Letter to the editor

Letter to the editor from Brazil’s foreign minister

Ernesto Araujo says his criticism of a shocking new book has been unjustly condemned, and that he was censuring the controversial author’s ‘Holocaust-banalizing remarks’

Dear Sir,

I have the pleasure to address you in reference to a piece entitled “Brazilian foreign minister compares social distancing to concentration camps”, which was published by The Times of Israel on April 28.

Unfortunately, the piece is based on a misreading of an article I wrote and published on April 21 on my personal blog. My article was a severe criticism of the book Virus, by Slavoj Zizek, just published in Italian by Ponte alle Grazie, Milan.

Zizek’s book argues that a form of communism will emerge out of the coronavirus crisis, a society of total control over the individual, based on the principle “discipline and punish”, where countries are subjected to the authority of global entities – a vision I abhor.

Maybe the most shocking passage of Zizek’s book, as I pointed out in my article, is where he states: Arbeit macht frei is still the correct motto. (In the original Italian: Arbeit macht frei è ancora il motto giusto.)

This statement deeply shocked me, as Zizek references in a positive way a phrase which became a symbol of the Holocaust. Although he goes on to say that the Nazis “made bad use of it”, the formulation he employs – “is still the correct motto” (è ancora il motto giusto) – is particularly outrageous, since it clearly implies that the motto was correct when it was placed on the gates of Auschwitz.

Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

I commented on this statement by Zizek with repulsion for his insensitiveness and unashamed anti-semitic tone. Allow me to recall that accusations of antisemitism against Zizek have already been reported by the Times of Israel itself in an article entitled “British paper publishes op-ed calling settlements ‘the trouble with Jews’,” on December 4, 2019.

I tried to argue that the new communist world which Zizek envisages as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis will be, in his own mind, a “concentration camp”. Although Zizek did not use that expression, he obviously brought the idea of concentration camps to the discussion of the current crisis and of the post-coronavirus world, when he quoted the motto of Auschwitz with approbation.

I never compared the current social distancing policies to concentration camps. My criticism is directed at the sort of communist new world that Zizek envisages, the world which he “roots for,” a world where, according to his own expression, “Arbeit Macht Frei is still the correct motto.”

I regret to see that my denouncement of Zizek’s antisemitic remarks and his use of Holocaust imagery was ignored, and that, instead, I was criticized in the Times because I used the expression “concentration camp” when denouncing Zizek’s vision. I pointed at Zizek to show his antisemitic, Holocaust-banalizing remarks, but the article in the Times of Israel blamed my finger. I believe that the just indignation caused by an out-of-context reference to concentration camps should be directed at Zizek, not at me.

Indeed, I am deeply convinced that the experience faced by the Jewish people in the Holocaust is tragically unique, and that any reference to any aspect of the Holocaust out of its context – as the one made by Zizek – is offensive to Jews and to all people of goodwill around the world.

Please allow me to state that, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, I have been, since the beginning of my term sixteen months ago, deeply committed to fighting antisemitism and to building an unprecedented relation of friendship between Brazil and Israel, following President Jair Bolsonaro’s firm guidance, as many of my initiatives at the helm of Brazil’s foreign policy clearly show: the President’s historic visit to Israel; the change of Brazil’s voting pattern in the United Nations; the opening of a trade office in Jerusalem and the work towards the transfer of the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the stern condemnation of terrorism on the occasion of the killing of Suleimani; the denouncement of the antisemitism which is hidden behind anti-Zionism; as well as the support for the plan for peace and prosperity to address the Israeli Palestinian conflict on the basis of recognizing Israel’s unalienable right to live in peace and security as a Jewish state.

I am convinced that, through all these actions, I have contributed to the fight against antisemitism, as I also tried to do through my criticism of Salvoy Zizek’s book. I am firmly committed to continue to foster Brazil’s friendship with Israel and with the Jewish people.

Yours sincerely,
Ernesto Araujo,
Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Brasilia, Brazil

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