Brazil's Bizarre Love of Comparing Things to the Holocaust

Frequent and outrageous use of Holocaust imagery is now part-and-parcel of Brazilian political dialogue. How did this happen, and why?

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro speaks at Planalto Government Palace on June 29, 2021 in Brasilia. Andressa Anholete/Getty Images.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro speaks at Planalto Government Palace on June 29, 2021 in Brasilia. Andressa Anholete/Getty Images.

Observation
June 30 2021
About the author

Igor Sabino, a Brazilian native, is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco, where his research focuses on religion and international relations.

In March, just as high-level Brazilian officials were arriving in Israel on a diplomatic mission, a group of left-leaning Brazilian activists wrote an open letter to the United Nations claiming that President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic had turned their country into an “open-air gas chamber.” In response, Israel’s foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi condemned the increasingly widespread use of Holocaust comparisons to talk about the pandemic. Ashkenazi’s counterpart, Ernesto Araújo—the most senior member of the delegation—joined him and denounced the letter, calling it a violation of the memory of the Holocaust and an insult to Jews around the world.

But such comparisons have become part-and-parcel of Brazilian political discourse—and Araújo himself is far from innocent. Writing on his personal blog in April 2020, he asserted that the COVID-19 pandemic is part of a Chinese plan for world domination. Therefore, he concluded, support for lockdown measures is akin to support for Nazi concentration camps. The Brazilian Jewish community demanded an apology, but Araújo denied that he was minimizing the Holocaust and, in his own defense, highlighted his support for the Jewish state and his record of opposing anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.

In these two representative examples, one can find numerous parallels to the United States. As in the U.S., the Brazilian left has tended to support stringent measures to blunt the spread of the coronavirus, while those on the right have tended to oppose them. In the U.S. too, right-wing figures like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene have made far-fetched analogies between public-health regulations and the Holocaust. The Brazilian left, like its American counterpart, is also home to much anti-Israel sentiment; likewise the Brazilian right is strongly pro-Israel, especially because of the influence of evangelical Christian voters.

But these parallels are far from exact, most of all because the situation in Brazil is in every respect more extreme. Taylor Greene is a fringe figure, and anti-Israel sentiment remains confined to the more radical wing of the Democratic party. But Araújo was a cabinet member when he made his Holocaust analogy, Bolsonaro has opposed lockdowns more vigorously than any major U.S. politician, and the Brazilian left is far more anti-Israel than its American counterpart.

 

In addition, the current conditions in Brazil are more extreme in other ways.

While Israel, the U.S., and other countries are finally recovering from the pandemic, Brazil remains in its throes. As I write these words, the total number of deaths surpassed 500,000, and although the daily death rate has come down from its peak in April, it remains above 2,500. The economy is consequently in ruins and almost 27 million people are living in poverty, many of them starving. The political situation is chaotic. President Bolsonaro denies the gravity of the virus, minimizes the number of deaths, boycotts the purchase of vaccines, and helps to spread conspiracy theories about the pandemic, while his country has become an international pariah.

These factors, taken together, have left Brazil highly susceptible to that most persistent of viruses: anti-Semitism. According to a 2019 poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, 25 percent of Brazilians hold anti-Semitic views. If the same poll were conducted today, I believe these numbers would be even higher. Again as in the U.S., hatred of Jews comes from both the far right and the far left, both of which also traffic in outrageous use of Holocaust imagery.

Despite the efforts of the Brazilian Jewish community to fight such minimization (or worse) of the Shoah, and to educate the government and society as a whole, instances have only become more frequent, as have expressions of anti-Semitism. For example: in March, Mario Frias, the newly appointed national secretary of culture—whose predecessor had himself engaged in some highly questionable appropriation of Nazi rhetoric—posted some scenes from the movie Schindler’s List on Twitter. The conditions depicted in the movie, he asserted, resembled those in Brazilian states where governors had established partial lockdowns to contain the spread of coronavirus.

When the Holocaust museum of the Brazilian city of Curitiba responded, also over Twitter, by pointing out the inaptness of the comparison, Frias insisted he had nothing to apologize for, concluding his reply with the words: “May God stay with you. Go work!” It was hard not to see the subtext: just the previous day, the same museum had taken note of a video of a pro-Bolsonaro lawyer at an anti-lockdown protest saying in both German and Portuguese “Work will set us free.” The lawyer’s implication was that the answer to the economic devastation caused by the pandemic was to get people back to work. But it’s unlikely this was his only implication: the slogan happens to be the same one inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz, intended to fool inmates into believing they could avoid the gas chambers by applying themselves as forced laborers. Frias, apparently, was defending the use of the phrase and, what’s more, directing it at a Holocaust museum.

