Late last month, at a synagogue in Rio de Janeiro, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed his love for his new bestie, Brazil’s incoming president, Jair Bolsonaro. According to Netanyahu: “It’s not just friendship … it’s a pact of brothers.”
We understand, of course, that nations need to have diplomatic relations with other nations. And we are painfully aware that as Israel is still shunned by a good portion of the world community, it needs to welcome relationship-building opportunities with those willing to engage. As such, to the extent Bolsonaro’s election promises to ease the strain of Brazil’s past tense relations with Israel, there is reason for optimism. And the new president’s pledge to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem is a good thing.
But to call a man like Bolsonaro a brother, or “yedidi,” Hebrew for my friend, as Netanyahu did, is really troubling. Here is the man Netanyahu has embraced: He is a far-right former army captain who has praised Brazil’s former dictatorship and its decades of military oppression. He has insulted women, descendants of slaves and gays, going so far as to say: “I’d prefer [to see] a son of mine die in an accident than [to be] a homosexual.” So what does Netanyahu find so attractive in this guy?
Netanyahu has cultivated good working relations with other strongmen, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. This has been so, even as Russia has increased its presence in the Middle East, and has supported Iran and Syria, Israel’s sworn enemies. Nonetheless, Netanyahu appears to have navigated good relations with Putin, and we understand the value of such statecraft.
But we don’t understand Netanyahu’s embrace of Bolsonaro. Nor do we understand his attraction to Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, whom Netanyahu welcomed to Israel last summer as “a true friend of Israel.” And yes, that’s the same Orban who praised the leader of Hungary’s pro-Nazi government during World War II, has promoted a conspiracy campaign against Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros, railed against refugees despite there being nearly none entering his country, threatened native Roma and strangled democracy during his four terms in office.
Netanyahu has also made common cause with Poland’s increasingly undemocratic government. Last year he praised a government statement on Polish involvement in the Holocaust, which glossed over the complicity of many Poles in Nazi-led atrocities, and which was roundly criticized by Yad Vashem.
We are concerned with Netanyahu’s growing right-wing brotherhood. Although these guys say they are friends of Israel, and may even take positions seen to be in Israel’s short-term interests, they openly trade in anti-Semitism and promote conspiracy theories and fearmongering of the “other.” In the long term, these ultra-nationalist strongmen cannot be good for the Jews.
Note to Netanyahu: Effective diplomacy does not require the abandonment of basic moral values. And it shouldn’t make brothers out of short-term “partners” whom you wouldn’t bring home to meet your sister.