Lula, Bolsonaro and Israel

Forrest Hylton

‘What is happening in Gaza today has no historical precedent,’ Lula said at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa on 18 February, ‘except when Hitler decided to murder the Jews.’ Israel accused the Brazilian president of antisemitism and Holocaust denial, and declared him persona non grata. In Brazil, the speech was criticised for jeopardising future relations with Israel and the Jewish diaspora. O Estadão, the mouthpiece of the paulista bourgeoisie, accused Lula of ‘diplomatic vandalism’. He responded on 23 February: ‘It’s not war, it’s genocide, because they’re murdering women and children … If this is not genocide, I don’t know what is.’

Given the Hamas attacks of 7 October, as well as post-1945 genocides in Rwanda, East Timor, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – not to mention Ethiopian atrocities and war crimes in Tigray, though no one mentioned those – the speech was said to be historically inaccurate. One commentator fretted over Brazil’s loss of its (non-existent) role as mediator of a (non-existent) two-state solution in Israel-Palestine.

But Lula was also speaking to radical democratic aspirations in Latin America. Nazi exiles such as Klaus Barbie – the Butcher of Lyon, who was recruited by US intelligence after the war and escaped, with American help, to Bolivia – played important counter-revolutionary roles in Latin America’s Cold War, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens were tortured, imprisoned and ‘disappeared’ to prevent a better, fairer, less violent society from coming into being.

When the US cut off military aid to the governments of Guatemala and Argentina in the late 1970s – because of the wholesale slaughter, in the name of anti-communism, of their own populations, including genocide against the Maya – Israel stepped into the vacuum. Since the late 1970s, not even Canada has been as important as Israel to maintaining the US empire in the Western Hemisphere.

In terms of training, weapons and, above all, communications and surveillance technology, Israel’s contribution to the martial, patriarchal, racist nationalism of the counter-insurgent right in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the formation of paramilitary death squads, is historic and ongoing. No distinction between combatants and civilians has ever been recognised in these wars.

According to an OECD report from 2018, in Brazil and Colombia, which are multicultural democracies, it would take nine and eleven generations respectively to get out of poverty; in both countries, race is a key factor in determining poverty. Informal economic apartheid is the rule in the region, and it has only got worse since the Covid-19 pandemic. This is as true of Argentina – where race is a less significant factor in determining poverty, given the relatively small Afro-Argentine and Indigenous populations – as it is of Jamaica or Haiti.

As the histories of Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras demonstrate, to maintain class systems that produce such staggering levels of inequality requires gargantuan bureaucracies of state and para-state repression, up to and including organised crime – which exists in a contradictory mix of conflict, competition, co-operation, co-optation and symbiosis with the state, the financial system and the US.

The Bolsonaro clan typifies this new configuration of power on the Latin American right. Michelle Bolsonaro, the former first lady, boarded a plane for Florida alone during carnival, since her husband’s passport had been seized because of his role in the events of 8 January 2023 (when a bolsonarista mob briefly invaded the Praça dos Três Poderes in Brasília in the hope of overthrowing Lula’s presidency). She said the police who raided their house used ‘Gestapo’ tactics. No one in the mainstream media, much less the Israeli Embassy, made an issue of her comment, even though it degraded and diminished the meaning of the Holocaust and the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

The former president and his chief lieutenants spent carnival terrified of being arrested and taken to jail. The Supreme Court authorised the release of a video recording of a cabinet meeting about ways to keep Bolsonaro in power regardless of electoral outcomes. One of Bolsonaro’s sons worried about a ‘holocaust’ against his family. Again, there was no condemnation from the Israeli government or the Brazilian media.

Last Thursday Bolsonaro testified to the Federal Police. On Sunday, he held a mass demonstration on the Avenida Paulista in São Paulo – which had social media abuzz, but otherwise accomplished nothing – where he incriminated himself in the events of 8 January. As with Trump in the US, however, the goal of defeating bolsonarismo politically, not just juridically, for the time being remains out of reach. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo was in the US on Sunday, meeting with Trump and the Argentinian president Javier Milei.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro was questioned by the Federal Police about an incident last June, when he may have ‘intentionally harassed’ a humpback whale by coming within fifteen metres of it on his jet ski (the minimum distance is a hundred metres), an offence which carries a fine and two to five years in jail. His lawyer, Fabio Wajngarten, who was with him at the time, was also questioned. Wajngarten is one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in Brazil, and contends that Lula’s official position on Israel is an attack not only on Jews but on evangelical Christians – at present, the core of bolsonarismo.

In condemning Israel for its genocidal campaign in Gaza, Lula summoned the moral force of the anti-apartheid movement, as represented by South Africa at the Hague, but he was also holding the line against the new, pro-Israel right closer to home.

His message was that, just as the onslaught on Gaza must be stopped immediately, so must Indigenous peoples, favela dwellers, peasants and rural workers in Latin America cease to be the targets of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial execution. The likes of Milei, who visited Israel earlier this month, and moved the Argentinian Embassy to Jerusalem, cannot be allowed to lead the region to certain destruction and chaos.

Meeting with Lula in Brasília last Wednesday, the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, was all smiles for the cameras, although the US expressed disagreement with Brazil’s position on Israel. Blinken was on his way to the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Rio. Brazil holds the G20 presidency this year, and has pledged to lead the fight against global hunger. The G20 leaders’ summit will be held in Rio in November. It is impossible to imagine Bolsonaro hosting an event of such consequence.

Unsurprisingly, after Lula met with Blinken and the G20 ministers’ talks kicked off, the president’s critics in the Brazilian media and academia turned down the volume considerably. The humanities faculty at the University of São Paulo passed a resolution condemning the slaughter in Gaza, breaking a deafening academic silence, and at the UN Council on Human Rights in Geneva on Monday, the Brazilian minister of human rights and citizenship, Silvio Almeida, condemned the 7 October attacks by Hamas as well as Israel’s ‘collective punishment’, ‘apartheid’, ‘genocide’ and ‘neocolonialism’. Lula reiterated his government’s position in a televised interview on Tuesday.

The rest of the world appeared unperturbed by what Lula said in Ethiopia; many leaders may have privately agreed. The Brazilian government now encounters more resistance at home than abroad in its quest for greater sovereignty and independence from the US. It remains to be seen how much staying power such resistance will have if Bolsonaro sees the inside of a jail cell sooner rather than later.