Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s comments on the Holocaust sparked an uproar in Israel over the weekend.
Bolsonaro said: “We can forgive, but we cannot forget,” in a speech to a group of Evangelical pastors in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday.
He got it half right.
The matter of forgiveness after the Holocaust is a fraught one for Israelis and Jews the world over.
Famed Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal wrote an entire book – The Sunflower – about the issue. He wrote of a time in the middle of the Holocaust, when a dying Nazi asked him for forgiveness for the atrocities he had committed; Wiesenthal refused to accept his apology.
Wiesenthal, who went through the Holocaust and spent his entire career pondering it, did not come to a clear conclusion.
Then, he made a symposium of people to give their opinions on the matter. In the book’s 1998 edition, 53 people from around the world, some of whom survived other genocides, gave their responses: the vast majority said not to forgive, or that they did not know the answer.
Yet, after all that, Bolsonaro – who has no apparent connection to the matter other than a recent visit to Yad Vashem – seemed to say he had the answer: Forgive.
President Reuven Rivlin responded that Israel “will never give a hand to those who deny the truth or try to cause it to be forgotten. Not by individuals nor organizations, not by heads of parties nor by heads of states. No one will enjoin the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and no interest will buy it.”
Israeli Ambassador to Brazil Yossi Shelly came to Bolsonaro’s defense, saying that the comments were made in an “emotional” address about his recent visit to Israel, and “his words made clear his complete repudiation of the greatest genocide in history, which was the Holocaust. At no point in his speech did the president show disrespect or indifference to Jewish suffering.”
And on Sunday, Shelly reported that Bolsonaro said that his comments had been misunderstood.
“To the people of Israel, I wrote in the guest book of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem: ‘Those who forget their past are doomed to not have a future.’ Therefore, any other interpretation is only in the interest of those who want to push me away from my Jewish friends,” Bolsonaro wrote, which Shelly posted on Facebook.
This was certainly a more appropriate response, though it remains unclear what Bolsonaro intended. His remarks should have been much more measured in the first place in order to avoid any confusion on such a sensitive and important subject.
In a time when there are very few Holocaust survivors still alive, it’s important to show utmost sensitivity and avoid remarks that can be understood to be downplaying the magnitude of the tragic and catastrophic events in which six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany and its helpers around the world.
Brazil played an unfortunate role in helping some perpetrators of the Holocaust escape justice, with Nazi war criminals escaping to the South American country. Josef Mengele, the doctor of Auschwitz who performed cruel and barbaric experiments on prisoners, escaped to Brazil and died there over a decade later.
Other countries that have more direct ties to the Holocaust, like Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Ukraine and others, have passed laws and enacted policies – like honoring Nazi-enabling dictators and military officers – that have minimized the Holocaust and their forebears’ involvement in the mass murder of the Jews of their country. At the same time, those countries have sought to strengthen ties with Israel, creating a moral and diplomatic dilemma for the Jewish state.
Bolsonaro’s remarks do not reach that level of distortion and do not warrant sparking a diplomatic row, but they are still unfortunate.
We appreciate Bolsonaro’s friendship – turning Brazil, one of the world’s biggest economies, into a more pro-Israel country than it had been. But it is not his place, or anyone else’s, to decide whether the Holocaust can be forgiven.
It would be better that he never forget – and keep thoughts about forgiveness to himself.