Being Jewish in Brazil

Image: Italo Melo


The white elites of this country have the greatest difficulty in recognizing the “whiteness” on which their privileges rest. The same goes for Jews

I am Jewish, Hungarian, lover of philosophy, crazy people, indigenous people, a sympathizer of the Zapatistas, feminists, social movements and their occupations, dissidents of all kinds, and staunchly anti-fascist. Luckily, I don't live in Hungary or Israel, although I have already obtained - and renounced - my passport from both, countries whose xenophobic and fundamentalist rise (Christian or Jewish) is for me the reason for nights of disturbance and insomnia - just like the recent turn Politics in Brazil is a reason for everyday relief and joy.

Nothing seems more abject to me than fascism, in its diverse forms, historical or current. In the past, Jews, gypsies, gypsies, homosexuals, leftists, crazy people, artists, scientists, intellectuals, deviants were victims of it. We on the left thought that it was an already buried chapter in our history, and what a surprise we were when we saw it reappear in new forms in the XNUMXst century.

There was a time when being Jewish was, in part, a minority existential condition. Alongside the persecutions, revolutionary dreams arose. In the face of selective violence, the salvation of the world. Belonging to the community meant going beyond the community, embracing the world. Some messianism appeared in non-religious utopias. Even when this was not the case, an immense ethical generosity characterized this constellation: Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Rosa Luxemburg, Kafka, Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Paul Celan, Gertrude Stein, Lévi-Strauss, and more recently Judith Butler and many others .

The image of the wandering Jew is famous. The connotation of this figure is mostly negative. For the anti-Semite, the wandering Jew is the eternal foreigner, infiltrator, parasite, traitor, whose objective is to corrupt the culture and degenerate the race. He is always suspected of a plot, sometimes as an agent of international communism, sometimes scheming the destinies of the world, since he is part of the financial plutocracy.

Omnipresent and insidious, the Jew represents the greatest danger to Western civilization since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Mein Kampf. At the opposite pole is the image of the Jew as a nomad, who does not need a land, as he makes incessant movement his own home. By definition, he lives on the margins of the Empire, in the desert, in dispersion, in exile, exposed to all winds and events. Alien to the State and its powers, he is a transgressor, subverts codes, shuffles pertinences, draws a transversal or escape line. Hence the idea of ​​a “nomadic thought”, as Giles Deleuze called it, which crosses borders, which makes movement its existential territory – Nietzsche or Kafka would be significant examples of this.

In this last sense, a possible definition of Jew would be: one capable of becoming-something-other-than-Jewish. It's not Woody Allen's Zelig, which he just imitates. Neither does Isaac Deutscher's non-Jewish Jew, with his double life. It is something more subtle: a certain power of metamorphosis, of reinvention of oneself in the neighborhood with otherness. Not stupendous Our song, by Jean-Luc Godard, an Israeli journalist interviews the Palestinian poet Darwish, who, deprived of his land, made words his homeland. And she comments: “you start to sound like a Jew!” The becoming-Jewish of the Palestinian, the becoming-Palestinian of the Jew.

But let's go back to Brazil. We know that our history has been marked by the Jewish presence since its beginning, with the new Christians and the entire game of hide and seek in the face of persecution by the Inquisition. Interestingly, the first synagogue in the Americas was built in Recife during the Dutch occupation (1630-1654), on the initiative of Sephardic Jews of Portuguese origin who were refugees in the Netherlands. Anyone who pokes around a little ends up finding a great-great-grandfather descended from a crypto-Jew.

But it was in the XNUMXth century that a large Jewish community was formed, with massive waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe fleeing pogroms first, and Nazism later. In general, they found a favorable reception here. Aside from the passing alignment of the Estado Novo with the Axis countries, and the consequent relative subordination to some discriminatory dictates, such as the temporary restriction on Jewish immigration and the infamous deportation of Olga Benário, there is no record of systematic anti-Semitism on the part of the State. or the population in general – except for that cultivated by integralism – unlike the Argentine case.

