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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg June 16, 2018

Jews, Zionism and the Left in Brazil: Echoes of a Relationship

  • Michel Gherman EMAIL logo


During considerable part of the twentieth century, the contacts between left-wing groups and the Jews in Brazil were relatively positive and amicable. In certain way, it could be found a kind of a symbiosis between sectors of the Jewish community and some groups of the Brazilian left. At present times, in contrast, any description of the interaction between Jewish organizations (especially Zionist ones) and Brazilian left-wing groups inevitably mentions political tensions and mutual accusations. In the last years suspicion, conflict, and a lack of dialogue have characterized the relations between a segments of the Brazilian Jewish population and some left-wing groups. This article intends to discuss and analyze the changes and processes through which the Brazilian Jews and some Left-wing Brazilian groups have passed.


During the twentieth century, the contacts between left-wing groups and the Jews in Brazil (including left-wing Zionist groups) were relatively amicable. At present, in contrast, any description of the interaction between Jewish organizations (especially Zionist ones) and Brazilian left-wing groups inevitably mentions political tensions and mutual accusations.

From 2000 to 2017, (the second intifada is a historical landmark in this respect), suspicion, conflict, and a lack of dialogue have characterized the relations between a segment of the Jewish community and some left-wing groups. Jewish community leaders, for example, not infrequently accuse certain left-wing parties of being “strongly anti-Zionist,”[1] or describe some of the Brazilian left-wing groups as “deeply antisemitic.”[2] Conversely, some sectors of the Brazilian Left increasingly contend that “Zionists” dominate the Brazilian economy and politics.[3] Such left-wing sectors define members of the “Zionist Movement” as representatives of “world anti-democratic and imperialist interests.”[4]

In recent years, the relationship between the Brazilian Jewish community and Brazilian left-wing groups has been not only far from peaceful[5] but even “hostile.”[6] It is a misconception, however, to assume that the relations between Jews and Zionists (here, purposely, I am fusing the two concepts[7]) and Brazilian left-wing groups have always been strained. Quite the opposite: Jews (including Zionist supporters) and left-wing groups in Brazil used to have a very friendly and close relationship, which, in the early decades of the twentieth century (especially during the 1920s and 1930s), was a constructive one. During this period, sectors of the Jewish community supported the establishment and development of important bodies within socialist and communist parties in Brazil. At the same time (and here I refer again to this symbiotic dynamic), left-wing organizations and parties played an important role in establishing a more progressive sector within the Brazilian Jewish community.

This article intends to establish a timeline plotting the relationship between the Left and Jews and between left-wing parties and Zionists in Brazil. We shall first offer a brief overview of those interactions over the course of the twentieth century. We shall then present a critical analysis of the significant changes that have occurred in the last 20 years.

This essay will examine the fundamental changes in the relationship between important sectors of Brazilian left-wing groups and the Brazilian Jewish community. Whereas such relations, for the most part, were “positive” or at least “neutral”[8] until the beginning of the twenty-first century, in recent years, they have become mainly “hostile” and “negative.”

From Empathy to Instability

There is a commonsense notion, and a certain intellectual tradition, that identifies two distinct and contradictory elements regarding the relationship among the Left, Jews, and antisemitism. The first assumes that the Left displays an intrinsic tendency towards antisemitism and hatred of Jews.[9] The second contradictorily posits a positive relationship between Jews, Judaism, and the Left.[10] Both perspectives share similar assumptions, although their conclusions are contradictory and mutually exclusive. Both consider the relationship between the Left and Judaism as consistent and linear, believing that, in fact, it is possible to speak about a connection between the Left and Jews (Judaism, Zionism, or Israel), whether positive or negative.[11]

The history of the relationship between the Jews and the Brazilian Left challenges such assumptions. In fact, a similar analysis about any other country would likely prove that the notions about an essential relationship between such diverse and conflicting groups are generally false. In Brazil, however, one can point to different periods in the relations between leftist groups and leftist Jews. For example, in the early twentieth century, the most important groups of the Brazilian Left viewed Jews as strategic allies. It should be noted that the process of establishing the Communist Party of Brazil influenced various forms of sociability (such as financial, political, and cultural support of the Communist Party structures) within the Jewish community during the first decades of the last century.

These relationships changed over the course of the twentieth century for many reasons. Rather than seeking an essentialist premise to explain these developments, one should look to changes in the national and international situation. The role of the Soviet Union during World War II, the revelation of Nazi crimes during the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, and the actions of the Jewish state in the Arab-Israeli conflict, with a focus on the Palestinian issue, may explain the greater or lesser rapprochement of left-wing sectors with Brazilian Jewish groups.

Likewise, changes in Brazilian national policy, such as at the end of the Old Republic in 1930, the establishment of the authoritarian Estado Novo, ‘New State’, between 1937 and 1945, the fight against the military dictatorship (1964–85), and the return to Brazilian democracy (1985-present), may have contributed to transforming the relations between the Brazilian Left and Brazilian Jewry.

