The new right-wing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is a staunch supporter of Israel who once said, “My heart is green, yellow, blue and white,” referring to the Brazilian and Israeli flags. Bolsonaro won 53% of the vote in the general election; his chief rival, far-left Fernando Hadad, won 42% of the vote.
When Bolsonaro gave his acceptance speech on Sunday, broadcast from his home, there was a Jewish menorah in the background. Bolsonaro’s middle name, Messias, literally means “messiah.”
Bolsonaro has said he will move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv; he has also said his first international trip will be to visit Israel. In addition, he has vowed to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia. He said recently, “Is Palestine a country? Palestine is not a country, so there should be no embassy here. You do not negotiate with terrorists.”
Brazil’s former president, Dilma Rouseff, who was impeached, hated Israel; in 2014, the Brazilian government recalled its ambassador to Israel when Hamas went to war with Israel; a former special adviser to Rouseff called the IDF actions during the war a “massacre.”
Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, told JTA, “Bolsonaro stood out among the many candidates for including the State of Israel in the major speeches he made during the campaign. He is a lover of the people and the State of Israel.”
After Bolsonaro was stabbed and seriously injured on September 6, he declined treatment at the Syrian-Lebanese Hospital and chose to be treated at a Jewish hospital in Sao Paulo.
JTA reports, “His three sons, also politicians, have been photographed wearing T-shirts with messages in Hebrew.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Bolsonaro on the phone Monday and congratulated him on winning the election, adding, "I am confident that your election will lead to a great friendship between the two peoples and to the strengthening of ties between Brazil and Israel. We await your visit to Israel.”
Professor Arie Kacowicz, an expert on Latin America from the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted the change in Brazilian leadership this way:
In the past few years relations between Brazil and Israel have not been particularly good, including the crisis surrounding their refusal to accept the appointment of Dani Dayan as ambassador. The election of Bolsonaro, who belongs to the Evangelical stream and who declared during the election campaign that Israel would be the first country he visits as president and that he will move the embassy to Jerusalem, marks a dramatic turnaround. Brazil has a multilateral foreign policy and close relations with Iran and the Arab states. We will have to wait and see if he actually keeps his election promises.
Jews first arrived in Brazil after fleeing Portugal when the Spanish Inquisition reached there in the 16th century. The first synagogue in the Americas was built in Recife in 1636. The number of Jews rose when Moroccan Jews arrived in the 19th century, followed by Russian and Polish Jews fleeing the pogroms of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the 1930’s Jews fleeing Nazi Germany arrived; North African Jews came in the 1950’s.
Brazil now has the ninth largest Jewish community in the world. In 1989, the Brazilian Senate passed a law prohibiting the manufacture, trade and distribution of swastikas for the purpose of disseminating Nazism; someone violating the law can serve a prison term for between two and five years.