Special to the JTA Catholic-jewish Relations in Brazil
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Special to the JTA Catholic-jewish Relations in Brazil

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The National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil has issued a 187-page “Guide for a Catholic-Jewish Dialogue in Brazil,” according to Rabbi Henry Sobel, coordinator of the National Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue sponsored by the Bishop’s Conference there.

Sobel, who heads the commission of five Jewish and five Catholic leaders, is rabbi at Congregacao Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, the largest synagogue in Latin America.

The guide was prepared by the commission and distributed last month to Brazil’s 229 Catholic archdioceses and dioceses by the National Bishops’ Conference, and covers such subjects as Israel, Jewish history, the Holocaust, roots of anti-Semitism, Judaism in Brazil, and interfaith cooperation, Sobel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during his visit to New York last week to speak to the American Jewish Committee.

Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, some 117 million, and the Jewish population is only about 150,000. “The mere fact that the Catholic Church reaches out to the small Jewish minority reflects theological and political sensitivity, commitment and vision,” Sobel said.


Most significant is the fact that the book acknowledges the legitimate existence of the State of Israel within secure boundaries, Sobel said. He emphasized, however, that the Bishops’ Conference does not have within its powers the ability to recognize or not recognize Israel. “This can only come from the Vatican,” Sobel said. “But the mere fact that the Brazilian Bishops speak of ‘the right of the Jews to a peaceful political existence in their land of origin’ reflects tremendous sensitivity.”

The introduction to the guide says its objective is “helping Catholics in Brazil to understand better the historical, religious and national aspirations of the Jewish people.”

Written in simple language, the guide is designed to stimulate discussion on Judaism in the Catholic churches and schools in Brazil. Suggested questions include: Does anyone know a Jew? Are there prejudices in this society? To what extent is the figure of Judas used to strengthen prejudices against Jews? The manual points out the sources of traditional and continuing distrust between Catholics and Jews.

The Bishops’ Conference is known for its political activism for social justice in Brazil. In addition, “they are ecumenical in spirit and action and deeply committed to dialogue with the Jewish community,” according to Sobel.

In November 1985, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the first Pan-American Conference on Catholic-Jewish Relations was held in Sao Paulo, under the sponsorship of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference. Seven resolutions were adopted, including one that stated “Zionism is not racism,” to mark the 10th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adoption of the infamous Zionism is racism resolution.


In his remarks to the AJCommittee, Sobel said that the major problem confronting Jews in Brazil was not anti-Semitism but Semitism — the preservation of Jewish identity.

“If we are mesmerized by anti-Semitism,” Sobel stated, “we divert our energy from many more urgent problems on our agenda: Jewish identity, Jewish education, Jewish values, Jewish culture. We are so concerned with the idea that we may some day be denied the right to be Jews, that we neglect our duty to remain Jews.

“Our most urgent task in Brazil today is not only to combat possible anti-Semitic trends. Brazilians are among a most tolerant people, and consequently, anti-Semitism is not a major threat. The prominent task is to motivate Jews to remain Jews.”

Sobel emphasized that he was not discounting difficulties facing Jews in Brazil. He noted that: Brazil is leaning more on oil-producing countries to cope with a mounting international debt of $120 billion; pro-PLO groups have used the Israeli operation in Lebanon as an excuse to intensify their public demonstrations; the Methodist University of Piracicaba recently joined with the PLO in seminars on the “Zionist threat”; and Brazil, as a major arms manufacturer, has sensitive relations with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other anti-Israel Arab nations.

Present-day uncertainties affecting Brazil’s Jews, Sobel told the AJCommittee, center largely on their former tendency to keep their distance from social justice movements. Until recently, he stated, because of the rightwing government, any movement for human rights was automatically interpreted as a leftist movement against the government.


But now, he pointed out, Brazil is on the way to becoming one of the world’s largest democracies. Moreover, he said, the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America has been opposing the “conservative power structure” and Jews are less inclined to avoid association with human rights causes.

As a result, Sobel asserted, the ethical values of Judaism have more space to express themselves and more of an opportunity to affect the lives of Jews. “The problem Jews face,” he said, “is how to adapt to this period of liberalization. Just as we have the liberty to manifest ourselves as Jews, so do anti-Semites have the liberty to manifest themselves as anti-Semites.”

Born in Lisbon, Portugal, of Belgian refugees from Hitler, Sobel was raised in New York City. He received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1970 and soon afterwards moved to Brazil.

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