In general, in the early years of the twentieth century, hegemonic sectors of the Brazilian Left[12] showed a clear empathy with regard to the “Jewish question” and were even sympathetic to the creation of the State of Israel.[13] In contrast, at the beginning of the twentieth-first century, this situation has been reversed. A considerable segment of the Brazilian Left sometimes adopts extremely critical positions about Israel and Zionism. Additionally, some groups flirt in a more or less open way with perspectives that can be considered antisemitic.[14]

Progressivism and the Jewish Sector Within the Communist Party (1920–1950)

During the Eastern European migratory waves to Brazil in the early twentieth century, many newcomers with strong left-wing stances reached the country. Some were militants in Jewish socialist parties in Europe.[15] Others had been militants in the communist parties in their home countries. In this sense, the Jewish Left facilitated the integration of immigrants into their new homeland. At the same time, it served to help them continue to participate in political activities that they had engaged in earlier. As we can see in the interview with Abraham Jose Schneider, when he talks about his arrival in Brazil:

The only place I had here was the Sholem Aleichem Library. To be a member was cheap. I paid very little per month. I began to study, and it did not take me too long to join the board of directors (…), culturally and politically, I have always been a progressive.[16]

The Sholem Aleichem Library has been one of the major reference points of the Jewish Left in the city of Rio de Janeiro. In addition to sponsoring cultural and educational activities, the library also established a school. It served as a political advocacy center for Jewish communist newcomers to Brazil. The idea of creating a Jewish section of the Communist Party of Brazil came from its members. To cite one example, Tulli Lerner was part of the circle of progressive groups that helped to forge relationships between the Jewish community and the Communist Party of Brazil. An immigrant from Bessarabia, Lerner already had a strong affinity for Marxism and leftist militancy before his arrival.[17]

The establishment of the Jewish section in the Communist Party of Brazil ended up deepening political ties between other groups of the Jewish community and the Brazilian Left, as institutions and Jewish organizations became linked, directly or indirectly, with the Communist Party.[18] In addition to Tulli Lerner, Abraham José Schneider, one of the main founders of the “Jewish Section” and both a party and a “Jewish Section” member, and David Lerner, leader of Rio de Janeiro’s Jewish youth and a candidate for the Communist Party in the 1934 City Council Elections for the Federal District, were important in the Party’s formative years.[19]

Within the party, respect for a certain community autonomy was utilized during constant fights against manifestations of antisemitism and in favor of immigrants’ rights. Moreover, after the party structure changed, Jews acquired the right to their own mass-oriented section within the party. Thus, the “Roiters” (Red Jews) met in “progressive” organizations. The “progressive” designation was linked to the demands of the Third International (Communist International), which proposed, “from a certain Enlightenment tradition, in line with the industrial revolution,” the creation of parties that fought for the “progress and independence”[20] of the proletariat. According to Luis Goldberg, a militant of these organizations:

The Jewish organizations, as an integral part of the Party, had their tasks and meetings independent of the mass organizations. They came from these plenary meetings with their orientation. Jewish mass organizations were made up of the Jewish Section headed by a Jewish secretariat and advised by party leaders. From its advisors, the Jewish Section received tasks related to politics and finances, recruitment of militants, the study of Marxism-Leninism, etc. Members worked in mass institutions according to the orientation of the section.[21]

The Party’s Jewish Sector faced police harassment during the Estado Novo (1937–1945), as indicated in the police report below:

(…) The other Jews, who care more about their political views than their religious traditions, are divided into two parts.  One has a communist agenda and the other is Zionist. The Marxist, or rather communist, tendency consists of a group of Jews who are mostly unsuccessful financially, unlike others in Brazil, failed hawkers, artisans, and employees, generally held in low esteem by others. Generally, they came from their home countries with communist ideas, although in Brazil they refrain from participating in the activities of the PCB (…). These elements are generally concentrated in the Sholem Aleichem Library, while still maintaining the Sholem Aleichem School.[22]

Disagreements about this “Jewishness” among members of left-wing groups were handled inside the parties and organizations. For example, members who adopted Zionist (nationalist) standpoints were not denounced or excluded. In the first half of the twentieth century, neither Judaism nor Zionism was a forbidden term or concept within the Brazilian Left.[23] It is important to point out that the Communist Party maintained a relationship with specific sectors of the Jewish community. In this regard, the “progressives” had strong disagreements with Zionist sectors over the issue of community institutional control. In the post-World War II period, however, the revelations of Nazi crimes and the rapprochement of the Soviet Union with Jewish sectors in Palestine ended up moderating the dispute between Zionists and progressive Jews.

