Jair Bolsonaro in Context

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said of the Holocaust, “We can forgive, but we cannot forget.”

The outraged reaction was immediate and justified.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin declared that “What Amalek did to us [is] inscribed in our memory, the memory of an ancient people. We will always oppose those who deny the truth or those who wish to expunge our memory — not individuals or groups, not party leaders or prime ministers. We will never forgive and never forget.”

“No one will enjoin the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and no interest will buy it,” Rivlin added, pointedly including “heads of parties” and “heads of states” in his rebuke.

Yad Vashem spokeswoman Dana Weiler-Polak responded that nobody can decide “if it is possible to forgive the crimes of the Holocaust.”

(Rivlin arguably went too far, however, when he pontificated that “Diplomats have the responsibility to shape the future, and historians have the responsibility to describe the past and research history. It is forbidden for one to cross the boundaries of the other.”

This supposed interdict is not based on historical fact. Winston Churchill wrote a celebrated multi-volume History of the British Peoples; Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was a parliamentarian; and American historian George Bancroft was a politician and the founder of the U.S. Naval Academy. None of them were ever accused of overstepping their bounds in either direction.)

Bolsonaro’s attempt to “clarify” his comment, claiming that it “was never meant to be used in a historical context,” was unpersuasive, to say the least.

Even his accompanying statement that “forgiveness is something personal,” which could be understood to mean that individuals can possibly forgive the Nazi atrocities, but the Jewish people cannot, does little to diminish the offensiveness of the comment.

Bolsonaro’s contention that the criticism heaped upon him “is only in the interest of those who want to push me away from my Jewish friends” is understandable, and to some extent true. In Brazil, there has been vocal protest against his declared intention to move the country’s embassy to Yerushalayim, and his opponents would no doubt relish any distance from their leader’s Jewish friends that can be had.

However, Rivlin and the officials at Yad Vashem are themselves among his Jewish friends — and they were blunt in their criticism. As the official figurehead of the state of Israel, Rivlin’s remarks directed at a friendly foreign leader are extraordinarily harsh, even though he was careful not to mention Bolsonaro by name.

Yossi Shelly, Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, defended Bolsonaro, saying, “His words made clear his complete repudiation of the greatest genocide in history” — Bolsonaro referred to the “millions of innocent people [who] were murdered in a cruel genocide.” “At no point in his speech did the president show disrespect or indifference to Jewish suffering,” Shelly wrote.

The fact is, the Brazilian leader brought this upon himself. In politics, anything you say can be held against you, and Bolsonaro’s ill-considered words well illustrate why a world leader cannot afford to be sloppy in his speechmaking.

Bolsonaro’s hurtful comment is in sharp contrast with his high-profile friendship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the bilateral agreements signed with Israel, the visit to Yad Vashem and the Kosel, where he became the first foreign head of state to be accompanied by a senior Israeli official at Judaism’s holiest place. All these bespeak a genuinely positive attitude toward Israel and the Jewish people.

It appears that his controversial comment was a gaffe, not an anti-Semitic slip of the tongue. Hopefully he is more aware than before that to be a friend does not exempt him from choosing his words more carefully when it comes to matters far out of his area of expertise, especially anything to do with the victims of the Holocaust.