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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Tv Celebrity is a Favorite in Brazilian Elections Next Week

November 8, 1989
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When citizens in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country, go to the polls next Wednesday to choose their first freely elected president in 30 years, they will find a Jew among the candidates with the brightest chances of winning the contest.

Media tycoon and TV entertainer Silvio Santos, 54, the son of Sephardic Jews from Greece, announced his decision to run for Brazil’s highest office only two weeks before the polls open.

Santos, whose real name is Senor Abravanel, enjoys wide popularity as a media personality and holds a good chance of placing himself well ahead of about two dozen other competitors for the same office. His sudden candidacy has thrown a monkey wrench into the electoral trends forecast up till now by public opinion surveys.

It is estimated that Santos’ growing favoritism among working-class voters will provide him with enough votes to make runoff elections, which will take place in December if none of the candidates wins an absolute majority next week.

Santos, a self-made man who started as a street peddler and magician, and rose to become an incredibly successful TV personality, is the son of a former Jewish dockworker from Salonika who immigrated to Brazil at the turn of the century.


The late Moises Abravanel was, in his days, a well-known figure around the port of Rio de Janeiro, who eked out a living working as an interpreter and tourist guide. He was fluent in about a dozen languages, including Yiddish, which he spoke as freely as Ladino, the language spoken in the Abravanels’ Sephardic household.

The youngest of Abravanel’s four sons and daughters became a hit among poor people, maids and hard-luck laborers, who every Sunday packed the theater hall in the outskirts of Sao Paulo where he ran a weekly, 12-hour TV program whose chief attraction was the profuse distribution of sizable prizes to contestants from the audience.

Unlike other media stars in Brazil, who were mostly opposed to the oppressive military regime that ran the country at the time, Santos curried favor with the army brass, a practice that eventually won him one of the most coveted political plums: the operation of a TV network.

SBT, the network founded 10 years ago by Santos, is now Brazil’s second largest.

As a presidential candidate, Santos has so far not shown much concern with winning the Jewish vote, as he concentrates his campaign on winning a more sizable share of the vote.

He declares himself proud of his Jewish heritage, but keeps very loose ties with Judaism. He married a practicing Catholic in a civil ceremony, and little is known about the upbringing of the couple’s six children.

In an interview with the Jewish magazine Shalom, Santos said that he never goes to synagogue, but does fast on Yom Kippur “to keep God appeased.”

In fact, the Jewish community of Brazil, with its estimated 200,000 members, has little numerical weight in an electorate of 86 million registered voters. It pales by comparison with the community of Arab immigrants and descendants, thought to number about 2 million strong.

Yet Jews are seen as potentially influential on public opinion because of the key positions held by members of the community in all fields of life, notably in the media, business, industry and academic life.


An indication of the respect in which candidates hold the Jewish community is the fact that all of them, except two of the left-wing candidates agreed to appear at the Hebraica Club in Sao Paulo, to answer questions on matters of specific Jewish interest.

One of the candidates who had a frank discussion with Jewish voters at Hebraica was Communist candidate Roberto Freire, who surprised the audience with his moderate opinions on the Middle East conflict.

Another participant was Fernando Collor de Mello, now the front-runner in the opinion polls.

In front of an enthusiastic Jewish audience, Collor de Mello went as far as claiming a remote Jewish ancestry and stating that if he is elected, he will never recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization or a Palestinian state.

But later, under pressure from the Arab lobby, which claims to speak on behalf of hundreds of thousands of voters, Collor de Mello withdrew his earlier statements, claiming he had been misquoted by the press.

All candidates presented their views on the Middle East in a series of interviews with the Shalom monthly. All adopted a cautious stance and spoke vaguely of their concern for peace in the Middle East, without taking sides on matters such as the PLO and a Palestinian state.

The sole exception was Freire, the Communist, who proposed a demilitarized Palestinian state to be created alongside Israel, on the basis of proper security arrangements.


In Brazil, one cannot speak of a unified Jewish vote, since most members of the community take various and sometimes contradictory stands on most political issues.

Anti-Semitism in the classic sense is almost unknown to Brazilians, who pride themselves on being the greatest interracial democracy in the world, with 140 million inhabitants who represent a wide cross section of ethnic groups that emigrated from all corners of the planet.

Although Brazil is in the grip of hyperinflation that approaches 50 percent monthly Jews belonging to the middle class are still mostly well-to-do and feel somehow protected from economic woes.

Social gaps are dramatically striking in Brazil, but most Jews are on the more privileged side of society, with cases of poverty almost unknown in the community.

The sole “Jewish issue” to pop up during the electoral campaign concerns the publication of a series of books aimed at denying and distorting the true facts of the Holocaust. The books have surfaced in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which harbors a large community of former pro-Nazi Germans, including some suspected war criminals.

Although the Jewish Federation in Rio Grande do Sul has requested that the publishing house and its books be outlawed, most candidates, including Santos, have reacted cautiously, claiming that such action would involve difficult questions concerning free speech and other civil rights.

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