Jews were active not only within the Communist Party, which was strongly aligned with the Soviet Union and Stalinism, but they also played key roles in other Brazilian left-wing organizations during the first half of the twentieth century. For example, some Trotskyite groups included a significant number of Jews in their ranks. Among them were the medical doctor Febus Gikovate and the sociologist Mauricio Tragtenberg, both leaders of the Brazilian Socialist Party, later called the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which represented, for a few years, the Fourth International in Brazil. Gikovate and Tragtenberg (more the latter than the former) were involved in the Brazilian Jewish community and should not be described as “non-active Jews”; on the contrary, they were, in fact, part of the Jewish community. They were “Jewish Jews,”[24] acting both inside and outside Brazilian Jewish circles.

With Soviet support for the partitioning of Palestine and the widespread sympathy (after the Holocaust) for a Jewish State, there was a reduction in the tension between the progressive sectors and Zionists. Moreover, there was even a certain sympathy within the Communist Party for the specific forms of Zionism that developed in the early years of the Jewish state, namely agricultural collectivism and social egalitarianism.[25]

The Jewish Question, Zionism, and the New Left in Brazil

The formation of the Jewish Section of Brazil’s Communist Party, renamed the Brazilian Communist Party in 1956, marked an important step in the rapprochement between Jews and the Brazilian Left. The understanding of specific demands and specific aspects of Jewish identity ended up creating a structure inside the Communist Party that would establish points of contact between Jews and non-Jewish (gentile) communists in the country.

At the same time, certain institutional developments derived from ties to the Party. Schools, libraries, women’s associations, immigrant groups, restaurants, and a diverse range of entities were established through the contacts between Jews and the PCB. Many among the first generations of Jewish immigrants in Brazil built their Jewish identity largely on the basis of cooperation with the Communist Party.

As previously mentioned, between 1930 and 1950, Jewish communists had an almost symbiotic relationship between their political and ethnic identities, between party structures and community organizations, and between general demands and specific agendas.[26]

With the consolidation of the Zionist project, however, there was a gradual weakening of the “progressive sector.”[27] With the strengthening of the Israel-focused perspectives, communist Jews turned to intra-community activities,[28] while Brazilian communist leaders gradually distanced themselves from the symbiotic relationship they once had with the Jewish community. Henceforth, the Jewish community regarded Israel as a central issue that affected the contacts it had with the Communist Party.[29]

Although the Jewish community went through a process of “Zionization” in the post-World War II period,[30] this does not mean that relations between Jewish sectors and the Brazilian Left disappeared. On the contrary, the internal crisis in the Communist Party and its political weakness made room for the emergence of new groups on the Brazilian Left that developed new relationships with sectors of the Jewish community.[31]

The 1960s and the 1970s

During the 1950s and 1970s, Zionism became part of the official policy of the State of Israel. In Brazil, Jewish left-wing groups aligned with sectors of the Israeli Left, and engaged in dialogues with groups and entities of the Brazilian Left. Some representatives of the new Brazilian Left, in line with anti-colonialist discourse and decolonization processes of the Third World, came to have important discussions with representative bodies of the Jewish Left and the so-called Zionist Left active in Brazil.[32]

In the early 1960s, the Hashomer Hatsair group (linked to MAPAM, the Socialist Party of Israel and identified as a Zionist leftist group by the Brazilian political police) held meetings with sectors of the Catholic Left. Debates about Palestinian refugees and a network of solidarity implied that left-wing Zionists were regarded as an ally in the struggles for the emancipation of oppressed peoples[33].

Later in that decade, mainly young men who belonged to other left-wing groups formed the Irgun Maghen Iehuda group (IMI). The IMI was a leftwing, socialist, and Zionist group. With these positions, the IMI (with branches in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay) was able to establish strong bonds with Brazilian leftists and with groups that supported opponents of the military dictatorship (1964–85). Its Zionist direction and its strong “Jewish and Israeli identity were never an obstacle for such political connections.”[34] Other Zionist groups, such as Ehud Habonim and Dror, also forged bonds with Brazilian left-wing groups. It is important to note that these groups, more so in Rio de Janeiro than in São Paulo, engaged in protests and in activities against military rule.[35]

In the following years, the relations between the Brazilian Left and sectors of the Jewish Left in Brazil became more complex, although they continued to exist. In fact, the national reality (the establishment of a military dictatorship in Brazil in 1964 and, later, the intensification of repression after 1968) and the international scenario (East-West disputes and the Arab-Israeli conflict) evoked revised considerations about their policies and new ideological alignments.

The key turning point in this new phase was related to the 1967 War and its consequences. Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories created new conditions for continuing contacts between the Jewish-Zionist Left and the Brazilian Left. Both groups took firm and steadfast positions against Israeli occupation and against the expansionist policies of Israel. Some groups built these relationships on the basis of critical positions against the Israeli occupation. Over the years, the Zionist youth movements began critically to reflect on Israeli policies and the Palestinian occupation.

