Behind the Headlines the Jews of Brazil

Brazil’s Jewish community of about 150,000 is a tiny percentage of the country’s 130 million people, but there is a significant number of Jewish candidates for office in this year’s November 15 election. Those elected to the federal legislature will also draft Brazil’s new Constitution.

While the Jewish community, as community, does not take a political stand, the PMDB, the current party in power (and former opposition party), is probably the party that most individuals affiliate with.

Since this centrist party runs the gamut from left to right (causing it something of an identity crisis at present), it is a comfortable affiliation for people who are neither radical leftists nor pro-rightist dictatorship. Benno Milnitzky, president of Confederacao do Brasil, said that many Jews who belong to the left of the PMDB have connections with the Jewish community.

A JEWISH CANDIDATE

One such member of the community is Eva Blay, a professor in the social science department at University of Sao Paulo. The PMDB has chosen her as first alternate on the ticket of sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is running for the Federal Senate.

If he wins, which seems a good possibility, and if he then is named a Minister or otherwise does not complete his term, Blay becomes a Senator. If this occurs, she will be the first Jewish woman to ever have been a Federal Senator in Brazil. (Former Senator Aarao Steinbruch is the only Jew to have served in the Senate.)

Blay and Fernando Henrique Cardoso are just two of a large number of academics running for office this year. There are five candidates in Blay’s department. She explains that sociologists were involved in politics and social studies in the past, but could not enter politics. Her way of being political was involvement with social movements, particularly the women’s movement.

“In 1980 when the country began to redemocratize, I entered PMDB,” she said. “It was dangerous at the moment to be linked to a party. We joined to help force the democratization. Our jobs were placed in jeopardy and our civil rights were not respected. In my department, many teachers (including Fernando Henrique) and students lost their civil rights. They could not work, and they were not allowed to participate in any political activity or travel.”

Blay was one of the first who studied women’s problems and researched political participation of women. She was one of the founders and first president of the Sao Paulo Council on the Condition of Women. Her involvement with the Jewish community, too, has been through sociology. She describes herself as “a Jewish woman involved with politics, as a woman, a Jew and a Brazilian,” and says her links to the Jewish community are “both personal and academic.”

Blay has done original research, collecting life histories of elderly Jewish people in Sao Paulo to record their collective memory. Following her research, she made the first videotape on the Jewish community, “Judeus em Sao Paulo — Encontro de Diferentes Trajetorias.” The tape was done after she used the methodology of oral history to collect 90 stories of the life of Jewish immigrants, with photographs and documentation.

Blay says she considers herself a Zionist, and doses not understand how Zionism came to be considered racist and imperialist. She said she discusses this at women’s conferences, and she is still visibly upset about the aftermath of the Conference on the Decade of Women, which she attended in Nairobi in the summer of 1985.

In September of that year, the Brazilian Jewish newspaper, Resenha Judaica, published two articles, after interviewing Romy Medeiros da Fonseca, a non-Jewish Rio de Janeiro woman who was president of the National Council of Women in Brazil. The articles claimed that Blay, then president of the Sao Paulo Council on the Condition of Women, as well as other Jewish women, was pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel at the United Nations End of the Decade women’s conference in Nairobi, Kenya, last year. The journalist who wrote the articles never called Blay for clarification; he simply printed the criticism of her.

Blay wrote a letter of denial to the editor, which the newspaper later printed. But she said the people who read the original articles did not necessarily read her letter. She also sent her letter to many members of the Jewish community and speaks of the smear at every occasion. “But it is very difficult to clear such a situation,” she told this reporter.

WIDE RANGING JEWISH POLITICAL PRESENCE

In addition to the Jewish office seekers such as Blay, and the involvement of a large number of individuals in the PMDB and of a small number in the Workers Party (PT), there is a visible Jewish presence supporting such candidates as Alberto Goldman, Communist Party (PCB) candidate for Federal Deputy, and Paulo Maluf, candidate for governor of Sao Paulo for both the Social Democrat (PDS) and Liberal Front (PFL) Parties.

Maluf’s candidacy is feared by many people who look forward to Brazil’s continuing movement toward democratization, because of his links to the former dictatorship. He was State Governor during the Presidencies of Generals Emilio Medici and Ernesto Geisel. Until recently, Maluf was seen as a symbol of an undesirable past now definitely overcome by the so-called New Republic. But his acceptance among the voters seems to grow with each new poll, according to the Latin America Daily Post.

Among Maluf’s backers is a core of very wealthy Jewish businessmen in the city of Sao Paulo. Rabbi Henry Sobel of Congregacao Israelita Paulista explains that Jewish business interests support Maluf because he is good for business. Other members of the Jewish community do not like his ideology and his connections to the military. In July, one of the wealthiest Jews in Sao Paulo held a fund-raiser for Maluf; social obligations were said to have made attendance mandatory for some community leaders who really did not want to be there.

Many of Goldman’s Jewish supporters are also at least very comfortable money-wise, although they and he are members of the Communist Party. Goldman was a member of PCB until it was outlawed. In 1970, he was elected State Deputy running on the MDB (later the PMDB) ticket. He said he had been considered too left by the Jewish community, and that only a small number of Jews worked on his 1970 campaign.

In later campaigns there was more participation because his political prestige had grown. Now that he returned to PCB last year (when it again became legal), he feels he may have lost some Jewish support. Because PCB has ties with the Soviet Union, the questions of Soviet Jewry and the PLO make support difficult for some members of the Jewish community. Goldman said he does not negate his Jewishness. He considers himself both a Communist and a Jew, and feels no contradiction. One Jewish leader described the Communist Jews as being “on uneasy terms with the rest of the community.”

JEWISH VOTING PATTERN

Sobel and others agree that in Brazil Jews do not vote for Jews because they are Jewish. There is no such phenomenon as a Jewish elected official serving the interests of Israel or the Jewish community. Because voting is not done by district, a specific locality with a dense Jewish population cannot become a constituency for a specific candidate.

In a nation of 130 million people, the 150,000 (more or less) Jews cannot make an impact as a voting bloc. “Unless a candidate goes specifically against the Jewish community, which has never happened here, the Jews in Brazil vote independently of their Jewishness,” Sobel said. “It is safe to say that the Jews are really motivated by what is best for Brazil.”

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