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By Eduardo Kohn, B’nai B’rith Director of Latin American Affairs

Thirty-seven days after the pogrom perpetrated by Hamas in Israel on Nov. 14, 2023, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, at an official ceremony in Brasilia said:After the act of terrorism provoked by Hamas, the consequences, the solution of the state of Israel, is as grave as that of Hamas. They are killing innocent people without any criteria. Israel is dropping bombs where there are children, hospitals, on the pretext that a terrorist is there.”

Putting Israel and Hamas on the same level was a vicious aggression against Israel, and Lula’s words were blasted not only by the Jewish community in Brazil but all over the world. It was not the first time that Lula attacked the Israeli government and the State of Israel. Just to remember one example of his usual behavior vis-a-vis Israel and the Jewish people, when Israel defended itself from an attack from Hamas 10 years ago in 2014, Lula accused Israel of genocide and war crimes and received the support of other Latin American presidents. Then-president of Uruguay Jose Mujica also said that Israel was committing “genocide.” Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the leftists’ governments (at that moment) of Chile and Ecuador joined Lula’s accusations and Brazil also called back its Ambassador in Israel.

This year, on Feb. 18, speaking at an African Union summit in Ethiopia, Lula said: “What is happening in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian people has no parallel in other historical moments. In fact, it did exist when Hitler decided to kill the Jews. It’s not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children.”

Israel reacted immediately. “We will not forget nor forgive,” Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in response. “It is a serious anti-Semitic attack. In my name and the name of the citizens of Israel– inform President Lula that he is persona non grata in Israel until he retracts his outrageous statement.” Lula crossed several red lines without hesitation. His close relationship with Iran, Russia, Turkey and African dictatorships, seemed to open doors for his brutal Holocaust trivialization, his denial to accept Israel’s right to self-defense and his incitement to Jewish hatred, if possible, all over the world.

Putting Israel on the same level as Hitler has been perverse. He insulted with a huge distortion and a heinous lie all the Jewish people and showed a very primitive contempt for all the Holocaust victims and specially for the Brazilian Jewish citizens who found haven in Brazil after the Shoah. Immediately after Lula’s attack, he received support from some of his Latin American neighbors. The leaders of Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia, all of whom have condemned Israel’s conduct in Gaza, came out with messages of solidarity for Lula. In a television interview on Monday, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in his usual anti-U.S. rhetoric said that Hitler was “a monster created by Western elites.” He added, “today, the criminal military apparatus of Israel has the same encouragement, funding and support.” Colombian president Gustavo Petro took to X to show his support, writing: “In Gaza, there is a genocide, and thousands of children, women and elderly civilians are being cowardly murdered. Lula has only spoken the truth, and the truth must be defended, or barbarism will annihilate us.” Bolivia’s Luis Arce, also used X to express his solidarity with Lula, writing that he was “telling the truth about the genocide that is committed against the brave Palestinian people.” He concluded, “History will not forgive those who were indifferent to this barbarism.”

The Brazilian president has ignited a new era of danger for Jewish communities in Latin America. The day he spoke in Africa, anti-Semitism on social media in Brazil, raised 1000%. Lula did not care that Israel declared him “persona non grata.” In the week after his statement in Ethiopia he said that he not only would keep his words but also wanted to repeat them and said in Brasilia: “If what happens in Gaza is not a genocide, I do not know what a genocide is.” We agree, with Lula…he certainly does not know what a genocide is. He does not know or does not want to know what a genocide is and has used the word for defamation and distortion. He never mentioned that Gaza is receiving ongoing humanitarian aid through hundred of trucks, most of them stolen by Hamas. He would never recognize that there is not any trace of genocidal behavior in Gaza. He would never recognize that the real intention to commit genocide was perpetrated by Hamas when last Oct. 7th, they killed, burnt, raped Israeli civilians, and kidnapped hundreds of others. Lula said that the Hamas pogrom was an “attack.”

The day Lula spoke out in Ethiopia, 11 journalists from six Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Uruguay were in the middle of their program of meetings and site visits focused on the Oct. 7 terror rampage and the ensuing war with Hamas. They were attending the fourth mission of Latin American journalists hosted by Alan Schneider, Director of B’nai B’rith World Center, led by myself and educator Gabriel Ben-Tasgal. On that day, Feb. 18, we all toured the kibbutz Nir Oz and the sites of the Nova music festival place on Oct. 7.

One out of four people living in Nir Oz on the morning of Oct.7 were killed or kidnapped. We were able to see what that meant inside the dining hall, where survivors have placed stickers on residents’ mailboxes. The red ones, said “murdered” in Hebrew. Black marks indicated the hostages taken, and blue signaled the 40 who have been released. There were 417 residents in Nir Oz, a name that translates to “Meadow of Strength”. Now, we could see the burnt homes, small toys all over the way, the photos of those still kidnapped stuck to the door of the destroyed places that were their houses as if those burnt ruins were expecting them back. The smell in the dining hall made us feel even more devastated. One of the houses had a tricycle with its wheels broken in the middle of the small yard. A tiny sandal laid on the ground as a witness of the massacre that also took the life of the child that wore the sandal.

We saw several heaps full of sand, soil, and pieces of tiles. We asked the military guide about those heaps. The answer was that those who were massacred and burnt, deserved a Jewish funeral as is fitting. And in those heaps, they were able to find small bones, necklaces, and other identifiers. With those pieces they were able to succeed in DNA studies, identifying  many of the slaughtered people and giving them a proper Jewish burial.

While in Nir Oz, I thought of Lula’s brutal words in Africa that day. I felt that I was listening to an Iranian speech or the South African accusation against Israel in the ICJ, similar to the wording that the Hamas leadership hiding in Qatar would say. Too many countries in Latin America have adopted anti-Semitism as regular daily speech. When they are accused of being anti-Semitic, they return to an old-fashioned excuse, arguing that they are against Israel, not the Jewish people. Brazil has adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Lula knows that this excuse is not an argument.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise everywhere. But when it comes directly from leaders of the government (Lula, Petro, Arce, Maduro, etc.), danger for the Jewish communities increases. The war against Hamas terror have increased this present danger. While these presidents do not give Israel the right to self-defense and shift blame onto the victims instead of the perpetrators, the challenges to expose them also increases. This is the current reality that Jewish communities are facing in these Latin American countries.

Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B’nai B’rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.