Rejecting the “nationalist frenzy”[36] of the post-1967 War period, many activists came to agree with the Brazilian Left on these issues.[37] One of the groups that created important relationships with the Left, mentioned above, was the Irgun Maghen Iehuda (IMI). Such relationships started in Uruguay from conversations with exiled Brazilian leftist intellectuals. One of these figures was Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, who was in exile in Montevideo. These debates about Zionism and socialism encouraged an important process of rapprochement between the Zionist Left and representatives of the new Brazilian Left in the 1960s and 1970s[38].

The Creation of CAJU: The Commission on Jewish Affairs in PT (The Brazilian Workers’ Party)

Whereas the War of 1967 and the subsequent occupation of Palestinian territories was a time of realignment and new contacts between the Jewish Left, namely the Zionist Left, and various groups of the Brazilian Left, the year 1982 marked the beginning of another stage of the drama in the relations among the Jewish Left, the Brazilian Zionist Left, and sectors of the Brazilian Left. The beginning of the political liberalization in Brazil in the late 1970s and the emergence of new political actors in the country (who included leading members of the Workers’ Party, which was founded in 1980) coincided with the victory of the Israeli political right in the elections of 1977 and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The combination of these two factors, namely, the political rise of the Israeli Right and the invasion of Lebanon, created the conditions for new Zionist activism in Brazil. The opposition of the Zionist Left to the Lebanon invasion led to a unification of agendas and helped build a broader left-wing movement to join with the Left-Zionist movement.

In Brazil, more specifically in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, groups linked to the Movimento Paz Agora (Peace Now Movement) founded a magazine entitled Encontro (Encounter). The magazine became the great unifier of the Zionist Left in Brazil. The publication leveled severe criticism against the government of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and against the Lebanese War.

Essays and articles attacking Israeli government decisions were written by Brazilian writers or were translated from original Hebrew texts. An example is the article of September 1982, entitled “Quem é a besta bípede?”[39] ‘Who is the two-legged beast?’. In the article, an Israeli soldier who had killed a Lebanese guerrilla fighter asks which of them is the “two-legged beast” in this war story. The article was translated and commented on by Celso Garbaz, a representative of the Peace Now movement in Brazil, and left no doubt about the ideological position of the Brazilian Zionist Left in the debate about the Lebanon war of 1982.

Even fewer doubts (about the commitment of Brazilian left-wing Zionist groups with a progressive agenda) remained after the disclosure of the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. Reactions to the killing of hundreds of Palestinian refugees committed by Christian militias without any interference by soldiers and officers of the Israeli army, who were responsible for maintaining order, motivated the Zionist Left in Brazil to further consolidation. In October 1982, members of the Jewish community organized a political meeting to repudiate the massacre. The Casa do Povo, ‘House of the People’, an important venue for progressive and Jewish leftists, was packed. There were several speeches against Sharon and Begin.[40] Conservative sectors of the Jewish community strongly criticized it, but the Brazilian Left supported the event.

During this period, Encontro magazine made contacts with leaders of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) and engaged in political dialogues within the Party. PT leaders José Dirceu and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, visited the headquarters of Hashomer Hatsair and held conversations with representatives of the magazine and the Peace Now Movement. Apparently, a proposal arose during these meetings to form a section for Jews in the PT, similar to one that had existed in the Communist Party, which would provide a forum for discussions on Zionism, the Palestinian issue, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A discussion began about forming the Comissão de Assuntos Judaicos do Partido dos Trabalhadores, ‘Committee on Jewish Affairs of the Workers’ Party’, or CAJU. The creation of the committee can be considered another high point in the relationship between sectors of the Jewish community and the Brazilian Left.

The connections created through activism against the war in Lebanon and against the occupation of Palestinian territories were satisfying to the leftist groups linked to the Workers’ Party. For them, the connections of left-wing Zionism with leftist perspectives was very clear. At the same time, this debate evoked passions and created misunderstandings between elements of the Jewish Left and significant sectors of the Jewish community, or, at least, the most conservative sectors, who regarded the criticisms of the Begin-Sharon government as “anti-Zionist” or even “antisemitic.”[41]

At the same time, radical anti-Zionist perspectives developed among some groups within the PT. Such positions generated tensions even with sectors of the Jewish community that were politically close to the Workers’ Party. For example, Airton Soares, a PT congressional candidate in 1982, gave a speech during his campaign in which he demanded the party take positions against the existence of the State of Israel. PT activist Mauricio Waldman recalled:

The Arab-Israeli conflict was the main cause of unease within the Jewish community when Airton Soares, PT candidate in São Paulo in the early 1980s, said that the party should oppose the existence of the State of Israel. This irresponsible statement, which did not reflect any official PT position also motivated other intrigues, such as [the rumor] that the party would be receiving money from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).[42]

The declarations on both sides (conservative sectors of the Jewish Community and radical groups within PT) eventually led to a harsh debate about Israel and the Middle East within the Partido dos Trabalhadores. Mauricio Waldman remembers why he founded CAJU:

