RIO DE JANEIRO (Apr. 22)
Responding to the crisis in Israel, Sao Paulo’s Jews have held what is being called the largest Jewish event in the 500-year history of Brazilian Jewry.
Some 10,000 Jews joined a pro-Israel rally Sunday along Sao Paulo’s elegant streets, walking from the Israeli Consulate up to the wealthy neighborhood of Pinheiros and the Hebraica club, one of the city’s main Jewish gathering points.
At the club, a ceremony was held in support of Israel with major Jewish community and religious leaders.
Jews of all ages — from children sitting on parents’ shoulders to wheelchair-bound elderly — attended the march. Teen-aged girls in tiny skirts and pierced bellybuttons walked alongside black-hatted Orthodox rabbis, singing Hebrew songs.
Huge signs in Hebrew and Portuguese called for peace in the Middle East and condemned anti-Semitism.
The blue and white of the Israeli flag flew alongside the Brazilian flag’s green and yellow, symbolizing the Jewish community’s integration in Brazilian society. Signs, flags, pins, stickers and T-shirts carried pro-peace slogans, and a white pigeon flying out of a hand with a Star of David was used as the main symbol for the event.
For Roberto Leon, 33, a business administrator, "one of the major differences between a Jewish demonstration and others is that ours is completely peaceful, with no aggressiveness, no yelling of curses, no flags burning, no killing orders," he said.
About half of Brazil’s 120,000 Jews live in Sao Paulo. No more than 4,000 were expected to attend the event, however, and the extra 6,000 clearly impressed organizers and demonstrators.
"This is one the most significant events in our history as Brazilian Jews," journalist Alberto Danon said. "You have here all types of social classes, all ideological streams. It’s a beautiful example of citizenship and self- identification for one cause, a great mark for future generations."
The demonstration was planned by the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation and Brazil’s Israelite Confederation.
For Danon, one of the most touching moments was when Holocaust survivors began shaking Israeli flags from the windows of their bus.
"Israel seeks peace, not war," 80-year-old Bronia Popelnik said. The great-grandmother stood beside a sign reading "Am Yisrael Chai," which she translated into Portuguese for non-Jewish journalists.
Flora Rosenbaum Balazs was honored at the end of the rally at the Hebraica club. Last August, Balazs and her stepdaughter appeared covered with blood — their own and others’ — on Brazilian television, minutes after surviving the bombing at Jerusalem’s Sbarro pizzeria, where Balazs lost her husband Jorge.
"We want peace, this is every Jew’s most profound wish," she said, adding that she supports international intervention in the region.
"If all the countries acted together, maybe they could come up with something concrete toward peace," Balazs said.
However, Patricia Cukerman, 33, said non-Israelis have no right to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decisions.
"He is the one in charge, so he is the only one who can decide," she said. "As Jewish and Brazilian, I would like the rest of the world to be just like here in Brazil, where Jews and Arabs live together in harmony."
For student Denis Benenchtein, 25, the major problem is radicalism among both Israelis and Palestinians.
"As long as there is hatred on both sides, there won’t be peace," he warned.
Buses from several smaller communities in Sao Paulo State arrived for the rally, along with others from Rio de Janeiro, which has the country’s second-largest Jewish community. The Rio community is scheduled to hold its own rally next week.
"It’s indescribable. Truly unbelievable. I had only seen such a big rally when I lived in Israel during the first intifada," said cantor and Bar Mitzvah teacher Uri Lam, 32. "Our continuity as a united people is guaranteed by our youth, who beautifully and consciously answered this call, proving the importance of our youth movements and Jewish schools."
Also on Sunday, some 1,500 Jews in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, marched in a public park in support of Israel.