The refusal to host the gala in the Brazilian president’s honor shows that there is a shared responsibility among countries to protect women’s rights, and minorities, and to care for the environment.
President Jair Bolsonaro was to be honored by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce on May 14. The celebration was going to take place at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. The reservation of the location was made ahead of time, and the museum’s administration saw the event as a respectable celebration: Brazil is an important country for commerce between countries; what would be the problem in hosting this event? The honoree. On the last few days, the museum’s inbox was flooded with hundreds of messages asking for the event to be canceled. Bolsonaro could not be honored in an educational space and a place of universal culture. He represents a threat to democratic values and human rights.
The museum’s administration faced a big problem: a good deal turned into a headache in which Jews, African Americans, women and environmentalists were some of the most active groups speaking up about shutting down the event. Following good American etiquette, the museum’s first public message stated, “We are deeply concerned, and we are exploring our options.” In the subtle style of diplomatic confrontations, this was the first announcement that the museum would cancel Bolsonaro’s presence as honoree. Within two days, the museum rushed to announce its decision to cancel the event, and it did so in Portuguese and as clear as day: “The Museum wants to thank the people who expressed their opinion about the event. We understand and share your concern (…) We are deeply concerned about the declared goals of the current Brazilian administration.”
The rush to take action came from different fronts. Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, was one of the people who spoke up. He described Bolsonaro as a “dangerous human being,” as well as saying that “Bolsonaro is dangerous not just because of his overt racism and homophobia, but because he is unfortunately the person with the most ability to be able to impact what happens in the Amazon going forward.” Some understood Mayor de Blasio’s speech as a gesture of imperialism toward Brazilian politics − which is a mistaken reading, nonetheless. There is no sovereignty or nationalism that can justify the human rights violations that have been set in motion in the country. In less than 100 days of office, there has been an increase in police violence, teachers have been persecuted, and political participation has become intimidating for several social movements.
As serious as the concrete measures of restriction on civil society is the historical revisionism Bolsonaro tries to impose on Brazil and the world. One of his obsessions is to rewrite the history of military dictatorships in Latin America into revolutions or cultural transformations of progress − he was shunned in Chile where he paid public homage to dictator Augusto Pinochet, glorified dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and then encouraged the Brazilian military to celebrate the date of the 1964 military coup as a party. Reactions to this inconsequential historical revisionism have crossed all borders. But nothing compared to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s answer to Bolsonaro’s attempt to teach the Jews how to deal with the Holocaust in their own past.
On the short break between two public messages from the museum, Bolsonaro turned his revisionist shortsightedness to Israeli politics: “We can forgive, but we cannot forget,” he said. “Those who do not forget the past are doomed to not have a future.” Bolsonaro’s nerve made Rivlin answer him on the same level: “We will never forgive and never forget. No one will order the forgiveness of the Jewish people, and it can never be bought in the name of interests.” The message about “buying forgiveness” hit Bolsonaro hard. He had just returned from Israel, where both countries discussed economic and military policies, as well as the transfer of the embassy from Palestine to Israel.* His final answer was a stupid public apology − “They want to distance me from the Jews.”
This episode, which began with a prosaic event, where the New York’s Museum of Natural History was unfamiliar with the honoree, demonstrated the importance of globalization in political participation. After the museum’s decision, a famous restaurant in New York also refused to host the event. No nationalism can justify silence in the face of human rights violations. Not all international speeches are a gesture of imperialism; It is international solidarity toward the inappropriate emergence of populist leaders who violate fundamental rights, as is the case of Bolsonaro in Brazil. There is a shared responsibility among countries − women’s rights, ethnic and racial minority rights, or care for the environment are responsibilities without borders. From museum directors to anonymous citizens in social media, it is our duty to fight to prevent dangerous politicians from gaining global space. The ideal thing would be to provide no homage at all to Bolsonaro; if that isn’t possible, museums’ and restaurants’ refusals give democracy hope.
*Editor’s note: The proposal is to move the Brazilian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.