A Brazilian public University was recently caught in a tornado we had only seen in other parts of the world, where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has a broader effect. In Brazil, the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation still sounds too distant, but different unions, students’ and teachers’ organizations, among other social movements, have been working to change that. Recently, however, we had a surprise, and a University was finally granted the gaudy status of “anti-Semitic”, ascribed to many critics of the Israeli occupation of Palestine worldwide.
By Moara Crivelente
That was the case of the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM, in Portuguese), in the Brazilian federal state of Rio Grande do Sul. In 28 August 2014, two days after a cease-fire suspended the Israeli assault on Gaza, the University was asked five questions regarding its involvement with Israeli military companies or projects by four entities: the Trade Union Section of UFSM Teachers (SEDUFSM), the Central Directory of Students (DCE), the Association of UFSM Employees (ASSUFSM) and the Santa Maria Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Their motivation was a news report on an alleged agreement signed between UFSM and the Israeli military company Elbit Systems, through its Brazilian subsidiary, AEL Sistemas. The context, as described, was the end of an apalling and the third military offensive against the besieged Gaza in the last five years, which killed over 2,200 Palestinians in less than two months.
Many news websites, blogs, Professors and activists were already framed as “anti-Semitic” here before, especially by the Israelite Federation and the Israelite Confederation of Brazil, which have their ways into the Brazilian commercial media. Writing on the UFSM’s case in a right-wing magazine, for instance, a columnist “shouts”, in Caps Lock – a rudeness I will not repeat: “Attention! Jews and Humanists from all origins! An explicit act of anti-Semitism within UFSM. So, will it rely on impunity?”, followed by a picture of the University’s Provost.
I was surprised when Israeli-American blogger Jerry Haber wrote me early June saying that the case had reached Israeli and US media, and that he intended to write a piece on that. As he did, here.
These were the questions asked by the entities:
1) Does the UFSM have any participation in the Space Hub in [the Federal state of] Rio Grande do Sul? If so, in what way? What document underlies this relationship?
2) Does UFSM have any relationship with juridical Israeli persons (private companies, public entities, NGOs, etc.?), including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?
3) Is there any action (Plan, Program, Project, Covenant or Agreement of Cooperation, Protocol of Intentions, etc.) registered and/or in effect with juridical Israeli persons, including through their Brazilian subsidiaries or, even if indirectly, through the cooperation with other Brazilian institutions that might be related to them? Which document underlies this relationship?
4) Are there, at the moment, or is there a prospect for the UFSM to accept Israeli students/ professors/ authorities/ professionals? If so, through whose invitation/proposal?
5) Is UFSM, or will it be, beneficiary of any material or human resource of Israeli origin, even if indirectly, that is, through the relationships referred to at items 2 and 3 retro?
According to the entities, the questions were motivated by the Brazilian Constitution’s principles regarding our Foreign Policy, the third Israeli military operation against the Gaza Strip in five years, and the news on the protocol for cooperation between the state of Rio Grande do Sul and Elbit for an aero-spatial hub.
Photo credit: Caroline Bicocchi/Palácio Piratini
The protocol was signed in 2013, but it was declared “devoid of object” by the state’s Government in December 2014. Then Governor Tarso Genro handed the Palestinian Ambassador to Brazil Ibrahim Alzeben a letter where the protocol was declared nullified. Although the Federal Government had already cut funding, preventing the project to move forward, the state’s Government assured that the decision was political – since the money could still come from the national Development Bank (BNDES), for instance.
“Anti-Semitism” as tool for persecution against protest
In June, Professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Luis Millmann brought the case to the Federal Public Prosecutor, and accused the UFSM of persecution and racist action, for supposedly asking for the names of Israeli students or Professors in the University’s post-graduation programs, something the University denies. The debacle intensified after a memo passed on by Provost José Fernando Schlosser, who tried to gather information to answer the questions. The document was then forged, the defense says, to include the words “Free Palestine, Boycott Israel”, in English.
The Israelite federations accused the UFSM of racism and, to mediatise the narrative, anti-Semitism. During a Federal Police investigation, the entities’ representatives have given statements denying religious motives and emphasizing their commitment to understanding the UFSM’s role with a political purpose. The entities’ public statements reacting to these accusations have also affirmed that.
The Provost’s memo might have poorly summed-up the request, and this would be no light mistake. The Ministry of Education and other organizations have rushed to condemn the whole case before it was properly evaluated, instigated by the media’s scandal. However, the scandal was a reaction to the decision of asking if the University was connected to an Israeli military company’s branch in the region. The whole effort of making use of the Law on the Access to Information (an instrument for transparency and participation) and protesting against military cooperation with Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinians, was obfuscated.
The Human Rights Commission in the Chamber of Deputies issued a statement early June condemning all acts of racism and prejudice. “We need, however, to give priority to caution, so we do not make the mistake of pre-judging, affecting or even destroying institutional, professional and personal tracks.(…) This is why it is the UFSM’s responsibility to adopt the necessary measures to amend wrong-doings.”
“In the same sense”, the statement continued, “the Palestinian cause is legitimate and one of the fundamental issues for human rights today. Its advocates cannot be attacked in an unfair and erroneous way, as if they were promoting intolerance. Those who decontextualize protests to promote hatred retract from the teachings that History has painfully given us.” Federal Deputy Paulo Pimenta – who presides the Commission and signed the statement advocating for “a culture of peace and justice” – did not escape attacks either.
But following the Federal Police’s stance on the matter, Public Attorney Paula Martins-Costa Schirmer asked for the case against UFSM to be dropped, a recomendation adopted by the Second District Federal Court early July. “The question forwarded by [post-graduation] Provost José Fernando Schlosser to the post-graduation coordinators at UFSM had no discriminatory motivation; it only reproduced the terms in the request for information received by the UFSM, according to the Law on the Access to Information”, the Public Attorney states.
Abdel Rahma, a Palestinian leading the Santa Maria’s Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People, told me in a recent interview that the civil case against those who signed the request for information is still pending, but that they reaffirm their discontent with the way that Justice was used to persecute those protesting against Israeli policies. The Committee’s activites have begun to attract the regional media’s attention, says Mr. Rahma, who lives in Santa Maria for over forty years: “It has angared certain groups in the city and outside as well.” The Committe, he continues, was determined to protest against military agreements “with Israeli companies that bombarded our people in Palestine.”
Needless to say, “anti-Semitism”, while significant when countering actual racism and religious prejudice, is here merchandise, deep into flawed arguments. Although it is also based on a vexing and appalling fact of too recent a history, many writers, including Israelis, who expose this argument’s flaws, face their share of attacks – and I was astonished when I first learned the term “self-hating Jew”, for instance, reading a sort of debate in an Israeli right-wing newspaper. Among many others persecuted, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy told me in an interview that he had to hire bodyguards when critically covering the latest Israeli offensive against Gaza.
The point is that for morally-obvious reasons, the “anti-Semitic” tag works for Israel and its propaganda machine based on an elusive religious narrative built for this conflict. However, we hope this machine’s effect is fading, given the growing awareness: it is not a religious conflict – and to say so is to drag it to intractability. It is colonization, imperialism, occupation.