Another reason that encouraged me to found a Jewish discussion group in the PT was the lack of debate about Jewish themes within the party. Although there were, of course, Jewish militants in the party, I did not see that this discussion was flourishing. Therefore, I decided along with other Jewish militants of the party to create the Jewish Affairs Committee of the PT.[43]

With the support of the party’s internal structures, the Committee on Jewish Affairs was established in 1986 and linked to the PT, whose national headquarters was in São Paulo. The creation of a commission of minorities within the party was not trivial and needed the support and guidance of members of the national and regional leadership. Thus, the commission received support from José Dirceu, who led the party in São Paulo:

It is important to note that the Committee on Jewish Affairs was a Party body, and thus was open to all militants, Jews or non-Jews. Therefore, while most of the participants in the Jewish Affairs Commission were members of the community, there were non-Jews interested in the discussion that developed.

(…) Not only the leaders, but also the party as a whole followed the commission’s work. First, because the commission was a party body, and as such, regularly accounted for its activities in PT reports that circulated among the membership. Furthermore, the commission handed out its own information bulletin, PT-Shalom, which was distributed to all PT organs. I always felt encouraged by the party leaders.[44]

Composed of former militants of the Zionist Left in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the Jewish Affairs Commission seemed to assure a dialogue between the Jewish Left and a promising left-wing party in Brazil. CAJU managed to build bridges between the most reticent sectors of the Jewish community and more radicalized sectors of pro-Palestinian (and not Jewish) activists. In the late 1990s, the PT’s greatest period of growth and the time at which the supporters of CAJU advanced the most within the party structure, the commission ceased to exist and its members went on to participate directly in party structures or leave the PT.[45]

Significantly, it was precisely the most progressive Zionist position that guaranteed the maintenance of bridges with the Brazilian Left. In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, activists of the Zionist movements and groups linked to the Israeli Left were able to establish a militant alliance with the Brazilian Left, based on issues related to the Middle East: the fight against conservative sectors, support of the existence of the State of Israel, and (at the same time) for the Palestinian cause.

Despite the warnings from sectors of the Jewish community and from more radicalized pro-Palestinian groups, between 1980 and 1990, the Committee of Jewish Affairs of the Workers’ Party became a place for Jewish-Zionist Left activism, much like the Jewish Section of PCB had been decades earlier. In the following years, the situation changed sharply, as we shall see below.

2000s: Strained Relations

The 1980s and 1990s represent a contradictory phase in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Left in Brazil. On the one hand, there was a visible rapprochement between the Jewish Left (particularly the Zionist Left) and the Brazilian Left in general.[46] On the other hand, Jewish conservative sectors moved away from the Brazilian Left.[47]

In this context, we can say that relations between Jews and non-Jews in Brazil during this period followed the contours and the general limits of progressives and conservatives on the left and on the right, who either fought for a transformation in the Middle East or defended the status quo. More than ethnic or religious factors, classical political orientations determined the rapprochement or the distancing of members of the Jewish community and the Brazilian Left. In this regard, Left Zionists were close to the Brazilian Left, whereas more conservative right-wing groups were far from that same Left.

The situation seemed to be reversed, or at least became more complex in the next decade. In the 2000s, there were signs that segments of the Brazilian Left (at least those more involved with Middle East issues) not only moved away from Zionist Leftist groups in Brazil but also initiated a gradual process of discrediting these groups. The Brazilian Left questioned whether Left Zionists were actually leftists, contending that the qualifying adjective contradicted the noun. In other words, sectors of the Brazilian Left began to deny the axiomatic possibility of “left-wing Zionists,” or even “Jews on the Left.” Articles and public statements by specific sectors of the Brazilian Left presented the terms “Jews and the Left” or “Zionists and the Left” as oxymoronic.

Some of the new Brazilian left-wing sectors rejected the possibility that a group, a sector, or a person could share multiple identities, in this case a leftist (socialist, communist, Social Democrat, progressive, etc.) and Zionist identity; they equated being Zionist as the equivalent of being “right-wing,” “reactionary,” or even “fascist.”

In consolidating this attitude, these groups, as we shall see below, established causal links between what they termed reactionary positions (almost synonymous with Zionism) and a Jewish identity. They posited that a Jewish identity (or commitment to Jewishness) meant that a person was automatically right wing. From this perspective, not only were all Zionists right wing, but also being a Jew automatically identified a person with a reactionary political identity.

One of the first articles that most clearly and openly presented this perspective was the opinion piece, “Can Zionism Be Considered a Form of Racism?” that was published in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper on 8 September 2001 by sociologist Emir Sader, an important intellectual linked to the Workers’ Party (PT). The article moves from forceful opposition to the Zionist project to general references that are far afield of anti-Zionist discourse.[48]

At the beginning of the article, Sader made clear his position on the “Zionist project” to create a Jewish state in Palestine:

Zionism, as the state doctrine of Israel, as well as the action of this state in the occupation of Palestinian territories, fully corresponds to this broad and recognized definition of racial discrimination. The minority of Palestinians–about 20%–living in Israel are considered second-class citizens.

