence on using symbols such as the Israeli flag are oriented more toward the fundamentalist Christians. Jewish votes aren’t relevant at all. There are only 100,000 Brazilian Jews, but the fundamentalists’ votes are in the tens of millions."

A supporter of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro holds up a statue of Jesus Christ during a protest against former Justice Minister Sergio Moro and the Supreme Court, in front of the National Congress in Brasilia. May 9, 2020
A supporter of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro holds up a statue of Jesus at a protest against former Justice Minister Sergio Moro and the Supreme Court, in front of Congress, Brasilia. May 9, 2020Credit: Eraldo Peres,AP

Nonetheless, it seems that as far as public perception is concerned, Brazil’s Jewish community cannot extract itself from Bolsonaro’s cynical bear hug. 

Despite being deeply divided in the last presidential election, with an estimated 60 percent of Jews voting for Bolsonaro and 40 percent against him, the idea that Jews are a force behind Bolsonaro’s rise has already seeped into all levels of Brazil’s political discourse, including the top of Brazil’s political echelons.

Just last month, Ciro Gomes, a former governor and still presidential hopeful for many on the left, was slammed by CONIB for suggesting that the presence of the Israeli flag in Bolsonaro’s rallies shows "where the financing money comes from."

It is true that more than a few Jews cast a ballot for Bolsonaro, be it because of his effusive promises to Israel or a pledge to usher in an era of law and order to a country beleaguered by crime. It is also a fact that quite many Jews, who found the former military captain’s populist and violent rhetoric far too disturbingly similar to Hitler’s, refused to throw their lot in with him.

The slogan: “Out Bolsonaro" and the words "Coward, Facist, Ignorant, Genocidal, Worm, Criminal” projected on a Sao Paulo building to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s coronavirus failures. Brazil, March 26, 2020
The slogan: “Out Bolsonaro" and the words "Coward, Facist, Ignorant, Genocidal, Worm, Criminal” projected on a Sao Paulo building to protest President Bolsonaro’s coronavirus failures. March26, 2020Credit: Amanda Perobelli/ REUTERS

To understand this divide, it is important to know what historian Michel Gherman calls its "founding myth": Three years ago, Bolsonaro was invited to give a speech at the Rio de Janeiro Clube Hebraica community center in front of some 300 Brazilians (not all of them Jews). Gherman, a researcher at the Brazil-Israel Institute, marks it as a watershed in the way Jews are perceived in Brazil.

It did not bring about something that wasn’t there to begin with, he says, but acted more as a culmination of a long and quiet process.

In his speech, Bolsonaro delivered some of his most bellicose invectives against leftists and descendents of Brazil’s black slaves (comparing them to livestock, and remarking, "I think they’re useless even for procreation") while his supporters cheered and waved their Israeli flags. Outside, a crowd of some 300 Jews loudly protested the event. They were also holding Israeli flags.

"People outside of the club started hearing what he was saying via live streaming, and some real violence erupted," Gherman, who was also out there with one of his students, recalls. "This has never happened before. Jews against Jews, Zionists against Zionists." 

The next day, when Gherman went to teach his class, he found it half empty: the only students to turn up were white. He was told he was being boycotted for "supporting Bolsonaro."

That event at the Clube Hebraica "started a kind of movement, a very powerful one, of defining Jews as Bolsonaro supporters," he says.

A supporter of Jair Bolsonaro backed by a hybrid Brazilian-Israeli flag at a demonstration of support for Brazil's president support. Brasilia, May 31, 2020
A supporter of Jair Bolsonaro backed by a hybrid Brazilian-Israeli flag at a demonstration of support for Brazil's president support. Brasilia, May 31, 2020Credit: AFP

On the one hand, local BDS activists chose to lob liberal and left-wing Jews in with the rest of the rightist mob inside the Hebraica club, claiming that they "were all in there with him." Being outside demonstrating against Bolsonaro’s racism and fascist tendencies clearly isn’t enough to remove the collective identity and guilt of being Jewish and therefore in cahoots with him. 

And on the other hand, for evangelicals and the far right, those same liberal Jews were in fact not Jews at all, but Kapos who dared to gather outside in protest against their brethren and the country's righteous leader. 

That formative event, coupled with voting data and viral articles (such as one that profiled two Jewish businessmen/philanthropists who supported Bolsonaro early on and organized meetings for him with Jewish community leaders), solidified the notion that once again, like it or not, the Jews did it.

That alone would’ve been hazardous enough without a pandemic that has been claiming an average of almost 1,000 lives a day. But as Bolsonaro continues to bungle Brazil’s response to the coronavirus, the hunger for the fresh blood of a scapegoat grows ravenous.

