There was a rude shock last month for those who still believed that Jair Bolsonaro and his followers had a genuine appreciation for the Jewish people and their fate, in Brazil or elsewhere.
It came in the form of a smile-filled state reception offered by the Brazilian president, his son, his cabinet and deputies from the ruling coalition, to Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the German far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany).
The AfD is considered a neo-Nazi party, at home and abroad, for promoting racist, sexist, Islamophobic, antisemitic and xenophobic ideas. But their leaders remain unfazed. They are constantly pushing the limits of the democratic constitutional order, always exploring how close they can get to the language, symbols and policies of a revived Nazi ideology without being barred by Germany's constitution and laws.
Storch, grand-daughter of Hitler's finance minister, was herself temporarily banned from Twitter in 2017 for a tweet describing immigrants as "barbaric, Muslim, rapist hordes."
There is a consensus among Germany's mainstream political parties not to cooperate politically with the party, which a year ago was designated as a suspected extremist group by the country's own intelligence services.
In other words, the AfD is as neo-Nazi as a German political party can be, short of being outlawed.
Tweeting about the "excellent" meeting, Bolsonaro's son, Eduardo wrote: "We [and the AfD] are united by ideals of family defense, border protection and national culture."
But throughout Brazil, Jewish community organizations immediately denounced the meeting (the Israel-Brazil Institute, the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, Jews for Democracy, which said "The ideas that unite them are nothing but a euphemism for fascism," the Holocaust Museum, among many others), joined by major civil society groups.
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The meeting made headlines in Brazil's media, including reporting on the shockwaves traveling through the Jewish community. The chair of the Brazilian Senate's Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, probing Bolsonaro's egregious lack of response to the pandemic, condemned the meeting held "in the shadows," and expressed unreserved solidarity with the Jewish people, sending a clear message from the parliament to the presidency: "We cannot allow this! Nazism, no!"
Jair Bolsonaro's proximity to neo-Nazi groups is nothing new. Like within the ranks of the AfD, well-known neo-Nazi figures have long been at ease within Bolsonaro's political camp. In his party there have been candidates who are explicit Nazi enthusiasts and, recently, years of affectionate official correspondence between the office of then-Congressman Bolsonaro and illegal neo-Nazi cells have been uncovered.
There's another key ideological strand that ties Bolsonaro and the AfD: they both profess to support and defend Israel and Zionism. That is their go-to defense against accusations of antisemitism and fascist-adjacency.
That support for Israel is wheeled out as 'proof' of philosemitism is best illustrated by Brazilian Congresswoman Bia Kicis, whose own grandfather was a Jewish officer decorated for fighting the Nazis in WWII, and who is vice-president of the Brazil-Israel friendship group in Congress. She too met with Storch in Brasilia, and angrily denied the "treacherous" claims that the AfD was neo-Nazi, pointing to its "support" and "defense of Israel."
She declared, "As a conservative congresswoman, I welcomed a German congresswoman, who, like me, defends Judeo-Christian values, the family and the sovereignty of her homeland."
The Bolsonaro government offers another opportunity to witness a dynamic that's increasingly common in far-right circles worldwide: That it is perfectly possible to symbolically defend Israel and, at the same time, push Holocaust revisionism and distaste for the lives and diverse concerns of living, breathing Jews.
The key is to avoid full frontal Holocaust denial, but to instrumentalize it, often by perverting basic facts. The former head of the AfD called the Nazi era a "mere speck of birdshit" on German's glorious past. For Bolsonaro, the Jew-killing Nazis are actually connected to the side of his political rivals: Straight after a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial, he stated that the Nazis were leftists.
The Holocaust is not the only form of revisionism or denialism that characterize the confluence of Bolsonaro and von Storch, figureheads of two increasingly isolated political forces. They eagerly embrace denial of dictatorships (at home and abroad), of the COVID pandemic, of climate change. In short, denial of the historical, moral, and scientific consensuses at the very foundation of pluralistic, liberal and democratic societies.
Observers of Brazilian politics have long highlighted the Bolsonaro government's systematic use of symbols linked to the State of Israel.
Already during the 2018 election campaign, the Israeli flag fluttered at numerous rallies for his candidacy and other party nominations. And it still flutters in demonstrations dedicated to denying Brazil's COVID tragedy and in rallies relentlessly threatening the democratic process. Performative visits to Israel, IDF T-shirts referencing the Israel Defense Forces and even Hebrew phrases are also features of the ruling government.
Jair Bolsonaro himself and the so-called "Bolsonarists" have used strident declarations of their alleged support for Israel to whitewash themselves whenever their proximity to ideas and expressions of European Nazism or fascism is criticized.