His attitude toward the State of Israel follows a very specific line. Here, Sader asserts that Jewish state policy has followed a course that he regards as the “Zionist movement politics,” which has been conditioned by the creation of a discriminatory and racist state par excellence:

Now in its establishment, Israel has laws that sponsor the return of the Jews, setting aside land exclusively for them, financing Zionist schools, being essentially a confessional state based on biological criteria, which, by definition, exclude non-Jews. The state of Israel was established through an extensive process of ethnic cleansing, with multiple crimes against the, then, majority Palestinian population: in 1947, the Jews owned 7% of Palestinian lands, in 1950, it held approximately 92%, initiating a process of colonization, with the oppression of the Palestinians as a new kind of colonialism.[49]

The above excerpts from the article are extremely critical of Israel and the Zionist movement. Although the article contains very negative and misleading definitions about Zionism and the existence of the Jewish state, there is no reference that goes beyond a poignant anti-Zionism. One could disagree with the terms and not accept Sader’s arguments, but these quotes do not include statements that could be considered antisemitic.

It is important to reaffirm that opposition to Zionism and an attack on the existence of Israel as a state is not in and of itself antisemitic. There have been groups, some of them formed exclusively by Jews, that take radical positions against Zionism and against the very existence of Israel. These groups, which include Orthodox religious Jews, liberal reformists, or revolutionary socialists, do not view the founding of a Jewish state as the solution to the Jewish Question; some have considered the creation of Israel “a mistake of historic proportions.”[50] In this context, it is important to define the accusations of antisemitism in order to avoid reproducing false political disputes in academic debates. Historian Luis Eduardo Moraes has pointed out:

In fact, many times when it is applied, the term “antisemitism” becomes an accusation or a tool of intimidation within proper political disputes about what kind of positions about Israel and Zionism should be considered legitimate and over who has the right to assess its legitimacy. Highlighted here is the aforementioned equation “Zionism=antisemitism,” as that justification is not necessarily a concern for those interested in finding useful analytical tools for research in the social sciences, but it seems, in some cases, to be used exclusively as a good tool for political battles. In addition, the antisemitism charge can be a powerful social and political stigma.[51]

If, following the texts of Moraes, it is possible to affirm that the two excerpts of Sader’s article above are restricted to the field of legitimate political debate while upholding a clearly anti-Zionist position, at some point, the author advances charges that exceed the criticism of Israel or the Zionist movement, and he heads toward the most controversial perspectives:

When the Jews consider themselves the “chosen people,” they do not regard the massacre they suffered as similar to those others have suffered or are suffering and which is inflicted on the Palestinians, and in itself acts as a foundational doctrine of racial discrimination. They do not consider themselves citizens of the world, outraged and disgusted about any injustice being committed against any human being.

Zionism was formed as a specific form of racial discrimination in Western colonialism against all other peoples, [and] was supported in the opposition between civilization and barbarism, in which the white, Western and Christians represented the former and the “others” – Blacks, Asian and Arabs among them – personified barbarism, a discriminatory image consolidated by Hollywood.[52]

In the above excerpt, the author describes a trait that is, according to him, supposedly inherent to Judaism. Incorporating concepts typical of religious discourse, Sader stops accusing Israel and Zionism, and turns to accusing Judaism. In his text, the author argues that Judaism itself has discriminatory attitudes. Here, it is no longer Jewish nationalism that is the discriminatory element, nor is Zionism entirely at fault. Rather, it is Judaism itself. The explanation for the conflict becomes based on theological beliefs that prevent (as the excerpt says) coexistence with the Arabs. Moreover, there are clear references here to an important premise: as part of the “chosen people,” the Jews “do not consider themselves citizens of the world.” They are exclusively Jews. No other definition matters, according to Sader.

At this point, the author flirts with well-known concepts usually employed in other contexts. The notion that Jewish identity determines a kind of essentialist definition echoes the traditional references of “political antisemitism.” In this context, Jews are seen as a homogeneous identity and not as a diverse group. Thus, Jews act in a premeditated way; they are part of some “evil group or corporation.”[53] In this sense, Jews cannot be right or left, they are exclusively Jews. Zionism, here, takes the place of an “original Judaism,” replacing the typical accusations found in traditional forms of political antisemitism.[54]

At the end of the article, Sader goes even further, alluding in the last paragraph, to a supposed image “consolidated by Hollywood.” He thus reiterates another important myth in the history of modern antisemitism, namely, the notion that Jews control the media, cinema, and Hollywood. The author here refers back to notions of “hidden power,” which is an important reference to the “Jewish conspiracy,”[55] an alleged subversive conspiracy to dominate the world by causing countries and powers to act on behalf of Jews (or on behalf of Zionism and Israel in this case).

