(JTA) — A Jewish group from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city, invited as a speaker a polemic right-wing congressman whom Jews in Sao Paulo had dis-invited from a speaking event following pressure by far-left activists.
Rio’s Hebraica sports and cultural club invited Jair Bolsonaro, a prominent congressman who is an advocate both of Israel and of Brazil’s military dictatorship during the years 1964 to 1985, last week to speak in Rio following the cancellation of his address, that was scheduled to take place on Wednesday at the Hebraica club of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. Though the two clubs are both called Hebraica, they are operate independently.
The cancellation followed a petition led by far-left Jews, which had 3,800 signatures of people opposing Hebraica Sao Paulo’s plan to host Bolsonaro, who is a Christian Party member.
The authors of the petition accused Bolsonaro of mimicking the Brazilian far-right, and of “attacks against minorities, where we Jews belong. He is homophobic, misogynist, racist and anti-Semitic by nature and conviction,” read the petition. “He idolizes the neo-Nazi extreme right and admires the torturers of the military dictatorship, which he praises at every opportunity.”
But following the cancellation at Sao Paulo, 33,000 individuals signed a petition supporting an “open and democratic debate” with Bolsonaro, who is seen as a strong potential candidate in the run for president in 2018.
The president of Hebraica Rio, Luiz Mairovitch, told JTA on Friday that his organization was determined not to allow political opponents of Bolsonaro to prevent Jewish community members from hearing what he has to say.
“We are interested in listening to all candidates no matter their political affiliation. And Bolsonaro will be the first one. We are not afraid,” Mairovitch said.
A former military man, 61-year-old Bolsonaro has a track record of speaking in harsh terms against urban violence in Brazil. His 35-year-old son Flavio lost the election for Rio mayor in October, but was ranked ahead of some experienced rivals.
The cancellation in Sao Paulo drew considerable media attention to the Hebraica club, whose facilities in that city comprise 54,000-square feet of floor space servicing 18,000 members, which make it one of the largest Jewish sports clubs in the world.
“We intend to hold a pre-election debate or interview with the presence of other pre-candidates running for president in a balanced and democratic model as we have always done,” the club’s president Avi Gelberg said in a note published by O Globo newspaper.
Bolsonaro, who has nearly 4 million Facebook followers, is one of Brazil’s best-known politicians. He is known to supporters as “Bolsomito:” A nickname made up of the mashup of his last name and the Portuguese-language word myth or legend.
As congressman serving the state of Rio, he received the most votes of all elected congressman from the area in 2014.