The fact is that the Jewish community in Brazil, in general, enjoyed extraordinary economic, social, academic and cultural opportunities – in addition to absolute freedom of worship, association and community. A Jew cannot complain about a country that has given him so much freedom. But history plays tricks. Take the example of the Bom Retiro neighborhood, in São Paulo. It was once the center of Brazilian Jewish life, or at least in São Paulo: synagogues, cultural centers, charitable organizations, street commerce, the centrality of clothing, children at university, schools with an open vision (Scholem Aleichem), youth movements linked to different schools of thought , sometimes more communist, sometimes more Zionist, sometimes more traditional. Furthermore, the Brazilian Israelite Art Theater (Taib) was active, the Yiddish press, the Brazilian Israelite Cultural Institute (Icib – currently Casa do Povo), not to mention Ezra, Ofidas, the Policlínica, the Credit Cooperative of the Bom Retiro, Chevra Kadisha, and entities in other neighborhoods, such as Lar dos Velhos, the Israeli Federation, the Israeli Confederation of Brazil.

With the social ascension of its members, the majority of the community moved to Higienópolis, Jardins or surrounding areas. The new generation, mostly made up of liberal professionals, doctors, engineers, teachers, psychologists, journalists, editors, or people linked to the fields of commerce or finance, when not businessmen or bankers, stopped living the life of shteitl which was still in force in Bom Retiro. Even so, support networks were preserved, such as Lar das Crianças, founded by German Jews, or Unibes, long dedicated to assisting people in a state of vulnerability, or clubs (Hebraica, Macabi).

However, apart from some more religious centers, with their synagogues that were sometimes scandalously ostentatious and protected by fortified walls or surrounded by security guards, in general community ties tended to loosen. On the other hand, identification with the Jewish State was strengthened. It is understandable that this attitude comes from the survivors of the Shoah spread across the world in the immediate post-war period, who yearned for a protective reference.

But with the gradual bourgeoisization of the community, we can risk the hypothesis that the State of Israel – and no longer a promised land of peace and justice – ended up gaining prevalence in Jewish life. Instead of the spiritual horizon, adaptation to geopolitical concreteness. Now, since since 1977, with the election of Menachem Beguin, Israeli politics has undergone a right-wing turn, the diaspora could not remain indifferent to such a shift.

How far we are today from the profile we drew of the wandering or nomadic Jew. The founding of the State of Israel as the national Home of the Jews, by offering them a territory, also subjectively re-territorialized them. The Israeli should be tough, strong, victorious, and separate himself as much as possible from the image of the diasporic Jew, fragile, vulnerable, stateless. There was no shortage of Israeli intellectuals to question this arrogant image: the writers Amós Oz and David Grossman, the poet Léa Goldberg, the filmmaker Amós Gitai, the philosopher and religious biologist Yeshayau Leibovics (who, when referring to the occupation of the West Bank, coined the intolerable expression for an Israeli: Nazi-Zionism!), activist and journalist Uri Avenry – are some of a huge list.

Nevertheless, the Six Day War, the conquest of Palestinian territories, the increasingly perverse mechanisms in the management of the subjected population, the growing veneration of the State, the supremacy of the Army, the mirage of a Holy Land, and the biblical law of “elected people” to it, as well as the unconditional alignment with the United States, resulted in what we see today – the most sinister alliance between the nationalist and colonialist extreme right and religious fundamentalism.

The worst thing, if we ventured a broader reflection, is that the State of Israel claims the exclusive right to represent world Jewry and inherit its legacy. It thus dictates its national form and political coloring. It is a kidnapping of the multiplicity that previously made up the historical memory of the diaspora.

It is known that an important advisor marketing American politician, Arthur Finkelstein, invited by Bibi Nethanyau to assist in an especially difficult campaign following Rabin's assassination, had an acute reading of the Israeli scenario and a diabolical suggestion. His diagnosis was that the right identified itself more as “Jewish”, the left more as “Israeli”. To change the country's political direction it was necessary to contaminate the environment with a “Jewish” discourse – a strange paradox for a nation that wanted to get rid of its diasporic image.