This systematic abuse of symbols would naturally lead to the assumption that a disproportionate number of Brazil's Jews back Bolsonarism. But that has no basis in electoral polls or opinion surveys. The dispute about the rise of the extreme right in Brazil cuts across the Jewish community in similar proportions to society at large.
What is clear is the repeated, consistent and tireless denunciations by Jewish organizations of the denialist postures of the Bolsonarist camp, even before Bolsonaro's ascent to power in 2017.
Indeed, the Jewish community's major representative organization, the Confederação Israelita do Brasil, or Jewish Confederation of Brazil, has consistently denounced Bolsonaro's closeness to the far right.
It remarked that the Storch visit, among so many other episodes, show his connections with "supremacist and neo-Nazi movements are not mere coincidence, but ideological agreement" and slammed the call to what it "vaguely call[ed] 'Judeo-Christian values' but [which is in fact] a violent and exclusionary nationalism that ignores minorities, sustainable development and democracy."
And the Confederation reminded the media and public not to equate their instrumentalization of Jews with Jewish support for Bolsonaro: To ignore the many Jewish protest makes "a grotesque generalization of the Brazilian Jewish community," reproducing stereotypes a common antisemitic practice, "denying us our role as political agents and critical voices."
In any case, it's not the Jews for whom the Israeli flags are waving.
Just like Trump and the GOP's political strategists, Brazil's political conservatives have been keen to co-opt and welcome the votes of the Evangelical community (who constitute nearly a third of the population), who have, in the last few decades, adopted Christian Zionism and Jewish elements in their liturgy, a development with roots in apocalyptic Pentecostal theology.
The return of the Jews to the Holy Land is an essential catalyst, in their belief, for the end times and the salvation of Christian believers. Thus the embedding of references and symbols connected to the State of Israel and to Judaism, thus Congress' Evangelical caucus favoring exclusive Jewish control over historic Palestine and moving the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Alongside the theological and electoral impetus, there are also secular reasons for the use and abuse of Israeli and Jewish symbolism. Conservative groups see the State of Israel as a geopolitical exemplar to leverage their political agenda in Brazil.
For them, the idea of Israel as an "outpost of civilization," the West's final frontier against Middle Eastern "barbarism," is linked to the image of a highly militarized state, capable of confronting the enemies that surround it – and this is a core narrative of their culture war in Brazil.
They are not bothered by reality; their fictional Israel construct is immune to the energetic plurality, deeply contested politics and the progressive, secular elements of the actual State of Israel.
The enemies in that war include anyone who threatens the supposedly totemic "Judeo-Christian values" symbolized by a fantasy Fortress Israel, purged of Muslims, homosexuals, African migrants and their diasporic religions, Palestinians, left-wingers, communists, and so on. Israel is blazing the path for the New Brazil that Bolsonaro envisioned during his 2017 election campaign:
"We are the majority. We are the real Brazil. Together, we will build a new nation…These red [leftist] criminals will be banished from our homeland. Either they go overseas, or they go to jail. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history."
However, parallel to the profusion of Stars of David are numerous evocations, allusions or emulations of the Nazi-fascist era by the Bolsonaro government and its allies, to the extent that Brazil's Holocaust Museum, in Curitiba, has expressed astonished exasperation that not even a week goes by without it being forced to repudiate an antisemitic speech, Nazi symbol or a white supremacist act, including the Storch visit.
Here are some of those incidents, made all the more appalling for the brazenness with which they were made and then normalized:
■ Bolsonaro's 2018 presidential campaign slogan (Brazil above all), was a direct paraphrase of the Nazi slogan Deutschland über alles
■ Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo claimed in December 2018 that Bolsonaro's inauguration ceremony represented the "triumph of the will," exactly the same slogan glorified in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph des Willens, which depicts the Nuremberg rally considered Hitler's enthronement ceremony as Führer of Greater Germany
■ The Brazilian Army's tribute in July 2019 to Major von Westernhagen, a German officer who served the Nazi occupation of France and the Soviet Union
■ Filipe Martins, Bolsonaro's Special Advisor for International Affairs, who was indicted for repeatedly made the 'OK' white power hand signal on television during an official Senate ceremony this year; in 2020, Bolsonaro made a point of drinking a glass of milk during one of his weekly live broadcasts, another white supremacist dog whistle
■ The Presidency's Social Communication Secretariat broadcast a back-to-work-despite-the-pandemic PSA in May 2020 invoking Auschwitz's infamous slogan Arbeit macht frei
■ In January 2021, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, accused of plotting to overthrow the president, renewed his commitment to Bolsonaro by proclaiming "My honor is bound to loyalty," a slight paraphrase of the SS Meine Ehre heißt Treue motto, a quote from Hitler adopted by the Nazi paramilitaries after quashing a plot against the Nazi leadership;
■ Last week, the same Bia Kicis who embraced Beatrix von Storch published a literal call to arms against the government from Carlos Pampillón, one of the most notorious contemporary Argentinian neo-Nazis
Other episodes, however, have shocked the world, such as the official video launching Brazil's 2020 National Arts Award in which not only is the Nazi aesthetic celebrated to the strains of a Wagner soundtrack but entire passages of the speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels are solemnly reproduced. The culture minister later blamed "satanism" for the slip-up.
