Brazil's Presidential pre-candidate and conservative lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, speaks during a meeting of the "In Defense of Muncipalities" congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
AP/Eraldo Peres
Diaspora diplomacyPresidential favorite Bolsonaro backs 'our Israeli brethren'

As evangelicals bid to move embassy, ‘Brazil’s Trump’ says he will if elected

At parliamentary event feting Israel’s 70th birthday, Christian conservatives propose to join Latin American countries relocating embassies to Jerusalem; Brazil’s Jews are torn

AP/Eraldo Peres

With considerable fanfare, a small number of Latin American countries have followed the example of United States President Donald Trump and are transferring their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Guatemala and Paraguay moved their missions to Jerusalem in recent days with public celebrations. Honduras has promised to follow.

At the same time, nearly unnoticed, a session in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, organized by the Evangelical Parliamentary Front — a conservative faith-based congressional caucus — paid homage to the 70th anniversary of “the Rebirth and Declaration of the State of Israel.”

At the event last week, the organizer, deputy Roberto de Lucena, took the microphone and announced that he had sent a letter to Brazilian president Michel Temer requesting that Brazil join the growing cadre of countries moving their embassies to Jerusalem.

According to Lucena, Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelley, was surprised by the announcement.

“In fact, he was informed [about the request] at the same time that everybody learned about it during my speech,” Lucena told The Times of Israel via telephone.

“Of course, the ambassador was pleasantly surprised,” added the evangelical deputy.

Lucena said that every state should have the right to choose the location of its capital, and Israel should not be any different.

Brazilian congressmen pose for a photo with Israeli ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelley, second from right, at a session honoring Israel’s 70th birthday, May 17, 2018. (Chamber of Deputies)

“Ninety percent of the Brazilian population is made up of Christians, people who have a [strong] bond with Israel. If the government were to make a referendum, a large number of Brazilians would vote to move the embassy to Jerusalem due to this connection, which is more spiritual than political,” said the legislator.

Lucena’s proposal garnered support from religious leaders present at the congressional session, mainly from Evangelical and Jewish movements, as well as parliamentary authorities.

A session on the floor of Brazil’s congress on May 17, 2018, honored Israel’s 70th birthday. (Chamber of Deputies)

In the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, a committee focused on Brazil-Israel relations is heard from often, and boasts a membership of 46 congressmen.

“It is time for Brazil to position itself and transfer its embassy to Jerusalem because Brazil is the country with the most descendants of Jews on the planet,” said local Rabbi Gilberto Ventura at the Israeli Independence Day  event.

Paulo de Tarso, a representative of the Brazilian Apostolic Council, which represents a major religious denomination in Brazil, said he was happy to see deputies from the Evangelical front and leaders of various Christian and Jewish segments “defending the recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel and the move of the [Brazilian] embassy there.”

Evangelical Parliamentary Front deputy Roberto de Lucena. (Chamber of Deputies)

Online support

In addition to the support shown in the recent congressional session, online petitions are popping up in social media and websites from different Evangelical and Jewish movements.

On his Facebook page, Pastor Joel Angel requests that his followers sign his public petition to sway the Brazilian government to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem. The Brazil-Israel Zionist Association (ASBI) has started a similar online petition.

Together, both lists total around 5,000 signatures, representing a very small margin in a country with more than 210 million people. The last official census released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 showed that nearly 90 percent of Brazilians are Christian (Roman Catholics represent 65% and Protestants 22.4%). Jews and Muslims fell among the 2.7% of the population designated “other religions.”

Political analysts observe that much of the support Israel receives in Brazil today comes from Protestant believers.

Evangelical deputy Roberto de Lucena speaks at an Evangelical church. (Brazilian Chamber of Deputies)

Marta F. Topel, a researcher and professor of Jewish Studies at the University of São Paulo, believes this social phenomenon is similar to that of the US, where many Evangelicals have consistently supported Israel over the years and backed Trump’s embassy move to Jerusalem.

Topel does not find it surprising that these groups are doing the same in Brazil.

“In their eschatology, the creation of the State of Israel, the unification of Jerusalem and its recognition as the capital, the reconstruction of the Third Temple… For them, all these will accelerate the return of Jesus,” explained Topel over the phone.

Topel pointed out that members of the Jewish community in Brazil hold a wide variety of political opinions, as in any other country. As a Jewish Brazilian citizen, Topel admits that she herself is not fond of the Evangelical group in Brazil’s congress due to their conservative voting patterns, which are often anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights.

“The Evangelical group in Brazil has been pejoratively nicknamed B.B.B., which stands for Bible, bullets and bull,” said Topel.

Besides displaying a religious dogmatism, some Evangelical deputies support relaxed gun control laws and corporate farming interests. Topel believes that transferring the embassy to Jerusalem at the moment is a symbolic provocative act that benefits nobody.

