Brazil – and Its Jewish Community – Battle for the Soul of Latin America’s Biggest Democracy

With right-wing leader Jair Bolsonaro poised to be elected president on Sunday, Brazilians and Jews tell Haaretz what they think of the man whom the left fears will usher in fascism

Students demonstrate against Jair Bolsonaro in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 26, 2018
AFP

On Sunday, millions of Brazilians will set out for the sixth time in their brief history as citizens of a democracy to elect a new president. In 1985, Brazil emerged from a 21-year military dictatorship.

Some observers are casting it as a vote for the country’s soul and a battle for its future as a democracy. Whether or not this is true, Brazilian society is deeply divided, as is, in fact, the Jewish community. Brazilians do not recall a more a highly charged election in the history of Latin America’s largest country.

Leading in the polls is the first-round winner and leader of the Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, a Christian conservative who served in the army during the dictatorship. Not a liberal by any standard, Bolsonaro styles himself as a Mr. Fix-It for the country’s woes.

The Western media, and some of his opponents, bill him as the Donald Trump of the tropics. But to many Brazilians, the former army captain simply represents the antithesis to the leftist Workers’ Party, whose reputation has been sullied in a major corruption probe.

In the polls, Bolsonaro is currently ahead at 59 percent, leading the Workers’ Party’s Fernando Haddad, a former education minister under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the celebrated ex-president recently jailed on a corruption conviction. As late as early September, before the courts rejected his request to run, Lula was leading in the polls from his prison cell.

Haddad’s early campaign ads, hoping to capitalize on Lula’s popularity, portrayed him as a kind of proxy for the former president. That strategy was dropped once he came in far behind Bolsonaro in the first round of voting on October 7. Both he and the party have since distanced themselves from the imprisoned leader.

In contrast, Bolsonaro’s ads portray him as a kind of evangelical superhero. Clad in army fatigues with a pistol in hand, he stands in the rain under pale city lights amid the slogan “Brazil before everything, and God above all.”

His promise to put Brazil first, along with firebrand rhetoric and a rapid rise out of political obscurity, solidifies the tropic Trump tag. Sure enough, in August, Bolsonaro’s youngest son Eduardo posted a photo of him and Steve Bannon on Instagram, calling the architect of Trump’s 2016 victory an “enthusiastic” supporter of his father.

The younger Bolsonaro said in an interview that Bannon would help the campaign with “internet tips, sometimes an analysis, interpreting data, those kinds of things.” His father denied the connection and knowledge of the meeting with Bannon.

‘Fake news’ and sexual violence

Much has been written about Bolsonaro’s rhetoric on minorities, whether ethnic or otherwise. He once said he would rather have a son die in a car crash than come out as gay. He advocated corporal punishment for boys considered “effeminate.” In a conversation at the Hebraica Club of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro talked about the appropriation of Native American lands for their wealth and dismissed the country’s Quilombola minority, Afro-Brazilian descendants of escaped slaves, as “useless.”

In 2003, during a televised argument with Congresswoman Maria do Rosario, Bolsonaro told his fellow lawmaker he wouldn’t rape her, “because you don’t deserve it.”

His supporters filter this out or dismiss it as “fake news.” They cling to his promises to eradicate crime and corruption. Alice Bulus, a Lebanese-Brazilian teacher who voted for Bolsonaro, says his comments on gay people and women have been misinterpreted.

“It’s not a matter of prejudice but of putting the country in order,” she told Haaretz, adding that “he’s a good person, not the monster that the media shows. My gay and black friends vote for him … Many women support him.”

In September, a woman in the southern city of Porto Alegre, draped in an LGBT flag and wearing an anti-Bolsonaro sticker, was savagely beaten in the street. Her attackers then carved a swastika into her skin with a knife, Brazilian media reported. Bolsonaro came out against such acts, but said he can’t control the actions of his supporters.

“If a guy wearing one of my T-shirts goes too far, what can I do?” he was quoted by the BBC as saying.

Niraldo Nascimento, a researcher at the University of Brasilia, says violence against minorities has increased during the election campaign, particularly by police and Bolsonaro supporters. “I’m afraid to go out alone walking in the street wearing a button or a T-shirt with slogans or symbols supporting the leftist candidate,” he told Haaretz.