That is what happened. It is unnecessary to remember that this same consultant, also a Jew, was the one who suggested to Prime Minister Victor Orbán that he would make the mega-investor a Jewish and Hungarian millionaire, residing in the United Kingdom, George Soros, founder of Open Society, the country's number one public enemy, increasing the strength of the Hungarian right and its anti-Semitic dimension!

The price a country pays for 55 years of domination over millions of Palestinians is not small. We talk about the Israelis killed in combat to perpetuate the occupation, but above all about the insensitivity that accompanies the historical reversal of places. The current government, which considers itself heir to the victims of Nazism, does not see the extent to which it plays the role of executioner today.

Sensory shielding in discourse and practice, in the media and in population management, has made micropolitical and macropolitical violence natural. State of exception, says Giorgio Agamben, necropolitics, says Mbembe. The Iranian threat, which is real, only covers up and reinforces the denial of the occupation of the territories – a taboo topic, always relegated to the background, although it occupies the news daily. It is the law of the strongest redesigning geopolitics and its priorities.

And what effect does this have on Brazilian Jews? That's what we saw: the rapprochement of part of the community with the presidential candidate who never hid his sympathies towards authoritarian regimes. His government resurrected what seemed outdated: hints of white suprematism, contempt for indigenous or precarious populations, propaganda inspired by Goebbels, the valorization of military or militia force, assumed warmongering, the systematic attack on institutions and culture, genocide.

In short, a far-right agenda aligned with the most regressive thing imaginable. Furthermore, the Brazilian extreme right's unrestricted adherence to Israeli politics was visible: the Israeli flag became part of the Bolsonarista campaign, and even appeared in the coup invasion of the palaces in Praça dos Três Poderes on January 8, 2023! In other words, for many Jews there was no contradiction between fascist or proto-Nazi stances and unconditional alignment with Israel. Everything fit.

Bolsonarism achieved the support of part of Brazilian Jews not despite its fascist facet, but precisely because of it. Therefore, it is necessary to ask ourselves what happened to part of this community, from an ethical or political point of view, which went from being a persecuted or refugee minority to occupying an upper middle class status and adhering to totalitarian ideologies.

The laughter and applause that Jair Bolsonaro's racist humor drew from the public during a lecture at Hebraica in Rio de Janeiro, during his 2018 presidential campaign, was just one of the signs of this. The participation of a Weintraub in the Ministry of Education was another – this is where we ended up: an illiterate man who proudly quotes the famous Jewish writer named Kafta.

It is difficult not to weigh these aspects when questioning what the degree of pertinence, participation and involvement of a Jew in the Brazilian context should or can be. The disgust that many people felt about the active complicity of part of the community with an agenda that decades earlier had been, for European Jews, the cause of their misfortune. That the target is now black or indigenous, gay or poor, imprisoned and defenseless of all kinds, only testifies to the profound change in inclination and sensitivity of part of the Jewish community, given its class recomposition, its identification with the elites of a country so unequal, with the consequent conformism in the face of atavistic (structural) racism from which, in fact, it too, as part of the white portion of the population, became part of it.

The white elites of this country have the greatest difficulty in recognizing the “whiteness” on which their privileges rest. The same goes for the Jews, no matter how much they hide themselves from the history of persecution they were victims of. The lack of empathy with descendants of horrendous tragedies such as those of Afro-descendants or indigenous peoples raises caustic questions about the dialectic of domination, identification with the aggressor, denial, the difficulty in working through trauma, and historical repetition.

Now, how to change this? There is, in my opinion, no quick solution, just as there is no quick solution for fascism. The fight is the same, the challenge is the same. Even if specific initiatives could be carried out in community spaces, which are becoming increasingly scarce, I do not believe that they will have any effectiveness if they remain disconnected from the wider environment.

