Brazilian Jews criticize waving of Israeli flags at ‘anti-democratic’ protests

Local leaders say blue and white banners at pro-Bolsonaro rallies against virus restrictions and Supreme Court send wrong message about Jewish community’s pluralist nature

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

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, right, embraces his daughter as supporters hold Israeli, American and Brazilian flags, during a protest against his former Minister of Justice Sergio Moro and the Supreme Court, in front of the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, right, embraces his daughter as supporters hold Israeli, American and Brazilian flags, during a protest against his former Minister of Justice Sergio Moro and the Supreme Court, in front of the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

It rarely happens that the head of a Jewish community in the Diaspora speaks out against the waving of Israeli flags in public. But this is exactly what happened on Monday in Brazil, where demonstrators angry at coronavirus-related restrictions have protested against the country’s Supreme Court and called for the return of laws from the days of the military dictatorship era.

The Israeli blue and white banner has regularly been displayed at such rallies, alongside the Brazilian and US flags.

“The Brazilian Jewish community is pluralistic. There are Jews in every field of the political spectrum, from right to left, from the center, supporters and opponents of the government,” Fernando Lottenberg, the president of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, also known by its Portuguese acronym Conib, said in a statement.

“Among Israel’s supporters, too, there is great diversity. The constant use of Israeli flags, in demonstrations like those of yesterday, can send a wrong message about the pluralist composition of the Brazilian Jewish community and mistakenly represent our position in relation to the agenda of the protesters and the government,” he went on.

“Conib has a firm commitment to democracy and public freedoms and regrets the presence of Israeli flags, a vibrant democracy, in acts in which attacks on democratic institutions occur.”

On Sunday, Bolsonaro joined a large demonstration in which mostly evangelical protesters aired their frustrations with social distancing rules imposed to stem the coronavirus pandemic, attacked the Supreme Court and expressed other grievances. Some denounced Bolsonaro’s former justice minister, who quit earlier this year accusing the president of meddling. Others called for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 to be reinstated.

Supporters of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro shout slogans during a protest against his former Minister of Justice Sergio Moro and the Supreme Court, in front of the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo / Eraldo Peres)

Held in front of the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Bolsonaro was seen next to giant flags, including that of the State of Israel.

It wasn’t the first time the controversial right-wing leader has participated in rallies during which his supporters, mostly evangelicals, shouted slogans against the country’s Supreme Court and parliament, which are considered opposed to Bolsonaro’s campaign against the measures to halt the virus.

On April 19, for instance, Bolsonaro — a strong supporter of Israel — joined what the Guardian newspaper termed a “pro-dictatorship rally.”

At the time, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso condemned the president for joining the “anti-democratic protests.”

Other Brazilian Jewish groups this week spoke out against the phenomenon as well. “The flag of Israel in a demonstration against democracy does not represent Jewish values,” said the dovish Jews for Democracy group.

The Israel-Brazil Institute decried the flying of Israeli flags at these rallies as akin to “burning” it, noting at the same time that the same flags were also present during various left-wing demonstrations against the current government.

Importantíssimo posicionamento da Confederação Israelita do Brasil – CONIB. A comunidade judaica brasileira é…

Posted by Judeus pela Democracia on Monday, May 4, 2020

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment for this article. Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Yossi Shelley, did not respond to a Times of Israel query about the matter. On Monday, he shared a post on social media that was supportive of the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators.

In private conversations, some Israeli diplomats said they were unhappy about the flags, which evangelical Bolsonaro supporters have been waving at demonstrations across the country, saying they could turn Israel into a partisan issue.

A supporter of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro attends a protest against former Minister of Justice Sergio Moro and the Supreme Court, in front of the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

“Many opponents of Bolsonaro see the flag and associate the Jewish community and the Jewish state as partners and strong supporters of the president,” Conib head Lottenberg told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“We cannot define who may or may not take Israeli flags [during] their demonstrations. What we and many other Jewish organizations are saying is that the flag is a symbol of the Jewish nation and the Jewish people, and that many of us have very different views and strongly disagree with the demonstrators’ agenda, particularly when they promote anti-democratic actions as was the case last Sunday.”

There have long been tensions between the Israeli Embassy in Brasilia and Conib, which was founded in 1948 and “supports the State of Israel, the Zionist movement and the Middle East peace dialogue,” according to its website.

Conib, which represents Brazil’s 120,000 Jews, strives to be nonpartisan, while Ambassador Shelly — a political appointee — has been very clear in his support for Bolsonaro and his right-wing agenda.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (L) awards the National Order of the Southern Cross, the country’s highest national honor for high-ranking guests, to Israel’s ambassador in Brasilia Yossi Shelley on May 7, 2019 (Screencapture/YouTube)

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.

As of Tuesday, Brazil counted more than 108,000 coronavirus cases, and 7,367 deaths. But Bolsonaro has long dismissed the disease as a “little flu,” arguing against quarantines and shutdowns instated by state governors and backed by the judiciary.

The governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the states hardest hit by the virus, have banned public gatherings, closed schools and businesses and called for strict social distancing. Both are Bolsonaro critics and possible contenders in the 2022 presidential race.

AP contributed to this report.

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