Shortly after the first round of voting, Capoeira Master Moa do Catende was stabbed to death by a Bolsonaro supporter in Salvador, northeast of Sao Paolo. The attacker admitted to police the attack was political.

A member of an Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira group during a tribute to Capoeira Master Moa do Catende, who was stabbed to death by a supporter of Bolsonaro, October 10, 2018
AFP

Bolsonaro even managed to incite violence against himself when in September he was stabbed during a rally by a man who claimed he was on a mission from God.

“His rhetoric resonates with people who actually practice violence within their families, which is not so uncommon in a poorly educated population such as ours,” said Sergio Storch, the founder of a Brazilian group of progressive Jews.

But since Bolsonaro’s strong showing on October 7, he seems to be easing up on the acrimony, saving it mainly for the Workers’ Party. Earlier this month, he rebuffed an endorsement from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who said Bolsonaro “sounds like us.”

Brazilians are “the most beautiful and mixed race people in the world,” Bolsonaro tweeted, suggesting that “for consistency, [supremacist groups] support my adversary the candidate of the left party, who loves to segregate the society.”

Bolsonaro grimaces right after being stabbed in the stomach during a campaign rally in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, September 6, 2018
Raysa Leite,AP

On October 22, Bolsonaro ramped up his vitriol against the left. In a fear-mongering speech, which he streamed from his home in Rio as he recovered from the stabbing, Bolsonaro promised to “cleanse” the nation of its left-wing “outlaws.”

The Jewish vote

For all his conservative politics, violent supporters and populist polemics against the left, it’s Bolsonaro’s effusive praise for the United States and Israel, replete with a pledge to move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem, that has earned him the backing of not just evangelicals but also large sectors of the Jewish community.

“Bolsonaro is good for the Jewish people,” said Fernando, a Brazilian Jew currently living in Israel who requested that only his first name be used. In the first round, Bolsonaro won the vote among Brazilian Jews in Israel and is expected to do the same Sunday.

Pro-Israeli Jews in Brazil, frustrated by what they consider an imbalanced Brazilian debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also rally behind him. “He seems to be friendly with Israel, he’s very conservative in his ideology, but his treasury minister is liberal,” said Mordechai Ancelevicz, a Jewish-Brazilian supporter of Bolsonaro.

“What’s happening in Brazil is that the middle class is tired of seeing its money going to corruption. The PT was never a real party but more of an organization seeking to stay in power,” Ancelevicz added, referring to the Workers’ Party. “People are expecting him to be different.”

Bolsonaro has also said his first presidential trip would be to Israel, promising to buy irrigation technology for Brazil’s arid northeastern regions.

Nascimento of the University of Brasilia calls this plan dubious. “I went to a conference on water resources and talked to various professors, researchers and experts on the subject,” he said. “The answer they gave me is that this is a great technology for Israel whose high-value-added fruit-and-vegetable production justifies the high costs [of water technologies] but wouldn’t be applicable in Brazil.”

Storch, meanwhile, says that “Bolsonaro shows up as a friend to Israel, and many in the Jewish community truly believe it, not understanding he may actually be a friend of the Israeli arms industry. Our Jewish community is by and large naively taken in by Netanyahu’s hasbara and lacks critical thinking,” he said, using the Hebrew word for propaganda.

Bolsonaro has indeed echoed Israeli right-wing talking points; he once asked: “Is Palestine a country? Palestine is not a country, so there should be no embassy here.”

Speaking to the JTA news agency right after the first vote, representatives of the Jewish community praised him for his pro-Israel positions. Ary Bergher, president of the Rio Jewish federation, told JTA that Bolsonaro’s “victory in the first round made us very joyful and hopeful due to his friendship, love and bonds not only with the State of Israel but with the whole Jewish people. He will be a great president by having Jewish ethics and morals as his pillars.”

Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, said Bolsonaro “stood out among the many candidates for including the State of Israel in the major speeches he made during the campaign.” Wurman added that Bolsonaro “is a lover of the people and the State of Israel.

