While Kanye West’s deranged, antisemitic ramblings continue to draw global attention, a more insidious form of antisemitism has been making noise in South America, an antisemitism based on what one Brazilian academic calls “the imaginary Jew.”
In June, at the invitation of Jewish leaders in Florianopolis, capital of the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, I met state legislator Felipe Estevão to discuss his sponsorship of bills to combat antisemitism in Santa Catarina and mandate Holocaust education.
Estevão’s efforts were, of course, welcome. But though I lived and worked in Brazil as a rabbi, and travel there frequently, only very recently did I grasp their importance.
Brazilian Jews — and many non-Jewish Brazilians — were shocked this week by images from Santa Catarina of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters protesting the results of the Oct. 30 election, standing at attention, giving the Nazi salute while singing the Brazilian national anthem. The Confederação Israelita do Brasil, Brazilian Jewry’s key umbrella institution, quickly responded, stating that, “Nazism preaches and practices death and destruction. Brazilian society cannot tolerate attitudes like this.”
Demonstrations protesting the Brazilian election results took place throughout the country, but the neo-Nazi element is especially strong in the country’s south. This might seem odd. Eduardo Gentil, president of Santa Catarina’s Jewish community, notes that the state is home to only 500 Jews. As this is less than one-thousandth of 1% of the total population in that state, a strong undercurrent of antisemitism might seem unexpected. But then, antisemitism is a free-floating hate-driven conspiracy and doesn’t need to be tethered to anything, not even real Jewish people.
In Santa Catarina, there’s also history. Long a destination of German immigrants, the state was home to the first and perhaps largest Nazi party affiliate outside Germany. German culture has historically been honored in this part of the country. “For many,” Gentil explains, “this cultural background provided a natural path to neo-Nazi activities, even though few if any of these individuals have ever met a Jew.”
Though tempting, we cannot blame protesters’ antisemitism on Bolsonaro. It predates him. We can, however, ascribe to him their ease at being open about it, as, if indirectly, he made it clear Brazilians’ constitutional right of “liberdade de expressão” could be taken to the limit. Much has been written about Bolsonaro modeling himself after Trump; perhaps he was impressed by Trump’s “very good people on both sides” comment after the Charlottesville, Va., marchers chanted, “Blood and soil, Jews will not replace us.”
Antisemitism without Jews is not as strange as it might seem. Shakespeare likely knew no Jews but that did not prevent him from writing “The Merchant of Venice”; likewise Chaucer had no firsthand knowledge when he wrote “The Prioress’ Tale.”
Similarly, Santa Catarina’s Bolsonaristas may not know any Jews, but they know the antisemitic tropes that have been used against Jews for centuries.
Gentil suspects that large numbers of those demonstrating do not know the historical context of the salute they gave. They followed the lead of the individuals who organized the demonstration; their willingness to follow is itself frightening.
And though religion may not figure much into the protesters’ actions, it absolutely does among the many evangelicals who are Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters. The evangelicals are philosemites, not out of love for the Jewish people, but because of the role of Jews in their theology: the reestablishment of Israel is a necessary condition for the Second Coming.
Michel Gherman, a sociology professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, studies contemporary Brazilian Jewry. He notes that evangelical supporters of Bolsonaro often traffic in stereotypes of Jews (shrewd and wily in business), views admiringly held by the extreme right and articulated by Bolsonaro himself.
Gherman also believes that the antisemites and the (putative) philosemites have something in common: They are fixated upon a Jew who does not exist. “Both neo-Nazi protesters and right-wing Christians base their beliefs on what I call ‘the imaginary Jew,’ a fictional stereotype. The political impact is bad enough, and that so many in Brazil are so invested in an image of Jews unconnected to reality can’t be good.”
The co-optation of the imaginary Jew is difficult to counter, and the problem is not limited to Brazil, where Jews number less than one in every 2,000 people. Bolsonaro’s Brazil reminds us Jews — us real Jews — that danger comes in many forms.
Clifford M. Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J.