'You can’t come to a country and say we’re smarter than you'

As Netanyahu returns from Brazil, local Jews feel sidelined

Leader of country’s Jewish confederation was ignored at event for the community; veteran Zionist activist says PM’s speech was ‘arrogant’ and could inspire anti-Semitism

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) are pictured upon arrival at a synagogue in the Copacabana neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 28, 2018. (Leo CORREA / POOL / AFP)
Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) are pictured upon arrival at a synagogue in the Copacabana neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 28, 2018. (Leo CORREA / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Brazil may have been a diplomatic success, but it left the leaders of the country’s Jewish community angry, they said, as they feel they were sidelined and denigrated by the Israeli embassy in Brasilia.

Most of their complaints relate to an event for the local Jewish community Netanyahu hosted Sunday in his Rio de Janeiro hotel. The master of ceremonies ignored the presence of the president of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, Fernando Lottenberg, and other senior officials from various regional federations who were present. Instead, Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, was asked to speak on behalf of the community.

“That was very divisive,” Lottenberg told The Times of Israel during a telephone interview earlier this week.

Founded in 1948, the Jewish Confederation of Brazil — known by its Portuguese acronym Conib — is “in charge of the political representation and coordination of the Brazilian Jewish community whose population is estimated at 120,000 people,” according to its website. Fourteen regional federations are affiliated to the institution.

Lottenberg, who has headed Conib since 2014, said Israel’s ambassador in Brasilia, Yossi Shelley, was responsible for the event, accusing him of deliberately sidelining him and the organization he leads.

Fernando Lottenberg at an event where PM Netanyahu addresses the Jewish community, Rio de Janeiro, December 30, 2018 (Facebook)

“They are embarrassing us. They don’t invite us, they don’t let us speak, they don’t mention us. They are denigrating us. It’s almost as if we were not there,” he said, referring to Sunday’s event.

“It’s sad. It could have been a great day for everyone.”

Veteran Rio-based pro-Israel activist Patricia Tolmasquim called the embassy’s snub of Lottenberg and other regional leaders a “big diplomatic gaffe,” agreeing that Wurman — a wealthy businessman and journalist close to Shelley — was not the right person to represent the community.

“This was a chutzpah. A big chutzpah. The head of Conib, who really is the head of the Jewish community, was sitting there in the first row. He was vacationing in Uruguay and flew in especially for this event,” she said.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Jewish leaders in Rio de Janeiro on December 30, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

In his Speech Sunday, Wurman praised Shelley as the best Israeli ambassador ever to serve in Brazil, but otherwise said nothing that had anything to do with the country’s Jewish community, Tolmasquim charged.

“Had his speech at least represented us, it would have been OK — still a gaffe, but not a big one,” she said.

Osias Wurman (Facebook)

Wurman, who is a staunch supporter of Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro, accompanied Shelley when he visited the president-elect a few weeks ago.

“The community has a thousand problems, with various institutions and inter-communal relations and the political polarization, and making sure there is peace within the community, and Fernando Lottenberg deals with all of this,” Tolmasquim said.

“For the ambassador to invite someone from within the embassy to speak on behalf of the community, besides being a very big diplomatic gaffe, he’s also hurting the community itself. And that’s not okay. That need to be fixed.”

Com o embaixador de Israel, Yossi Shelley na recepção ao Primeiro Ministro De Israel Sr. Benjamin Netanyahu.

Posted by Patricia Tolmasquim on Sunday, December 30, 2018

According to various sources who spoke with The Times of Israel in recent days, the bitter blood between Conib and the Israeli Embassy in Brasilia goes back to 2015, when the Brazilian government refused to accept former settler leader Dani Dayan (now consul-general in New York) as Israel’s ambassador.

Some in Jerusalem believed that Lottenberg did not speak up for Dayan, arguing that he could have made clear to the Brazilian authorities that rejecting Israel’s choice would have negative consequences.

Lottenberg insists that he made great behind-the-scenes efforts to mediate between Jerusalem and Brasilia at the time.

Other sources, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, pointed to a personal vendetta between Lottenberg and Shelley, as the latter was angry that he was not ask to speak at the gala dinner of Conib’s annual convention in late November (Lottenberg says he offered Shelley to speak at another occasion at the convention).

Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, exit after a visit to the Kehilat Yaacov synagogue, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 28, 2018. (Leo Correa/Pool Photo via AP)

Shelley may also have chosen Wurman to speak at the event because he wanted to honor a vocal Bolsonaro supporter, while Conib avoided making any political statements before or after last year’s election.

“We are nonpartisan,” Lottenberg told The Times of Israel this week. “We don’t support or reject governments — we work with governments, with all governments, regardless of who they are.”

Brazilian Jews have been largely split in their views of Bolsonaro. Some hailed the fact that after several socialist governments an unapologetic right-winger with unabashed pro-Israel views has come to power, while others are wary of his pro-gun positions, his support for the country’s former military dictatorship and his populist rhetoric, including slurs against gays and women.

Wurman, who in the past has served as Conib’s vice president and as president of the Jewish federation of Rio, did not respond to a Times of Israel query.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment for this article.

Netanyahu’s six-day visit to Latin America’s largest and most populous nation — the first-ever to the country by an Israeli prime minister — can be seen as a diplomatic success, as he deepened political and economic ties with Bolsonaro’s new government.

Bolsonaro has promised to support the Jewish state in international forums and to move his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the honor Netanyahu has granted him by being the only leader from the region to attend his inauguration is likely to further strengthen the far-right leader’s pro-Israel leanings. Indeed, one of the first things Bolsonaro did after concluding his maiden speech on Tuesday was to hug Netanyahu.

Brazil’s newly sworn-in President Jair Bolsonaro (C) greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), during his inauguration ceremony, at the National Congress in Brasilia on January 1, 2019. (Nelson Almeida/AFP)

On Tuesday, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters cheered the Israeli prime minister, as he and his wife made their way to the inauguration.

“This is a great day for Brazil, and for the Israel-Brazil alliance,” Netanyahu told local reporters as he entered the Brazilian Foreign Ministry for a reception. “We discussed all areas for the benefits of the people of Israel and Brazil. It’s a new era.”

Netanyahu was also warmly welcomed Friday afternoon at Rio’s Copacabana Synagogue, with some attendees shouting “Bibi, Bibi,” using the prime minister’s nickname.

But at least parts of the Jewish leadership were disappointed with the speech he delivered to members of the community Sunday at his hotel.

“We expected that he would say a few words to the community, how important it is that the community is organized and how important it is that we support Israel. A few words about how we deal with anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and thanking us for sending delegations to Israel. But there was nothing,” complained Tolmasquim, a senior official at Brazil’s B’nai B’rith organization and an elected member of the Zionist General Council.

“Instead, he showed us a PowerPoint presentation that started with a cow. And he asked us: Which cow gives the most milk in the world? The Israeli cow,” she said derisively.

“He confused the Jewish community and the embassy’s interests,” Tolmasquim went on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Rio de Janeiro attend an event with Brazilian Jewish community leaders, December 30, 2018 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

According to a transcript of Netanyahu’s speech, he did address the community directly, calling local Jews “ambassadors” of the Brazilian-Israeli friendship.

“There is a special warmth that the Jewish community of Brazil feels for Israel. They are proud of Brazil and they love Brazil. They’re proud of Israel and they love Israel. And they are a wonderful bridge between our two countries. We feel that there is a tremendous empathy,” he said. “I view Israel as the home of all Jews. All Jews should feel welcome in Israel. All of you are welcome in Israel.”

Tolmasquim said she was “proud” of Netanyahu’s visit to Brazil and recognized that it was “very successful.” She also welcomed the effort to promote commercial ties, but lamented that his speech, in which he spoke at great length about Israel’s technological prowess, was “arrogant” and could possibly inspire anti-Jewish sentiments.

“It was very disrespectful for Brazilians. I don’t think he intended it, but it sounded somewhat arrogant [as if] Israel is the savior of Brazil,” she said.

“The Brazilians are sitting here like idiots and Israel is bringing them technology and wisdom. It’s simply not true and not fair. You can’t come to a country and say, we’re smarter than you, and we’re coming with our intelligence and will save you. Brazil is a developed country,” he said.

The local Jewish community fears that such speeches could “lead to anti-Semitism,” she warned. “Why can’t you simply say that we will work together with your government? Use simple language of cooperation, without saying we’re the best in the world.”

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