This would not be the last time “Work Makes You Free” would figure into public discourse regarding the coronavirus. In May, the Special Secretariat for Social Communication of the Republic, a government agency, used the same phrase, with the same connotations. The association with Nazism was obvious and unavoidable, but the agency’s head, Fábio Wajngarten, accused anyone who raised it of bad faith, pointing out that he himself is a Jew and thus couldn’t be guilty of employing Nazi rhetoric.

Days later, Bolsonaro’s former minister of education, Abraham Weintraub—also of Jewish origin—compared a controversial supreme-court decision with Kristallnacht. His statement was condemned by several Brazilian Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Israeli embassy in Brasilia.

But Jewish ancestry isn’t the only excuse conservatives use to protect themselves from accusations of anti-Semitism. In March, Roberto Jefferson, the leader of the Brazilian Labor Party—which, despite its name, is right-wing and pro-Bolsonaro—wrote, “Baal, Satanic deity: Canaanites and Jews sacrificed children to receive its sympathy. Today, history repeats itself.” This is nothing short of the medieval accusation that Jews ritually murder children; the Brazilian Israelite Confederation and the Curitiba Holocaust Museum responded with statements calling the post as “vile.” The country’s other major Jewish organizations joined the confederation in filing a criminal complaint against Jefferson—who responded by mocking his Jewish critics. Meanwhile, prominent Christian leaders, such as the congressman and pastor Marcos Feliciano—known for his pro-Israel politics—defended Jefferson, claiming that he is a true friend of Israel who was being unfairly defamed.

All these cases point to a very common pattern: whenever a Jewish organization charges a pro-government figure with anti-Semitism, right-wing leaders rush to his defense and dismiss the accusations. Typically they assert that the offending phrases were taken out of context and that the accused cannot be an anti-Semite because he is a Zionist. In their view, complaints of anti-Semitism are merely a way to smear Bolsonaro by portraying him as a Nazi, while covering for the left’s supposed monopoly on the hatred of Jews.

About one thing they are correct: there are indeed sectors of the Brazilian left that are very anti-Semitic, although they usually disguise their hatred of Jews as hatred of the Jewish state. They too are fond of demented Holocaust analogies, although these usually involve Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The leading offender is the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), whose website abounds with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist content, including, inter alia, an article accusing the former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres of genocide.

In February 2018, the party issued an official statement in which it claimed to reject anti-Semitism, while at the same time condemning Israel as an “apartheid state” and declaring its support for the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction it (BDS). Two months later, in a show of support for the violent demonstrations organized by Hamas along the Gaza border fence, PSOL released another statement calling for an even broader boycott of Israel, along with the usual accusations of “imperialism,” crimes against humanity, and so forth.

This rhetoric led the Israelite Federation of Rio de Janeiro to call on PSOL’s Jewish members to abandon the party, bringing public attention to a conflict within its ranks about attitudes toward Israel, which had been raging since at least 2014. On one side of this debate stood Jean Wyllys—a member of the Brazilian congress from 2011 to 2019, a leading gay-rights activist, and a major Bolsonaro nemesis—who has been an outspoken critic of leftwing anti-Semitism and a defender of Israel. Wyllys’s positions have attracted much condemnation from the American anti-Israel journalist Glenn Greenwald and from such PSOL politicians as Guilherme Boulos, who in November ran in the São Paulo mayoral race. During that race, Brazilian Jews denounced Boulos for his support for BDS, and Israel became a campaign issue despite its limited relevance to municipal affairs.

 

With anti-Semitism present on both ends of the political spectrum, and Israel becoming a live issue in Brazilian politics, figures on both sides of the aisle haven’t shied away from accusing their opponents, often justifiably, of anti-Semitism even when they or their close associates are by no means free of the same sin. Take the case of the quixotic Catholic philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, who is by far Brazil’s leading right-wing intellectual, and a close personal friend of Bolsonaro. Reportedly, it was at Olavo’s urging that Ernesto de Araújo became foreign minister.

Although Olavo denies being an anti-Semite, and his writings and public statements are free of explicit Semitism, he claims to believe that an international conspiracy of “globalist elites,” aligned with China and radical Islamists, seeks to destroy the Judeo-Christian West in order to achieve world domination. Israel, he argues, is a great ally in this battle. But Olavo’s theories are hardly distinguishable from those of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or other anti-Semitic fever dreams, except that he has merely replaced the word “Jew” with “globalist” and similar epithets. At the very least, these arguments fuel hatred of Jews within certain sectors of the right, where some can easily hear “globalist” and think “Jews.”

