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No Bolsonaro, visiting Yad Vashem doesn't make you a 'friend of the Jews'

Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Israel this week is just the latest step in Netanyahu’s warming relations with a new cadre of authoritarian leaders. 

By Sergio Storch

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, April 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, April 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s four-day visit to Israel demonstrates just how important the South American country has become to Netanyahu over the past few years.

The trip includes a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s renowned Holocaust museum, which commemorates one of the worst tragedies in history and sets out to ensure that genocide remains a thing of the past. For many, Yad Vashem serves as an inspiring example of how crucial collective memories are for strengthening both the identities and coping mechanisms of groups who have suffered violent persecution.

And yet, the meaning of a visit to Yad Vashem takes a different tone when the guest of honor represents hatred, oppression, and the devaluation of life. Netanyahu didn’t seem to worry about this when he brings Bolsonaro to the museum. After all, it is not the first time Netanyahu has invited a far-right nationalist leader to Yad Vashem; leaders of Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines — all of them known for their extremist policies and rhetoric — have also visited the museum alongside the Israeli prime minister.

Boslsonaro’s visit comes on the heels of his infamous “anti-crime package,” which increases sentences for serious crimes such as robbery, corruption, and embezzlement, and incorporates Bolsonaro’s campaign promise to back police officers who open fire at suspected criminals deemed dangerous by security forces. Brazilian human rights NGOs have labeled the package a “fake solution” that would only increase violence — as well as incarceration rates — among Brazil’s poor.

Netanyahu is no fool. On the eve of Israeli elections, by appearing with Bolsonaro at Yad Vashem he can sell the image of the leader of a 200 million-strong country ostensibly honoring Jewish suffering. But the visit goes beyond simple political calculus: Bolsonaro is just another leader being used in Netanyahu’s attempt to rewrite history and use the Holocaust as an attempt to justify Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem's Old City, April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem’s Old City, April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In turn, these heads of state receive the prime minister’s blessing, and a defense against charges of anti-Semitism, despite their hatred for various other minority groups, whether Muslim refugees, African migrants, Mexicans, or indigenous people. Visiting Yad Vashem washes these leaders of their guilt, even as their governments continue to dabble in anti-Semitism, as is the case in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has dabbled in historical revisionism when it comes to the role of both the Poles and the Palestinians in the Holocaust.

The turn toward authoritarian leaders, and their visits to Yad Vashem, are part of Netanyahu’s attempt to create an equivalency between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. By visiting the museum, Netanyahu’s new allies prove they are Israel’s friends, thus reinforcing Netanyahu’s thesis. Brazilian Jews who supported Bolosonaro during the country’s elections last year did so based on the fabricated idea that he is a “friend of the Jews” — a notion that will only be bolstered by his visit to the museum.

Taken in its broadest meaning, Bolsonaro’s visit to Yad Vashem is another brick in the worldwide construction of a big lie in which Israelis and Brazilian Jews are duped into believing that an alliance of extremists is somehow in their best interest. And although Jewish communal leaders in Brazil have, in varying degrees, supported this doomed alliance, there is still a possibility for change. It is crucial that all those dedicated to human rights, democracy, and justice distance themselves from both the hubris of the Israeli government, and the authoritarian leaders who give it the backing Netanyahu so desperately needs.

Sergio Storch is a human rights activist in Brazil and a member of the Mazkirut Olami of J-AMLAT, an organization of Progressive Jews in Latin America countries and Latin Americans living in Israel. A version of this article was first published in Portuguese on Brasil 247.

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      I don’t get all this nonsense.
      Israel has good relations with many countries including Brazil, India, China, Azerbaijan, Russia, Hungary, Thailand, Philipinnes etc. Does that mean the Israeli Government agrees with all these governments’ policies ?
      No, it does not.
      But then if Israel were to stick with only those countries with perfect human rights records, it would be excluding 80 % of the World’s population.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: Which 20% does Israel disagree with?

        President Jair Bolsonaro this week called on the armed forces to “commemorate” the 55th anniversary of a coup that installed a brutal military dictatorship in Brazil, igniting fierce debate over the legacy of that repressive era…The attorney general’s office released a rare, and scathing, rebuke in writing…“The coup of 1964, without any possibility of doubt or revisionism of history, was a violent and antidemocratic rupture of the constitutional order,” the attorney general’s statement said.


        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          The 20% that are democracies are in Western Europe, some of Eastern Europe, USA. Canada, Australia and Nea Zealand. Small, individual democratic states are also scattered in a few other localities round the World.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould


      Brazil’s president calls Nazis leftists after Israel Holocaust museum visit…Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro said “there is no doubt” that Nazism was a leftist movement, just after visiting Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum…Bolsonaro’s remarks directly contradicted information on the museum’s website saying Germany’s Nazi movement rose out of right-wing radical groups responding to the rise of communism.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Genuine Fascists believe in “Organic Nationalism combined with the Revision of Socialism”

        Fascism is defined as “Extreme Right” in everyday parlance. Yet this description has been criticised by experts like Zeev Sternhell who thinks a better description is “Extremism of the Center”. Far rightist policies like the Abolition of strike action are combined with far left policies like Autarky.

        Basically, whole books have been written about this subject. In other words, Fascistic ideology cannot be accurately described on a simple Right-Left spectrum.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          What’s your point?

          (Lewis fr Afula quoting Zeev Sternhell, expert on European fascism? We might be getting somewhere, but let’s not be recklessly optimistic. In fact, let’s not be optimistic at all. We know better.)

          Reply to Comment
    3. Mark

      Israel already has its allieances with the liberal countries in the world. Like everyone else they have to hold their noses when dealing with unpleasant regimes across the globe, and closer to home.

      Israel is not strong or powerful enough to tell s**tbags across the world the painful truth. That falls to US and EU.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        alternatively, israel is such a small country that it doesn’t need to reach out to such human-rights-abusing regimes – much less sell weapons to the philippines, myanmar, central africa, azerbaijan, etc.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Israel is not strong or powerful enough to tell s**tbags across the world the painful truth.”

        Complete baloney. I answered this here:

        Netanyahu’s politics is not realpolitik, it is shared politics, common politics, fellow-traveler politics. He is throwing his lot in with the likes of Bolsonaro and the Polish and Hungarian neo-fascists, feting them, celebrating his alliance with them, warmly toasting them. This is entirely different.

        Israel is the superpower in its region. It has the slavish backing of the world’s sole superpower. Israel was strong or powerful enough to tell United States President Obama and his administration to go f*ck itself and to throw its lot in with the US opposition party and have its Prime Minister march into the House of the US legislature and openly defy the US president. Israel is plenty strong enough. It can stand up to the USA but not Brazil?? Who are you kidding? Time to stop hiding behind the preposterously weak excuse that poor little Israel is not strong enough. Enough of that hasbara.

        Reply to Comment

      Deceived by the most evil ideology of the world, leftwingers twist everything, they call good as evil and evil as good

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Without specifics this is an empty, ritual incantation. It’s emptiness points to the fact that Israelis deny the specific evil of their occupation by trying to dissolve the rottenness in a vague soup of a large “left versus right” issue and pretend that it’s occupation is nothing particular or at all to be distinguished from the issues with Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, European immigration, etc. It’s just the latest opportunistic iteration of Hasbara and the latest effort to normalize the occupation. “Leftist” is a dirty word in right wing reactionary (i.e., mainstream) Israel, but this fails to admit that the left particularly has a purpose and a justification when local oppression and injustice is severe. At its most blurring, simplistic and sloganeering this hasbara gets boiled down to “Hamas = Isis.” Incantatory hogwash.

        Reply to Comment