Rejecting criticism, Bolsonaro says Holocaust forgiveness comments misunderstood

In comments posted by Israeli ambassador, Brazilian president says misinterpreting remarks is ‘in interest of those who want to push me away from my Jewish friends’

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a meeting with evangelical leaders at the Hilton Barra Hotel, in Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on April 11, 2019. (Mauro Pimentel / AFP)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a meeting with evangelical leaders at the Hilton Barra Hotel, in Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on April 11, 2019. (Mauro Pimentel / AFP)

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro attempted to curb criticism over his comments that the Holocaust could be forgiven Saturday, saying that his words were being misinterpreted.

Bolsonaro on Thursday told a group of evangelical pastors in Rio de Janiero that “We can forgive, but we cannot forget. That quote is mine. Those that forget their past are sentenced not to have a future.”

The comments, made days after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem, drew criticism from the institution as well as others in Israel, including President Reuven Rivlin.

In a clarification posted by Israel’s ambassador to Brazil Yossi Shelley late Saturday, Bolsonaro blamed “those who want to push me away from my Jewish friends,” for taking his speech out of context.

“To the people of Israel I wrote in the guestbook of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem: ‘Those who forget their past are doomed to not have a future’ Therefore, any other interpretation is only in the interest of those who want to push me away from my jewish friends. Forgiveness is something personal, my speech was never meant to be used in a historical context, especially one where millions of innocent people were murdered in a cruel genocide,” he was quoted as writing by Shelley.

The comments were also posted by Shelley in Hebrew and Portuguese. He said he asked the president to clarify his remarks because they were being taken out of context.

“I hope this way everything will be put in its proper place regarding a subject so important and sensitive for our people Israel,” Shelley wrote.

חברות וחברים יקרים שבוע טוב , לפני מספר שעות פרסמתי תגובה שלי לדבריו של נשיא ברזיל בכנס של ראשי הקהילה האוונגלים , מאחר…

Posted by Embaixador Yossi Shelley on Saturday, April 13, 2019

Bolsonaro’s clarification was not posted by any of his own social media accounts or on his official government site. Instead a video about Israeli water technology was put up.

Shelley had earlier defended Bolsonaro, writing on Facebook that “His words made clear his complete repudiation of the greatest genocide in history, which was the Holocaust. At no point in his speech did the president show disrespect or indifference to Jewish suffering.”

He added that “those who wish to arouse suspicion on the words of a great friend of the people and government of Israel will not succeed.”

Many in Israel, though, rebuked Bolsonaro for the comments.

“It is not the place of any person to determine whether the crimes of the Holocaust can be forgiven,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.

“We will never forgive and never forget. No one will order the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and it can never be bought in the name of interests,” Rivlin said later Saturday.

Bolsonaro, a combative conservative who has drawn comparisons to US President Donald Trump, has sought to forge close ties with Israel. Many of his evangelical supporters are vociferous backers of Zionism.

He visited Israel earlier this month, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others, in a sign of growing ties between Jerusalem and Brasilia.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro during a visit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The visit included a wreath-laying at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem alongside Netanyahu, during which the Brazilian leader labeled Nazism a leftist ideology, a claim rejected by historians.

The far-right leader was asked on his visit to Israel if he agreed with the claim by his foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, that Nazis were leftists. “There is no doubt, right?” Bolsonaro replied, according to Reuters.

It is widely accepted that Nazism was a far-right movement. Yad Vashem’s website says that a range of factors, including Germany’s defeat in World War I, “created fertile soil for the growth of radical right-wing groups in Germany, spawning entities such as the Nazi Party.”

Netanyahu, who traveled to Brazil earlier in the year for Bolsanaro’s inauguration,  has eagerly embraced the new Brazilian leader.

JTA contributed to this report.

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