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October 15, 2018 5:14 pm

‘Large Share’ of Brazil’s Jews Will Vote for Right-Wing Presidential Candidate Bolsonaro Despite ‘Reservations,’ Says Political Analyst

avatar by Ben Cohen


Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Reuters / Diego Vara.

Opinion in Brazil’s Jewish community remains divided over Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing politician widely expected to win the second round of the Latin American country’s presidential election on Oct. 28, a leading political analyst told The Algemeiner on Monday.

“The Brazilian Jewish community is split on Bolsonaro,” said Dr. Guilherme Casarões — a professor of international relations at the EAESP University in São Paulo and a contributor at the Instituto Brasil Israel — during a discussion of an election that has been dominated by accusations against the 63-year-old former army officer of racism, homophobia, and an unhealthy nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985.

“My guess is that there is a large share of Brazilian Jews who will vote for Bolsonaro with reservations, moved by their disgust for the PT (the left-wing Workers’ Party that governed Brazil between 2003-16),” he said.

Casarões added that “there are smaller fractions of the community who will vote for Bolsonaro out of conviction, or who will vote for (rival PT candidate Fernando) Haddad either because of ideological affinity or because they see Bolsonaro as a threat to democracy.”

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Bolsonaro has appealed for the support of Brazil’s  Jewish community, the second-largest in Latin America, with an uncomplicated embrace of the State of Israel. “My heart is green, yellow, blue and white,” Bolsonaro famously told a meeting at a Jewish center in Rio de Janeiro in 2017, in a reference to the colors of the Brazilian and Israeli flags.

After he was stabbed at a street rally in southeastern Brazil in September, Bolsonaro demonstratively chose to make his recovery at the Albert Einstein Hospital, a Jewish institution, in São Paulo. But when some of Bolsonaro’s supporters enthusiastically proclaimed that their candidate would be “protected” at the hospital by the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, Brazilian Jewish leaders felt compelled to dismiss this assertion — along with the allegation that Bolsonaro would have risked assassination had he been treated at an Arab community-owned hospital — as a “frivolous” attempt to “import international conflicts into Brazilian society.”

Yet it is Bolsonaro himself who sets the example when it comes to bombastic communications. A former congressman who served with nine different right-wing parties over 27 years, Bolsonaro has earned international notoriety for a string of abusive statements targeting women and minorities. In 2014, for example, he told a rival congresswoman that she “wasn’t worth raping,” while in 2016, he referred to a group of black activists as “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.” Interviewed in 2011 by Playboy magazine, he flatly rejected the notion that he could ever love a son who was gay with the quip, “I would prefer my son to die in an accident than show up with a mustachioed​ man.”

“Although I personally don’t like to call him a fascist, he is certainly stirring fascist sentiments among his voters,” Dr. Casarões observed. “And this is unfortunate, because many Bolsonaro‘s supporters who do not support violence ended up turning a blind eye to his controversial statements against minorities and in favor of torture and dictatorship, out of sheer hatred of the PT.”

The PT’s dismal record during 13 years of government certainly helped to lay the groundwork for Bolsonaro’s radical presidential bid. The party’s last president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in August 2016 because of a corruption scandal, while her charismatic predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence on charges of corruption and money laundering. During the PT’s latter years in power, a growing economic crisis resulted in a recession this year, while inflation reached a 12-year high.

Casarões said that while Brazil’s predominantly middle-class Jewish community had been appreciative of Lula’s more conservative economic policies, “as the economy plummeted under President Rousseff, leading to massive deindustrialization, the community also suffered, especially among businesspeople and liberal professionals.”

On Israel, too, Casarões highlighted a distinction between the Lula and Rousseff presidencies.

“Lula’s relationship with Israel was good: bilateral trade skyrocketed and Brazil worked for a free trade agreement between the Mercosur trade bloc and Israel,” he argued. “Also, despite intense relations with Arab countries, Lula tried to maintain an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having paid official visits to both countries in 2010.”

By contrast, Casarões said, “relations under Rousseff were marked by growing tension.” During the summer 2014 war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, Rousseff denounced Israel for committing a “massacre” and withdrew the Brazilian ambassador from Tel Aviv. Two years later, relations worsened when the Brazilian government refused to accept the credentials of Israel’s nominated ambassador, Dani Dayan, because of his previous role as chair of the Yesha Council, a group representing Israeli communities in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, “Bolsonaro’s pro-Israel views have been nurtured in the past few years,” Casarões continued, identifying four key factors behind the candidate’s backing for the Jewish state.

“First, Bolsonaro sees Israel as a role model in military technology and public safety policies, which speaks to his background as an army captain,” Casarões said. “Second, Bolsonaro stresses Israel’s democratic character to oppose the PT’s alignments with authoritarian Arab governments across the Middle East and Africa.”

Thirdly, Casarões said, in electoral terms, support for Israel was an important means of winning the backing of Brazil’s community of Evangelical Christians, who now make up nearly 30 percent of a population that was almost exclusively Catholic just 50 years ago. Finally, Casarões suggested that Bolsonaro’s views on Israel might help him become friends with the Trump administration.

“He has been promising to shut down the Palestinian Embassy in Brasília, while transferring Brazil’s Israel Embassy to Jerusalem,” Casarões said. “He will probably try to change Brazil’s long-standing stance on the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

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