The same can be said of Olavo’s penchant for historical revisionism of, for instance, the Portuguese Inquisition, which relentlessly persecuted Brazilians of Jewish descent in the 17th and 18th centuries. Not only do such claims whitewash the history of anti-Semitism, but they are also apt to encourage or lend legitimacy to Holocaust denial. After all, if the history books “lie” about the persecution of Jews in colonial Brazil, why might it not be possible that they lie about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany as well?

Naturally, those on the left rush to condemn the proclamations of Olavo and his ideological allies, even as they remain silent over the anti-Israel fanaticism, or use of distorted Holocaust comparisons, within their own ranks. Sometimes BDS supporters themselves join in branding Olavo anti-Semitic. Thanks to the hypocrisy of these attacks, they are easily dismissed by conservatives—especially by Christian Zionists—who see in them yet more unjustified anti-Bolsonaro vitriol. The conservatives, meanwhile, rarely seem concerned about flirtations with anti-Semitism coming from their own movement.

The danger from the right perhaps can best be understand through a telling comment made by Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, who not coincidentally has ties to Bolsonaro and both admires and is admired by Olavo. In an interview with the American ethnographer Benjamin Teitelbaum, Bannon admitted that the brand of conservatism he and Olavo promote is “attracting racists and anti-Semites,” but, Bannon added confidently, “these elements are likely to disappear as the cause matures.” The American alt-right, which Bannon assiduously courted, indeed gravitated toward Trump while its anti-Semitism exerted negligible influence on either his administration or on his supporters in the Republican party.

In Brazil, however, what is happening contradicts Bannon’s expectations: anti-Semitism is becoming more normalized by the day, and is even making its headway among evangelical Christians, who tend to be relentlessly pro-Israel. Evangelicals’ political clout is significant, as they are one of the few remaining groups who still support Bolsonaro after his disastrous handling of the pandemic. Because of their reluctance to recognize the growth of anti-Semitism in their midst, and among Bolsonaro’s supporters, they are losing their credibility as allies of the Jews.

In short, Brazilian Jews find themselves without friends. Public figures are perfectly willing to condemn anti-Semitism, but only when it serves their own political purposes—and can be just as willing to employ anti-Semitism when it suits those purposes.

In such a situation, Jews and their defenders must strive with all their might to keep opposition to anti-Semitism from be exploited for the political agendas of the left or the right. The American Jewish journalist Bari Weiss put the problem bluntly in describing how liberal opinion responds to attacks on Jews:

When a Jew is harassed by a neo-Nazi, he counts. When a Jew is harassed by a person from another minority group, not so much. When a secular Jew is attacked, he counts. But when a Jew with a black hat is attacked, that’s ignored. If the story suits the narrative, it counts. If it undermines it, it doesn’t.

In Brazil, the same media outlets that vocally condemned anti-Semitic statements made by members and supporters of the Bolsonaro government didn’t pen a word, for instance, about the incident Weiss had in mind when writing these words: the brutal and religiously motivated murder of a French Jewish woman by a Muslim neighbor.

Brazilian Christians like myself, especially those among us who understand the horrifying consequences of hatred of the Jews, must be emphatic in not reserving our condemnations of anti-Semitism for those whose politics we oppose, and instead be especially zealous in condemning anti-Semitism from those with whom we are politically aligned. As a conservative, I confess that it is much easier for me to expose the hatred of Jews that I see in some sectors of the Brazilian left—usually packaged as criticism of Israel. I have realized, however, that the only way to be taken seriously on this issue by those on the left is to have the courage to decry the anti-Semitism of the far right as well.

At the same time, Jews and their leftist allies cannot afford to raise their voices only when Jews are attacked by neo-Nazis. It is also necessary to condemn, for example, supposedly anti-racist movements that equate Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians with South African apartheid.

Achieving this consistency is not easy, and can have painful social and professional consequences. But that is the price we need to pay if we are serious about combatting the scourge of anti-Semitism. Throughout history, every society transfixed by the hatred of Jews has become only more brutal and distorted. It is an evil that harms the Jews and their oppressors alike. For Brazil’s sake, and not only for Brazil’s sake, it needs to be fought, and fought with vigor.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Brazil, Coronavirus, Jewish World, Politics & Current Affairs, The Jewish World