RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — As the left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva completed a triumphant return to politics by beating incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a tight election on Sunday, Brazilian Jewish groups welcomed him with a conciliatory message they hope will cool down the polarization within their deeply split 120,000-strong community.
“President Lula, we wish you every success in your four-year term. At the same time, we reiterate our permanent readiness for constructive and democratic dialogue,” read a note signed by Claudio Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, the country’s umbrella Jewish organization.
Da Silva, a former union leader who was president of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, garnered 50.90% of all valid votes in the tight Sunday runoff. President Bolsonaro, a fervently Christian right-wing nationalist, received 49.10%.
Lottenberg’s statement points to the fact that Jewish groups had a very rocky relationship with da Silva, nicknamed Lula, during his tenure.
In 2009, da Silva warmly welcomed former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious Holocaust denier whose regime persecuted minorities and critics, for a visit that drew international criticism.
One year later, da Silva became Brazil’s first head of state to visit Israel since Brazilian Emperor Pedro II toured the Holy Land in 1876. However, he refused to visit Theodor Herzl’s grave on part of the itinerary for visiting foreign officials in honor of the 150th anniversary of the father of Zionism. Days after, he laid a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave in Ramallah. In the final month of his administration, his government officially recognized a Palestinian state.
“Long live the Brazilian people, who chose the path of freedom and democracy instead of hatred, intolerance, fascism. A heartfelt thank you from this Brazilian-Palestinian diaspora,” read a note by the Brazilian Palestinian federation welcoming da Silva’s victory. Brazil is home to a diaspora of around 60,000 Palestinians.
The PalestinaHoy website went further, posting a picture of Bolsonaro holding an Israeli flag with the words “Zionism was defeated in Brazil.”
While in power, Da Silva enacted ambitious social programs and prioritized foreign policy but his tenure was plagued by scandal. In 2017, he was convicted of corruption and money laundering — which he denied — and was sent to jail, where served 580 days. His political ally and presidential successor Dilma Rousseff was eventually removed from office for manipulating the budget.
Bolsonaro, known for his highly controversial rhetoric — which has been widely labeled at different times as racist, misogynist, homophobic and fascist — developed a historic closeness with Israel and its former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both Brazilian and Israeli media highlighted the fact that Bolsonaro’s wife Michelle wore a T-shirt with an Israeli flag at a polling station on Sunday. The Brazil-Israel Institute, a non-affiliated far-left Jewish group, accused the first lady of appropriating Jewish symbols.
“I don’t believe that the polarization will end in the short term, but many voices and relevant actors are working effectively to at least mitigate it,” Lottenberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We’ll continue to promote civilized and constructive debate between the different currents of Brazilian Jewry, based on the defense of democracy, tolerance, and Jewish values.”