No Bolsonaro, visiting Yad Vashem doesn’t make you a ‘friend of the Jews’

Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Israel this week is just the latest step in Netanyahu’s warming relations with a new cadre of authoritarian leaders. 

By Sergio Storch

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, April 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, April 2, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s four-day visit to Israel demonstrates just how important the South American country has become to Netanyahu over the past few years.

The trip includes a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s renowned Holocaust museum, which commemorates one of the worst tragedies in history and sets out to ensure that genocide remains a thing of the past. For many, Yad Vashem serves as an inspiring example of how crucial collective memories are for strengthening both the identities and coping mechanisms of groups who have suffered violent persecution.

And yet, the meaning of a visit to Yad Vashem takes a different tone when the guest of honor represents hatred, oppression, and the devaluation of life. Netanyahu didn’t seem to worry about this when he brings Bolsonaro to the museum. After all, it is not the first time Netanyahu has invited a far-right nationalist leader to Yad Vashem; leaders of Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines — all of them known for their extremist policies and rhetoric — have also visited the museum alongside the Israeli prime minister.

Boslsonaro’s visit comes on the heels of his infamous “anti-crime package,” which increases sentences for serious crimes such as robbery, corruption, and embezzlement, and incorporates Bolsonaro’s campaign promise to back police officers who open fire at suspected criminals deemed dangerous by security forces. Brazilian human rights NGOs have labeled the package a “fake solution” that would only increase violence — as well as incarceration rates — among Brazil’s poor.

Netanyahu is no fool. On the eve of Israeli elections, by appearing with Bolsonaro at Yad Vashem he can sell the image of the leader of a 200 million-strong country ostensibly honoring Jewish suffering. But the visit goes beyond simple political calculus: Bolsonaro is just another leader being used in Netanyahu’s attempt to rewrite history and use the Holocaust as an attempt to justify Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem’s Old City, April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a visit to the Western Wall, Jerusalem’s Old City, April 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In turn, these heads of state receive the prime minister’s blessing, and a defense against charges of anti-Semitism, despite their hatred for various other minority groups, whether Muslim refugees, African migrants, Mexicans, or indigenous people. Visiting Yad Vashem washes these leaders of their guilt, even as their governments continue to dabble in anti-Semitism, as is the case in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has dabbled in historical revisionism when it comes to the role of both the Poles and the Palestinians in the Holocaust.

The turn toward authoritarian leaders, and their visits to Yad Vashem, are part of Netanyahu’s attempt to create an equivalency between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. By visiting the museum, Netanyahu’s new allies prove they are Israel’s friends, thus reinforcing Netanyahu’s thesis. Brazilian Jews who supported Bolosonaro during the country’s elections last year did so based on the fabricated idea that he is a “friend of the Jews” — a notion that will only be bolstered by his visit to the museum.

Taken in its broadest meaning, Bolsonaro’s visit to Yad Vashem is another brick in the worldwide construction of a big lie in which Israelis and Brazilian Jews are duped into believing that an alliance of extremists is somehow in their best interest. And although Jewish communal leaders in Brazil have, in varying degrees, supported this doomed alliance, there is still a possibility for change. It is crucial that all those dedicated to human rights, democracy, and justice distance themselves from both the hubris of the Israeli government, and the authoritarian leaders who give it the backing Netanyahu so desperately needs.

Sergio Storch is a human rights activist in Brazil and a member of the Mazkirut Olami of J-AMLAT, an organization of Progressive Jews in Latin America countries and Latin Americans living in Israel. A version of this article was first published in Portuguese on Brasil 247.