Just last week, as if to confirm that the Holocaust Museum's exasperation was more justified than ever, the president of the Cultural Foundation Palmares, a federal agency linked to the same Culture Secretary who'd released the video emulating Goebbels, tried to purge more than 300 of what he called "Marxist and shameful" books from the institution's collection.
After a Federal Court prevented his purge, he announced the creation of a "museum of shame" where those "deviant" works would be exhibited to be publicly reviled. The parallels with burning books and exhibitions of "degenerate art" across Nazi Germany hardly need to be made.
In Germany, far right provocations aimed at accommodating or normalizing the Nazi past, and to test the limits of the democratic constitutional order, have not been greeted with the same leniency as they have in Brazil. Since its founding in 2013 and especially since it first won seats in the Bundestag in 2017, investigations, prosecutions, and court convictions have mounted against the AfD.
Across the civil society spectrum, there have been formal statements of repudiation and calls for the party's isolation and boycott. Virtually every Jewish community body has formally declared the AfD an anti-democratic, racist, and antisemitic grouping dedicated to reviving Nazism.
Similarly far-reaching positions have been taken by the Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim communities, by organizations active in the protection of people with special needs and psychiatrically vulnerable people, of groups defending the LGBTQIA+ community, of organizations representing the Sinti and Roma communities and engaged in the fight against anti-Gypsyism. All are united in rejecting the AfD's compatibility with a pluralist and democratic society.
In Germany, no party in the Bundestag or the state parliaments will admit to dealmaking with the AfD; no pro-democracy German public figure will even be photographed or shake hands with its representatives.
Outside of Germany, it is very rare for state authorities to receive AfD representatives: The only places that put out the red carpet are contested or vicious regimes who seek foreign legitimation, such as Bashar al-Assad's Syria (in 2018 and 2019) and Putin's Russia (secretive trips since 2017, and more conspicuously in 2020 and 2021).
In Brazil, however, Beatrix von Storch and her husband were welcomed with fraternal hugs and broad smiles: By the science minister, Marcos Pontes (who, facing a backlash, hastily erased social media posts of the meeting), by federal deputies Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP) and Bia Kicis (PSL-DF) and by the president himself.
Just as the Brazilian Jewish community denounced the tactical deployment of the pro-Israel card by the Bolsonaro camp to shield the party from criticism of its outright racism, xenophobia and antidemocratic stance, so has the Central Council of Jews in Germany in regard to the AfD, whose president Josef Schuster said last February that it was not only cheap, but also despicable.
On the eve of the AfD's shock entry into the Bundestag, a broad swathe of all parties' candidates were surveyed in regard to their position on the Germany-Israel relationship. The AfD candidates positioned themselves as firmly pro-Israel.
But when it came to of the lives of Jews in Germany, migration, Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust, and the imperative of Holocaust education – issues that had a 100 percent favorable position from members of all other political parties – the AfD offered divided and ambiguous positions.
Across the whole German political spectrum, only one party took a reticent stance in relation to the Nazi past, and that was the party that Bolsonaro smilingly embraced.
It is in this sense that the Beatrix von Storch hugs constitute such palpable evidence that waving Israeli flags doesn't mean respecting the rights and dignity of Jews or the Jewish community.
What we see at play here is a very poor idea of what Jewishness and the State of Israel are: A portrayal of a monolithic, conservative, "sacred" and yet instrumentalized group, with no real agency, complexity or plurality. That mindset feeds on the not-so-benign gentile myth-making about the Jews, and it opens the door to conspiracy theories and rising antisemitism.
Isolated, shunned and denounced on the global stage for their manifold denialism, Storch and her party, as much as Bolsonaro and his followers, cling onto Israel's symbolism like those drowning cling together to a lifebuoy. But history tells us that desperate extremists under pressure for their political survival can be at their most dangerous.
Rafael Kruchin holds a master's degree in sociology from the University of São Paulo, is executive coordinator of the Israel-Brazil Institute and a collaborating researcher at the Center for International Migration Studies at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). Twitter: @Rafael_Kruchin
Sebastião Nascimento holds a master's degree in international law from the University of São Paulo. He is a doctoral candidate in social sciences at the Universität-Flensburg, Germany, and a researcher at the Center for International Migration Studies at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). Twitter: @bastelik