Evangelical deputy Roberto de Lucena holds the Israeli flag during a solemn session on the floor of the Brazilian congress honoring Israel’s 70th birthday, May 17, 2018. (Brazilian Chamber of Deputies)

“The transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem should have been delayed until the important problems have been solved, especially the status of Jerusalem in the context of a two-state solution or another arrangement related to the city, and approved and legitimated by both Israel and the Palestinians,” said Topel.

The ‘Brazilian Trump’

This October, Brazilians will choose a new president.

With former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in jail and currently out of the presidential race, recent polls by CNT/MDA released on May 14 showed deputy Jair Bolsonaro (also belonging to the Evangelical Front) in the lead.

Brazil’s Presidential pre-candidate and conservative lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro, speaks during a meeting of the “In Defense of Muncipalities” congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Bolsonaro was polling at 18.3%, followed by former senator Marina Silva at 11.2%; and the former minister Ciro Gomes with 9%.

Bolsonaro is an ultra-conservative right-wing candidate who is often compared to Trump in Brazil. If elected, the Brazilian deputy promised to follow in Trump’s footsteps and move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem.

“This, in my opinion, reinforces what our brethren in Israel have a right to — their [own] territory,” declared Bolsonaro in an interview with the Terça Livre website.

Israeli ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelley, left, speaking with Roberto de Lucena, center, and another Brazilian congressmen at a session honoring Israel’s 70th birthday, May 17, 2018. (Chamber of Deputies)

Last April, the Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB) said that the Jewish community was confused and divided after Bolsonaro gave a speech in the Club Hebraica in Rio de Janeiro during which he made pejorative statements about black and indigenous people, women, gays, refugees and members of NGOs. He also claimed that every Brazilian should have the right to possess a gun at home.

Last week, CONIB president Fernando Lottenberg said in an interview that some in the community support Bolsonaro, but certainly not the majority.

“CONIB is not partisan; we will not support candidate A, B or C,” Lottenberg added.

In an interview with BBC Brazil, political scientist Samuel Feldberg said he does not see Bolsonaro being elected president.

Feldberg points out, however, that the evangelical sector plays an important role in the country and may influence Brazilian diplomatic policy.

For Brazilian diplomat and professor Paulo Roberto de Almeida, religious factors should not exert pressure on the Brazilian state, specifically in regards to its foreign policy. Almeida said one example of this is the issue of the placement of Brazil’s embassy, and the recognition of Jerusalem as the “true capital” of Israel, despite the city having a special status by the majority of UN member states.

“Brazil is proud to have been a sponsor of the creation of the State of Israel in the famous 1947 UN partition vote, predicting the creation of a Palestinian state and the ‘neutralization’ of Jerusalem as a common city to various faiths,” Almeida  wrote The Times of Israel via email. “Such interference on public policy would be… unconstitutional and extremely controversial on the diplomatic plane.”

Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelley, was present at a solemn session on the floor of Brazil’s congress on May 17, 2018, honored Israel’s 70th birthday. (Chamber of Deputies)

The professional diplomat explains Brazil would gain nothing as a global diplomatic player for supporting the embassy transference to Jerusalem.

“It would do nothing to consolidate Brazil’s role as an impartial partner of all actors and protagonists of Middle Eastern dramas when its traditional stance has been precisely to ‘export’ calls for dialogue and a peaceful solution to political and diplomatic controversies,” said Almeida.

Besides, he said, “importing the controversy” could complicate daily life inside Brazil, “a country that traditionally receives immigrants of all creeds and racial origins.”

The ‘Jerusalem Plan’

In the 1960s Israeli diplomats embarked on an organized effort to convince countries to transfer their embassies to Jerusalem.

The strategy was called the “Jerusalem Plan,” according to new research released this spring by Jonathan Grossman, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Israel Studies of the University of Texas at Austin.

“During the 1960s, 10 out of 14 Latin American countries had their embassies in Jerusalem. The problem was with the ‘Big Three’ — Brazil, Argentina and Mexico — that remained in Tel Aviv. Israel hoped that if they convinced one of them, other countries would follow. And Brazil was not only the biggest country in Latin America, but the biggest Catholic country in the world,” Grossman told The Times of Israel over the phone.

The Brazilian house of congress. (Brazilian Chamber of Deputies)

Grossman’s study indicates communications and telegrams were exchanged in 1963 affirming that left-wing Brazilian president João Goulart was ready to agree with the embassy move to Jerusalem, but faced strong opposition within the professional diplomats of Itamaraty Palace.

“Basically they were right, because Brazil would get nothing. Israel was giving technical assistance that Brazil really valued in agricultural projects. It was all nice, but small scale. If Brazil would accept the transfer of the embassy, they would risk confronting the Arab world, the Arab diaspora inside Brazil, many Third World countries, besides upsetting the Catholic Church,” explained Grossman.

In his essay, Grossman highlights how the Jewish Diaspora in Brazil exerted considerable influence over their government, acting as “unofficial diplomats… who could legitimately promote and negotiate Israeli interests to their government with the latter’s consent.”

This time, the Evangelical groups seem to be taking their own initiative. Israeli diplomats now have little need to lobby themselves.

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