Emir Sader’s article marks a new phase in the relationship between sectors of the Brazilian Left and the Jewish community. In using an. antisemitic stereotype in his text, Sader not only casts out the Jewish Left, but he also strengthens right-wing groups active in the Jewish community. The article, written by a respected intellectual, represents an important example of clear anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Conservative sectors of Jewish Brazilian communities also use Sader’s text to justify their accusing Brazilian left-wing groups of harboring anti-Zionist and even antisemitic attitudes.[56]

At the same time, the article weakens the Jewish Left and strengthens conservative perspectives within the Jewish community, while legitimizing discriminatory attitudes (by singling out the Jews) within Brazilian leftist discourse. Sader’s article initiates a period in which references to the “Jewish conspiracy” and a “hidden Jewish power” appear more frequently in articles and left-wing websites.

It is important to note that the article was published at the beginning of the second intifada (October 2000), a particularly bloody conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. During that period, the Brazilian Jewish community regarded any criticism of the Israeli state as a manifestation of antisemitism,[57] while sectors of the pro-Palestinians Brazilian Left viewed any criticism of Palestinian acts as “pro-Zionist” propaganda.[58]

An article published in the magazine Caros Amigos at the height of the second Iraq War (2003) serves as an example of antisemitism that arises within a seemingly leftist discourse and can be considered part of anti-imperialist discourses. The author, Luís Fernando Novoa Garzon, a Brazilian political scientist, is less prominent than Emir Sader, but the magazine in which the article appeared is considered an important publication. Caros Amigos is a reference point for the Brazilian Left, and it has tried (especially in the years of the Lula presidency) to offer a relevant alternative to the mainstream media. Below is an excerpt from the article:

The Iranian nuclear program poses a risk to global security. Islam and radioactivity are an explosive combination, warn the hawks who have a confessed admiration for Goebbels. The formula is even more dangerous in Iran (…) a country that since 1979 commits the crime of managing its own oil reserves. (...) The government of Israel does not contain its anxiety and raises the accusation that Iran is responsible for the attacks in Buenos Aires (...). The Mossad’s greatest specialty is the infiltration of mercenaries of Arab origin, and the tri-border [Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil] area is the setting for clandestine operations.[59]

In the passage above, the charges are more sophisticated and vague than the references published by Sader in the Folha de São Paulo article 2 years earlier; nevertheless, they remain patently clear. Although, at first, the author seemingly does not specify who are the “admirers of Goebbels” (in these articles, references to “Nazi-Zionism” become constant), in a second stage, he clarifies his charge. The Israeli government (acting as a concealed power) is the one fostering wars and attacks and incites conflicts around the world. Garzon’s argument, although more carefully presented, follows a line similar to Sader’s, explaining complex conflicts in the Middle East in terms of “Zionist” interests. Again, references to a “conspiracy” are clear and leave little doubt about the author’s intentions.

In the last 10 years,[60] leftist antisemitic articles have become relatively common. They appear in magazines, newspapers, and websites of political groups and parties in the progressive camp. Perhaps the most scandalous was the article written by Argentine journalist, Manuel de Freytas, entitled “Os Donos do Poder: De Onde Nasce a Impunidade de Israel” (The Power Holders: What is the Origin of Israel’s Impunity). This article appeared in Brazil in June 2010 on the Brazilian Communist Party’s website.[61] It was subsequently published on European extreme right sites.[62] In sum, the article contends, quite blatantly, that Zionists individuals (who can be recognized by their last names!) dominate the international system and foment wars and conflicts to protect their own interests.

We shall not analyze the Freytas article, which has been thoroughly discussed in an essay by Luis Edmundo Moraes.[63] Rather, we intend to reflect upon the reactions to the article. It is important to note that the National Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB) (Moraes 2014) challenged the PCB in court on the charge of racism.[64] As a result, the Brazilian Left almost unanimously supported Freytas’s article, and there was no relevant debate among Brazilian left-wing groups about Freytas’s alleged antisemitism. Articles did not mention the legal action, although some denounced “attempts at censorship from the Zionist right.”[65] For example, in a text on the PCB’s website, published in May 2011, Communist leaders reacted to “threats” by CONIB: “Zionists try to criminalize the PCB and to forbid party registration with the TSE [Federal Election Court].” Reaffirming the positions of Freytas, the PCB starts by “denouncing” the interests of “Zionists” in “controlling the media and criminalizing the Left”:

We were told that earlier this month, an entity called CONIB (National Jewish Confederation of Brazil) had formalized a case against the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), with the TSE [Federal Election Court], claiming a manifestation of “antisemitism” for having published an article on the party’s internet site entitled “The Power Holders: What is the Origin of Israel’s Impunity?” Although the terms of the charges are not yet known (they have not been disclosed by the organization), we infer that the true intention is to try to revoke the registration of the PCB, as if it were possible to silence the voice of the true Brazilian communists. Our party – the oldest in Brazil, founded in 1922 – was carefully chosen for this offensive [action] for reasons that make us proud. In addition to fighting for the overthrow of capitalism, we practice proletarian internationalism with firmness and independence, and solidarity with all peoples in the struggle against imperialism and Zionism, whose meaning does not refer to its original contents, but to the current character of the movement, which is hegemonic, imperialist, and fascist.[66]

The above text indicates clearly that the party does not acknowledge any antisemitic content on its web page, and it seems to accuse the Brazilian Jewish Confederation of acting in the alleged interest of “imperialism” and “Zionism.” In this sense, although the article is clearly antisemitic, the PCB prefers to defend Freytas and attack his victims.