Casa do Povo, mentioned above, is a good example in this direction, with its line of action that is both local and global, singular and universal, historical and current. A shelter for those persecuted during the military dictatorship, today the Yiddish choir, Jewish celebrations, rehearsals and presentations by Guaraní, Bolivian and transsexual artistic groups coexist side by side, discussions about June 2013, rehearsals by Cia Teatral Ueinzz. It is in this confluence between different worlds that some way out can be seen.

Another route that comes to mind, in the same vein, is that of books. Jacó Guinsburg taught us what a publisher can do in a country like Brazil. Alongside Scholem, Buber, Agnon and the greatest names in world Jewish literature, the boldest catalog of universal thought, from Plato to Nietzsche, from the complete works of Spinoza to Hannah Arendt, not to mention classic and modern essays on aesthetics, from theater, semiotics – the list is endless. What Brazil owes to this editorial project has yet to be written.

The small publishing house we founded ten years ago follows in the wake of such a spirit. Titles like critique of black reason (Mbembe), Bodies that matter (Butler), Cannibal metaphysics (Viveiros de Castro), Cosmopolitics of animals (J. Fausto), contrasexual manifesto (Preçado), The kingdom and the garden (Agamben), The enigma of revolt (Foucault) are a small sampling of the various worlds summoned by n-1 editions. Sparse, family memoir by Georges Didi-Huberman about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to be released during the week celebrating the anniversary at Casa do Povo, makes the bridge more directly with the Jewish universe.

But it is necessary to say a last word about exponents of culture of Jewish origin who gave themselves body and soul to the Brazilian context. Clarice Lispector, Paulo Rónai, Maurício Tragtemberg, Mira Schendel, Vladimir Herzog, Jorge Mautner, Boris Schnaiderman, here too the list is immense.

However, I would highlight one of the most touching figures from the point of view of the encounter with otherness. Claudia Andujar was born in Switzerland and spent her childhood in Transylvania, at the time under Hungarian rule. With the Nazi invasion, his entire paternal family was deported to Auschwitz. As an adult, she ended up in Brazil, where she worked as a photographer and became especially interested in the Yanomami.

All of his artistic work, which is his life, was dedicated to the defense of this ethnic group. In 1977 he founded the Pro-Yanomami Commission (CCPY). Allied with the shaman Davi Kopenawa and the missionary Carlo Zacquini, she undertook a large-scale international campaign in favor of demarcation, the result of which was the ratification, in 1992, of the Yanomami Indigenous Land. Recently, amidst the revelation of the genocide in that area, which coincided with a large exhibition of her works in New York, Claudia reiterated on a national media network the connection between the two ends of her life: having lost her family in the Holocaust, she embraced treats the Yanomami as his own, preventing them from being exterminated. Could there be a more worthy example of the meeting and intertwining of different worlds? Isn't there something profoundly Jewish about this ethic of alliance and solidarity?

Perhaps this is what we most lack, in Brazil, among the so-called minorities – that what in the indigenous universe is the responsibility of the shaman is done – negotiation between worlds. A shaman offers himself as a “cosmopolitical” diplomat, between the living and the dead, animals and humans, past and present. Keeping all proportions in mind, in the immense diversity that makes up this country, perhaps the most important thing is to favor coexistence between the plurality of worlds, without any of them claiming exclusivity – unlike what the previous government tried, with its project to refound Brazil on evangelical and suprematist bases.

Coexistence does not mean everyone closed in their own ghetto, cultivating their essentialist identity, in a shallow multiculturalism. Such worlds must be able to affect each other, infect each other, and sensitize each other. Sometimes, new peoples and other ways of populating the planet can even be born from this.

But how can we rise to such a challenge? Could we not dream of a “cosmopolitical international”? Is such an aspiration an alternative to Eurocentric Jewish messianism, once so pregnant and fruitful, but increasingly faded and inoperative?

*Peter Pál Pelbart He is a professor of philosophy at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of The reverse of nihilism: cartographies of exhaustion (N-1 Editions). []

Originally published in Conib Notebooks, August 2023.

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