(JR) — Jewish groups in Brazil are expressing grave concern after a leading politician in the left-wing party of the country’s president called for a national boycott of Israel and expressed interest in the boycott of “Jewish companies.”
José Genoino, a two-decade congressman from São Paulo who spent three years at the helm of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party before being ousted in a corruption scandal, made the comments during an appearance on a left-wing TV show last week where he was discussing Lula’s support for South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.
Genoino criticized a petition by Brazilian business leaders against Brazil’s support for the ICJ investigation, then seemed to propose a boycott of them.
“I find this idea of rejection interesting, this idea of boycotting for political reasons that harm economic interests. It’s an interesting approach,” Genoino said. “There’s even this boycott in relation to certain Jewish companies.”
Alluding to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel, known as BDS, which calls for eschewing all goods and services from Israeli companies, Genoino offered full-throated support for a narrower form of an Israel boycott.
“There is a boycott of companies linked to the state of Israel. In fact, I believe Brazil should cut commercial relations in the security and military sectors with the state of Israel,” he said.
Opponents of the BDS movement say that it is antisemitic because it opposes the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. But even vociferous critics of Israel tend to say it is inappropriate to target Diaspora Jews or Jewish institutions as a form of anti-Israel protest. And Genoino’s comments have drawn criticism from Jewish and non-Jewish groups alike.
The Jewish Federation of the State of Sao Paulo said Genoino had suggested boycotting Jewish businesses. “Antisemitism deserves total condemnation,” it said in a statement. “We hope, once again, for retraction and, above all, the repudiation of good people who defend the values of peace and democracy.”
The Brazilian Israelite Confederation, known as CONIB, also swiftly responded, issuing a statement condemning Genoino’s remarks as antisemitic and highlighting that antisemitism is a crime in Brazil.
Plus, the statement said, “The boycott of Jews was one of the first measures adopted by the Nazi regime against the German Jewish community, culminating in the Holocaust.”
CONIC also appealed to Brazilian political leaders for “moderation” and balance in the context of “the Middle East conflict,” alluding to the current Israel-Hamas war that has ignited global protests. They emphasized that “extreme statements, contrary to the tradition of Brazilian foreign policy,” could import tensions from the region into the country.
Geroino rejected the criticism. “I repudiate the note from CONIB and I affirm that I am not and have never been antisemitic,” he said in a statement. “I also repudiate any type of prejudice against the Jewish people and defend the existence of two states. … We have an obligation to denounce the Israeli government’s genocide against the Palestinian people. I have tirelessly defended the ceasefire, peace between peoples and solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
Guto Zacarias, a 24-year-old Sao Paolo politician from a right-wing party, announced that he had asked the police to investigate Genoino over his comments. He cited a 2003 Brazilian supreme court ruling in a case about the publisher of antisemitic books that made Jews a protected class under the country’s anti-racism law.
“Racism and religious intolerance will not be tolerated in SP!” Zacarias wrote. It was not clear whether the police would decide to open a case.
Brazil has undergone an abrupt shift from being a staunch supporter of Israel, under the past right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, to supporting the most extreme criticism of it. But locals said they did not believe that Genoino’s support for economic boycotts would find much practical support.
The Brazil-Israel Chamber of Commerce told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it did not believe “that this isolated episode could affect the business relationship between Brazil and Israel. Today, business between the two countries is solid, growing in volume and Brazil has made much use of Israel’s technology in various segments.”
And Sebastian Watenberg, regional director of the Brazil-Israel Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased that Genoino’s comments had drawn widespread criticism and that he did not expect them to have any significant impact.
“I think his statement was widely condemned, and I believe the BDS movement, which is actually behind all of this, has been around for years and has not worked. It has not harmed Israel’s business; it has not gained significant traction outside of the intellectual world,” he said. “I think business on the ground will not be affected by this, but in any case, manifestations of this nature are never good, especially because they are antisemitic above all else.”