SAO PAULO, Brazil, June 19 (JTA) — First it happened in Rio de Janeiro. Now it’s happening in Sao Paulo. In the space of less than a year, Israel has decided to close its two consulates in Brazil. Its embassy in Brasilia, the capital, will remain open. The latest consulate closure, in Brazil’s largest city, is generating considerable concern among Sao Paulo’s 60,000 Jews, who represent half the Jewish population of South America’s largest country. Many of them did not even know of the impending closure until the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo published an interview recently with the Israeli consul general in Sao Paulo, Medad Medina. Medina said he was told of the official decision by telegram. “Jews and Israel will be underrepresented without a consulate in Sao Paulo,” said Rabbi Henry Sobel, a leading Jewish figure in the country and spiritual leader of Brazil’s largest synagogue, the 2,000-family Congregacao Israelita Paulista. Compounding general anxiety about the closure is the sense among community leaders that Israel will be ill-equipped to promote its interests in a city that is the hub of Brazil’s Muslim community, estimated at 1.5 million people. The president of the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation, Jayme Blay, sent Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter urging him to reconsider the consulate’s closure, slated for July. The letter made note of the so-called “triple frontier,” the place where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet, which is considered a hot zone of terrorist fund raising and activity. “We think a city with so many Arabs and descendants, after September 11 and with the danger for Israel and for the Jewish people of the frontiers between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, deserves a consulate of the State of Israel,” Blay wrote. For the purposes of “lobbying and public relations, one essential piece, is the consulate of the State of Israel,” he said in the letter. Sobel echoed Blay’s sentiments. “The Arab community in our city is very strong and most of the Arab countries — Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, for example — have consulates in Sao Paulo,” he said. “The recently elected president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has taken a very public and outspoken position in favor of the Arabs in the Middle East,” Sobel said. “This is a time for Israel to open more consulates in the country, not to close down the only one that is left.” Sobel, a Reform rabbi known for his interfaith activism, said he did not expect anti-Semitism in Brazil to rise. He added, “An Israeli consulate is not a luxury which can be dispensed with because of financial considerations. Whatever is saved in terms of money will be lost in terms of public opinion.” Many Israeli consulates and missions around the world are being closed, largely due to budget cuts. According to a recent interview with a spokesman of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, David Saranga, published in Folha de Sao Paulo, the Sao Paulo consulate is one of 20 slated for closure. In a sign of the consulate’s importance to the Jews of this city of 20 million, some are suggesting that local community members bankroll the consulate’s operation. “Our community has important institutions and powerful businessmen,” said David Neto, a board member of Sao Paulo’s Jewish federation and the Hebraica club, a Jewish association. “They might be able to raise the needed funds to keep our consulate working by reducing all expenses to a minimum threshold,” he said. “Keeping the Israeli consulate working is keeping a piece of Israel right beside us. It’s a very important defense against our enemies, who will now feel more comfortable to attack us.” The president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Israel-Brazil, Tzvi Chazan, argued in a letter to Sharon and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that the closure also will harm Israel’s economic interests in Brazil, a market with 175 million consumers. “This decision will damage the political and economical [sic] relations between Israel and Brazil, in our opinion. Sao Paulo is the most important political and economical [sic] center in South America,” he wrote. Blay, in his letter, pointed out, “The consulate also plays an important role by giving orientation to the growing number of Christians pilgrims who head to the Holy Land every year.” Ricardo Berkiensztat, vice president of the Jewish federation in Sao Paulo, said he doesn’t think the community’s efforts to keep the consulate open will succeed. “Reaction is growing, but it seems unfruitful,” Berkiensztat said. He blamed the Palestinian intifada against Israel for the closure. “It destroyed the Israeli budget,” he said. Though saddened by the plans for the closure, Berkiensztat said he believes Sao Paulo’s Jews will endure. “We haven’t had time yet to organize but we will certainly find a new path,” he said. “Now we’ll have the mission to become ‘ambassadors’ of the Jewish state in Sao Paulo by working harder for Israel.”
Marcus M. Gilban is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals.