Rio de Janeiro — When Alan Rochlin joined hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets in 2011 to protest skyrocketing living costs, he never imagined he would be doing the same in his native Brazil just two years later.
But as Brazilians made international headlines in late June with massive anti-government protests, Rochlin, a 21-year-old marketing student and leader of the Jewish youth movement Chazit Hanoar Hadrom Americait (Youth Front of South America), was one of many Jews among them.
For Rochlin, the connection was obvious.
“Israeli society took to the streets in order to have a debate and start a dialogue,” he said, recalling his experience during an extended stay in Israel. Similarly in Brazil now, “we are debating, questioning and demanding change, and we’ll follow through to make sure [changes] are really going to materialize.”
Rochlin, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is far from alone. Jewish movements such as Hillel, Habonim Dror and Chazit Hanoar, and their members, have joined the wide cross-section of Brazilians now rocking the country with their protests. But while the Jewish protesters’ sentiments are part and parcel of the feelings sweeping across Brazilian society, many cite their identity as Jews as a primary wellspring of their activism.
“I believe the highest call of my Jewish identity is to change the world. I hold tikkun olam [repair of the world] as the most coherent expression of Jewish values,” said Bruno Cintra, a blogger well known in the Jewish community for his writing on Brazilian culture and politics.
Cintra spoke to the Forward while sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of Delfim Moreira Avenue, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most expensive and exclusive beachside roads. After participating in many of the protests, Cintra decided to join a movement called Ocupa Cabral (Occupy Cabral), which set up camp with a dozen tents and pan-drumming demonstrators in front of the building of Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral on this tony street. Police evicted Cintra’s group on the night of July 1, the 11th day of its sit-in. But the group is already planning a reoccupation.
“After so many years of crime, robbery and massacres, the people took to the streets and erupted in peaceful protests,” Cintro said, alluding to the corruption that protesters cite as one of the main targets of their ire.
The protests peaked most recently on June 20, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Rio in a peaceful demonstration; it was the largest protest in the country since the pro-democracy rallies of 1984. The show of people power came after a week of demonstrations, held in more than 100 cities in nearly every state of the nation. Protesters, many of whom come from the middle and upper-middle class, cited a panoply of long-standing discontents, including corruption, skyrocketing living costs and what they see as the refusal of the political class to even hear their complaints. Still, the true meaning of what’s going on remains hard to grasp.