Finally, we present an article published in 2016, on the site Vermelho (Red), the official organ of the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B). Authored by historian Thomas Toledo, the article “The Israeli and U.S. Fingerprints on the Coup,” published on 14 May 2016, denounces an alleged joint U.S.-Zionist action to overthrow President Dilma Rousseff, who at the time was facing impeachment charges:

Few paid attention to the fact that Israel took control of three key sectors of the coup government: Defense (Raul Jungmann), Intelligence (Sergio Etchegoyen) and the Central Bank (Ilan Goldfajn). In recent years, Israel has taken control of key ministries and influenced the election of virtually all US Congressional members and US senators. Now it is advancing on the main Latin American countries with Macri in Argentina and Temer in Brazil. For those who thought that the Palestinian struggle was a distant Middle East conflict, Israel has just knocked down the doors and come to power.

A Zionist banker of the United States said: “Deliver me control of the finances of a country; never mind what they do with the law.” Well, Temer appointed a Zionist representative of the bankers as president of the Central Bank of Brazil. Now, a tiny and arrogant country called Israel controls the finances of a sleeping giant called Brazil.[67]

In that article, Toledo once again elaborates the theories of a Jewish – or Zionist – conspiracy and the notions of “hidden power” to justify alleged Zionist domination over Brazilian (and Latin American) politics. Zionists (or Jews) again (as was the case with Freytas) are pinpointed through their surnames. Toledo mentions three allegedly Jewish names (Jungmann, Etchegoyen and Goldfajn (when, in fact, only one of them is of Jewish origin) to substantiate the “Zionist” (or Jewish) “control” over Brazil. After a legal case brought by the Jewish Federation of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FIERJ), the article was removed from the PCB website and the author apologized for the article, although it remained on other left-wing media sites.

The movement to defend the boycott of the State of Israel has been established in this context. Appearing in Brazil in 2013, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) consolidated the notion that Israel and Zionism are, indeed, intertwined and one cannot count on any Zionist grouping (or anyone within the Jewish community) to offer resistance to the occupation. The only way to defeat “Zionism,” therefore, is to organize a general boycott of the state and of the entire Israeli society (which is, according to them, an accomplice of government crimes).

This perception, although dangerous and generalizing, resonates within the Brazilian Left. Antisemitic references among local left-wing groups increasingly support a generalized view of BDS. International BDS activists consider that the Israeli state, Israeli society, and the Israeli government, ultimately, are the same thing. Sectors of the Brazilian Left do not differentiate among Brazilian Jews, Zionists, and Israel.

In this context, attacking the Jews (searching for surnames and supposed origins) helps to locate “Zionists” and to defeat Israel’s interests in Brazil. The boycott movement appropriates these attitudes. BDS Brazil (and perhaps in the world in general) may not be antisemitic, but it is willing to change the facts to advance its agenda.


As we browse websites and magazines of the Brazilian Left today, we note, with some frequency, that issues related to Israel and the Palestinians are replete with superficial analyses. In some of these magazines or their websites, articles adopt biased tones and do not distinguish among Zionism, Israel, and Jews. There is little differentiation of ethnic groups, national interests, and political movements. Furthermore, parties and left sectors end up adopting conspiratorial theories in their analyses. Brazilian Jews are seen as “representatives” of an alleged “Zionism” that is determined to defend the interests of Israel. Not exactly the real State of Israel, but an imaginary one, that possesses super powers and is able to exploit and dominate other countries and economic systems.

BDS activism takes place in Brazil in this environment. Far from deconstructing these analyses, they take advantage of this political environment to advance their agendas. In this article, we intended to show that this estrangement between Jews and the Left is new in Brazil and that the distancing process is related to new scenarios of international politics and many specific local political contexts.

BDS activists seem to exploit the local confusion between national Jewish and Jewish religious identities, between Jews and Israel, between Israel and attitudes of specific Israeli governments in order to reinforce their influence and political agenda among specific Brazilian political groups. The Jewish community’s distancing from the left-wing in Brazilian society has, moreover, weakened the historical ties between the two groups, thus reinforcing the emergence of critical views of Israel, Zionism and the Jews among some sectors in the Brazilian left.


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Published Online: 2018-6-16

©2018 Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism

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