Brazilian Jews Take to Streets To Join Massive Push for Change

Youth Inspired by Jewish Values — and Israeli Protests


By Andrea Palatnik

Published July 06, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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The demonstrations were not connected to any parties. Indeed, whenever members of political movements showed up, they were asked (with varying degrees of courtesy) to put down their flags and banners. Federal, state and local governments were caught off guard, which prompted many to react with violence against unarmed protesters. Political leaders from all sides — who at first scrambled to hijack the movement —became scared and silent as they quickly realized they were not welcome to join, and rather were seen as part of the problem.

Social media played a huge part as a mobilization tool; most demonstrations were organized via Facebook, and the word spread thanks to Twitter. Still, no one expected the huge response, not even the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) group from São Paulo, which launched the protests to complain about public transportation price hikes. And no one has come forward as a leader of the masses. This spontaneity attests to a general sense of irritation but has failed to produce a focused set of demands for the movement.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Jews have joined in these demonstrations readily. Like most of the protesters, the Jews of Brazil, who number more than 107,000, are largely members of the middle and upper-middle-classes, and are highly integrated into Brazilian society. As a group, they stand mostly behind liberal values. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to find members of Brazil’s Jewish community who will agree to make comments against the movement. Efforts to reach Paul Israel Singer, one of the founding fathers of the leftist Workers Party now ruling Brazil, were unsuccessful. Leaders of Brazil’s culturally conservative Chabad-Lubavitch community also declined to comment, as they consider themselves apolitical.

First established during the 16th century by Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Brazil’s Jewish community is today mostly Ashkenazi. Synagogues and organizations, including Zionist groups, operate without interference, and episodes of anti-Semitism, though they occur, are not common.

So far, the government has responded to the waves of protest by, among other things, canceling the scheduled bus fare price hikes in many cities. A widely criticized constitutional amendment designed to limit the investigative powers of public anti-corruption watchdogs has also been overturned.

But at this stage the protesters are seeking much more, however ill defined. Despite government concessions and an effort to appear supportive of the demonstrations, President Dilma Rousseff has suffered a significant dip in popularity, which in June slid to 30% from 65% in March, according to a recent poll.

“This mobilization was necessary, and it still is,” said Evelyn Silva, 39, a Portuguese and English teacher and a former member of the Zionist group Habonim Dror. “All of a sudden, people who had so much choked up their throats decided to grab a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie and go outside to speak their minds and make their demands.”

Silva, who has participated in all but two of the demonstrations held in Rio de Janeiro, saw Judaism as a strong influence in her decision to join the protests; she hailed the concept of tzedakah, the obligation to aid the needy, as a great example, as well as the teachings in the Pirkei Avot, or The Ethics of the Fathers, that are part of the Talmud.

“Jewish ethics has a lot to do with my identification with socialism,” said Silva, who is a member of a socialist opposition party the Party of Socialism and Liberty. “The saying ‘two Jews, three opinions’ shows to what extent questioning the status quo and critical analysis are milestones of our culture.”

Contact Andrea Palatnik at palatnik@forward.com


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