On the other hand, Storch says that “many Jews oppose him fiercely,” noting that nearly 10,000 people signed a document by the movement Judeus contra Bolsonaro.

Brazilian and Israeli flags in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, October 22, 2018
Alice Bulus

A Brazilian-Jewish pro-democracy movement that Storch is a member of released a statement condemning the use of the Israeli flag at Bolsonaro rallies, saying it symbolizes everything that Bolsonaro is against.

“It’s unacceptable that it should be used to legitimize anti-democratic movements that spread hate speech against minorities, as is happening in the 2018 Brazilian electoral campaign,” the group said in the statement.

As Storch puts it, Bolsonaro’s “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.”

Storch sees the Jewish community as split about 20 percent on the left, 40 percent on the right and 40 percent that he defines as liberals.

“But even many who are left-leaning follow rather blindly the Israeli right-wing hasbara, since even the liberal guys” in Jewish groups omit or ignore critical information about the Israeli government, he said.

‘Worse than Israel and Gaza’

Of all his campaign promises, it appears it’s Bolsonaro’s pledge to wage a war on crime that has won the support of Brazil’s huddled and impoverished masses.

Bulus, a Maronite Christian who volunteers at the Lebanese consulate in Rio, says she feels like she’s living in a prison.

“We don’t have security …. Here we are all the time at war. All day, day by day, second by second. Here it’s worse than Israel and Gaza … and I think that Bolsonaro would try” to bring peace to Brazil’s embattled streets, she said. “I don’t have a gun to protect myself. But I go into the streets and all the terrorists have guns,” she added, referring to drug dealers who run vast swaths of Brazil’s cities.

Bulus talks about an electoral dichotomy that mirrors the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Among Lebanese, Maronites are with Bolsonaro. Muslims are with PT,” she said, referring to the Workers’ Party. “Bolsonaro comes in on the Christian bench, next to the evangelicals and Israelis. We’re being compared to the Zionists, but we only want order and progress. PT represents Sodom and Gomorrah, vandalism, atheism.”

Bolsonaro’s legislative record is modest given his 26-year tenure in Congress and low on social interests. The vast majority of his 171 proposed bills over that period were related to military and public security concerns. The two that passed were modest economic ones, but he took great pride in blocking legislation to put literature against homophobia in schools. He also sought to abolish abortion in cases of rape.

Students practice taking cover during a drill at their school to prepare for the shootouts that frequently take place in the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro, October 11, 2017
Dado Galdieri / The New York Tim

The left in general sees Bolsonaro as a harbinger of fascism, and he often mentions the days when Brazil had safety, order and security – under its military regime.

“He isn’t a true leader, but his speech has filled the sails of the military community that believes that the solution for the country is the military regime; that is, a return of the dictatorship,” Nascimento said.

Others dispute the narrative that Bolsonaro will turn Brazil back into a dictatorship.

“The army is smarter than that; they don’t need martial law,” said a diplomatic source active in South America. “I think [the army is] behind him, they’re pulling the strings. So they’ll dictate the policies they want.”

According to the source, this means a fatter defense budget and more authority, especially in the fight against the country’s deep-seated drug world and the culture of violence it has embedded into the country’s social fabric.

“In the city of Rio de Janeiro, more people die every year than in all the wars and terrorist attacks in Israel over the past 70 years,” the source said. “People are fed up. It’s an emotional reaction. They feel they were abused by the PT.”

Rio de Janeiro's Special Police Unit (BOPE) members patrol during a security operation at Complexo do Alemao favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 06, 2018
AFP

But Brazil doesn’t really have a fascist movement, the diplomat said, adding that “it’s not that the people are adopting a fascist worldview.”

“Most of the people in Brazil are liberal. And they’ll continue to be liberal, I think. I don’t expect there to be a big change,” the source said.

“I think the people who admire him are saner than him. They won’t let him run wild, because otherwise Brazil would fall apart. And they won’t let Brazil fall apart. It’s an important country. Important to the Americans, important to its neighbors. It’s not that easy to dismantle a democracy and tear down all its institutions,” the source added.

“But maybe I’m just daydreaming that it will all be all right. Let’s talk again in a month.”