RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct. 1 (JTA) — Sen. Jose Alencar, the leading candidate to become Brazil’s vice president, recently apologized to Brazilian Jews after saying that the only solution to the Middle East conflict was for Israelis to pick up and leave the region. While that may have been the most serious gaffe of the campaign vis-a-vis the Jewish community, Alencar wasn’t alone in expressing anti-Israel sentiments or alienating Brazil’s Jewish community. The three other major candidates chasing Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the longtime Labor leader who is heading Alencar’s slate in the Oct. 6 elections and is known as Lula, also have done so — reflecting both the dominance of Christianity in Brazil and widespread sympathy for the Palestinians. Silva is widely expected to win the vote, though it’s unclear if he will receive the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff. What is clear is that his Labor Party took measures to placate the 120,000 Jews in Brazil after Alencar’s Mideast analysis. A few days after Alencar’s statement, he, Lula and Sao Paulo Mayor Marta Suplicy — whose husband is Jewish — visited Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Brazil’s largest synagogue, during Yom Kippur. They were politely welcomed. Many Jews saw Alencar’s apology as politically motivated and insincere. But Alencar hasn’t been the primary transgressor in the race. Evangelical Christian Anthony Garotinho is probably the figure most responsible for making religion an issue in the presidential race. Garotinho has introduced one political ally by saying, “This is my candidate, in party and faith.” Several of the social programs Garotinho backed as governor of Rio de Janeiro state are said to have unfairly benefited evangelicals. “Garotinho’s attitude toward the evangelicals amounts to discrimination favoring one religious group. I don’t like this kind of discrimination,” said Osias Wurman, the newly elected president of the Rio de Janeiro State Jewish Federation. Jose Serra, currently running second in polls for the presidency, seemed to be on good terms with the Brazilian Jewish community. Serra was greeted warmly when he visited Congregacao Israelita Paulista during the High Holidays. “Avodah, avodah, avodah,” Serra said, meaning that he intends to do good “work” if elected. However, his vice presidential candidate, Rita Camata, told a Brazilian magazine that “I have been following foreign politics very carefully. One of the subjects that attracts me the most is the criminal way that Israel treats the Palestinians.” Candidate Ciro Gomes, who was tied with Lula for first place in the polls until a series of campaign missteps, lost Jewish votes by expressing sympathy for Hitler. “He had something I admire in a man — the determination to do something, although not a good thing,” Gomes said of the Nazi leader. Jack Terpins, president of the Israelite Confederation of Brazil and the Latin American Jewish Congress, said the candidates’ comments stem from ignorance rather than malice. “I believe both Gomes’ and Camata’s declarations may be classified more as a lack of knowledge rather than a political position,” he said. Even as they make missteps on Jewish issues, candidates are courting the Jewish vote. “The visit of candidates to our synagogues is obviously part of their political marketing, and it may be opportunistic. Just the same, it is a nice gesture,” the rabbi of Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Henry Sobel, told JTA. “What they do not know is that the Jewish community does not vote monolithically. In Brazil, just as in any other free country, there are Jewish Communists, Jewish liberals, Jewish conservatives and Jewish reactionaries.” Still, most Jews are expected to support Serra because he is supported by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who has always been very friendly toward the Jews. The separation between church and state has been officially guaranteed in Brazil since 1891, when the country’s first Republican Constitution passed. However, the country’s Portuguese Catholic heritage is clearly evident in today’s Brazil. Census data shows that 73 percent of the country’s 170 million people are Catholic, and another 15 percent are evangelical Christians. As the elections approach, candidates are trying to gain votes by appealing to people’s faith instead of presenting clear proposals. Several candidates have used their allotted space on the daily political hour on televison and radio to express their Christian devoutness. Meanwhile, though no Jews are running for president, many are running hoping to become deputies in the state assemblies. Ironically, 10 Jews are running in Rio de Janeiro and only three in Sao Paulo, though Sao Paulo has 50 percent more Jews. “Our major problem will be at the” Sao Paulo State Assembly, said Natan Berger, president of the Sao Paulo Jewish Federation. “Compared to the Arabs, we are very poorly represented.” The current president of the state assembly, Walter Feldman, who is Jewish, will not run for re-election because he will try for the federal chamber. The lone Jew that the Sao Paulo federation is supporting is David Neto. If he loses, there could be no Jews in the assembly of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state.
Marcus Moraes is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals. He also produces news content for Web sites.