A banner reading 'Bolsonaro, Messenger of Death! Hydroxychloroquine no, lockdown yes!' hangs from a bridge, as the spread of the coronavirus continues, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 25, 2020
A banner reading 'Bolsonaro, Messenger of Death! Hydroxychloroquine no, lockdown yes!' hangs from a bridge, as the spread of the coronavirus continues, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 25, 2020Credit: PILAR OLIVARES/ REUTERS

"I have to say that the anti-Semitism I’m feeling now, from the right and the left, is a kind of anti-Semitism that didn’t exist here beforehand," Gherman says. 

None of the Brazilian Jews I spoke with attested to being physically assaulted, but it’s there in the ether, they say. Virulent anti-Semitic speech is rife online more than ever, and it’s coming from all directions. Cleudo Freire, an artist living in Natal, says some people have recently cut ties with him because he’s Jewish, and "Jews voted for Bolsonaro." 

This is likely aggravated by the fact that evangelicals aren’t the only ones making use of the Israeli flag as a political emblem, which goes a long way in perpetuating the "Jews = Bolsonaro" equation.

They’re joined by a wild spectrum, from gun-rights enthusiasts, extreme neo-liberals who hold Israel up as a kind of capitalist Elysium, and Nazi-adjacent groups that see "Zion" as a bulwark against the Muslim hordes, the last frontier of Christian Europe. It’d be hard to fault those white supremacists for amplifying a trope endorsed by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu’s son on Twitter.

So it’s hardly a surprise that the last ADL global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes found a sharp spike in the numbers of Brazilians who endorsed the "dual loyalty" charge against Jews, claiming they feel greater loyalty towards Israel than towards Brazil: It’s grown from 42 percent in 2014 to a full 70 percent by 2019

Sergio Storch, the human rights activist, points to Brazilian Jews’ ignorance about thenegative aspects of their country’s close relations with Israel, and how that feeds into leftist anti-Semitism. Brazil’s Jewish community, says Storch, is "protected from the news that is not convenient." One example he brings up is that most Jews are not aware that Israel sells arms to and trains Brazil’s famously violent military police.

Storch contends that actors within the Jewish press in Brazil "filter" news coverage critical of Israeli policies. For instance, an influential news brief on Israel, read by most Jewish community leaders, studiously avoids Haaretz, but offers plenty of clippings from the Netanyahu freesheet fan club, Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, whose hagiographic coverage of Bolsonaro can be witnessed in this this editorial comment on the Brazilian president-elect in 2018: "Many believe, incorrectly, that Bolsonaro is an extreme right-wing nationalist," but really he is the leader Brazilians thought "would make them proud of their country."

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. March 31, 2019
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. March 31, 2019Credit: AFP

This selective reading is not done by the confederation’s leaders, Storch believes, but by low-ranking bureaucrats acting of their own volition. Either way, Storch, who does not consider himself a Zionist ever since Israel passed its Jewish nation-state law, asserts that someone’s support for Israel should never be used as an excuse to legitimize anti-Semitic attacks from the left. 

Gherman, for his part, thinks right-wing Jews in Brazil aren’t equipped to tell the difference between pro-Israeli and anti-Semitic discourse, leaving them blind to what he sees as the more insidious kind of anti-Semitism: The kind that seeks to define and police the parameters of Jewish identity according to political needs. 

It stipulates that a Jew who defies the "party line" is not a Jew at all. It is the same strain of anti-Semitism employed by some of Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunchest allies, and it was from him that they learned how to wield it. It is all drawn from the same acrid well that Israelis have been drinking from for nearly 20 years.

One needn’t go so far as the day Netanyahu whispered that the left "forgot what it means to be Jewish." Hungary’s Orban shakes Israel’s hand with his right and orders a state-sponsored campaign against Soros and his neafrious global network and defends anti-Semitic cartoons with his left. "Jews who vote Democrat are disloyal," says Donald Trump. For Bolsonaro, Jews who opposed him belong in the same garbage heap as the rest of the "Nazi left." 

Almost everyone I spoke to believed that Bolsonaro’s careless and haphazard performance during this pandemic may inadvertently mend some of the ruptures in the Jewish community, simply by offering his failure as a fact they can agree on. Most reported that nearly all of their Jewish friends now regret their Bolsonaro vote. 

Most don’t believe that he’s corrupt, but incompetent. My view is that he is too inept to be corrupt. He doesn’t, yet, have the power or the means to destroy the country’s democracy, but as Brazilians continue to die from COVID-19, Jair Bolsonaro’s coercive embrace is giving Brazil’s Jews yet another reason to fear for their safety.

Daniel Gouri de Lima is a news editor at Haaretz and a comedian. Twitter: @GouriLima

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