A POPULAR LEFT-WING Brazilian congressman known for his leadership in the social justice movement is trying to fend off a major backlash from his left flank while he travels in Israel. The legislator, Jean Wyllys, has angered much of the base of the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which he represents, after participating in a conference at an Israeli university with deep ties to human rights abuses against Palestinians and then defending that decision with anti-Palestinian talking points common among hard-core Israel defenders. Wyllys’ unexpected stance is one of the most powerful cases yet to highlight the tried-and-true tactic of exploiting liberal social issues to generate left-wing support for militarism.
In a video message posted today on Facebook, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a popular Brazilian diplomat who served on the country’s Truth Commission on human rights abuses that took place during the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship and was the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, harshly criticized the congressman. “Lamentable and deplorable, Congressman Jean Wyllys’ comments about his visit to Israel reveal a crass ignorance of and total misinformation about Israel’s current human rights policies,” he said. That sentiment is reflective of the left-wing backlash triggered by his trip and subsequent remarks.
The Intercept repeatedly posed questions to Congressman Wyllys for this article through his staff, but neither he nor his aides have responded directly to inquiries.
Wyllys’ controversial visit to Israel and his defense of Israeli policies come at a particularly tense moment in bilateral relations. Brazil’s nominally leftist Worker’s Party (PT) government, led by embattled President Dilma Rousseff, has refused to accept the appointment of Dani Dayan as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil on the grounds that he is a proponent of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Under both Rousseff and her predecessor, PT’s Lula da Silva, their party has been vocally supportive of Palestinians. PSOL positions itself as the left-wing alternative to the more moderately left PT, making Wyllys’ statements particularly surprising.
Wyllys came to national prominence in 2005 as the first openly gay winner of the wildly popular reality TV show “Big Brother Brazil.” A university professor of humble origin, he won over the national audience with his erudition and intellect, and converted his celebrity into being elected as the only openly gay member of the national Congress in 2010. Last year he was voted the most popular congressman by Brazilian news website Congresso em Foco and was named by The Economist as one of the 50 most important public figures championing diversity.
He has built intense popularity among PSOL’s young, leftist constituency with uncompromising defenses of social justice issues: introducing bills promoting marijuana legalization, anti-discrimination statutes, full legalization of sex work, and rolling back the institutional vestiges of Brazil’s former military dictatorship — all anathema to the growing evangelical right. As the only openly gay politician on the national stage of this overwhelmingly Catholic and evangelical country, the charismatic 39-year-old is constantly the target of abuse and homophobic vitriol from the likes of right-wing Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, whom The Intercept previously labeled “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world.” That has further solidified Wyllys’ standing as a leading figure of the Brazilian left.
But on Tuesday, Wyllys shocked and infuriated many of his most loyal supporters. He posted a smiling photo of himself to his 871,626 Facebook followers, posing in front of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The attached comment read: “I am very happy and thrilled for the opportunity to visit, for the first time, this city full of history…Tomorrow I will give a lecture…about anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and other forms of hate and prejudice and the relation to contemporary politics.” The photo has thus far garnered more than 23,000 likes and 1,600 comments.
The post immediately unleashed a flurry of comments, some in support but many in vehement opposition. Numerous critics specifically expressed shock and outrage that a standard-bearer of Brazil’s progressive movement would so completely break with his party’s official position in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. But Wyllys further inflamed the outrage over the next several days with a series of self-defenses that would strike even an American ear as pointedly pro-Israel.
A senior official of PSOL, former Congressman Milton Temer, blasted Wyllys for his comments in an interview with The Intercept. “This visit bothers me greatly. It is not true that the oppression of the Palestinian people is due to the extreme right in Israel. This is done by the Israeli government, elected by the people. It’s only a small minority of Israeli Jews engaged in the courageous fight in defense of the humanitarian position for the Palestinians. It bothers me profoundly that a very progressive member of Congress goes to Israel to say that Israel is a paradise where LGBTs have civilized treatment while Israel spends billions each year on its military to oppress the Palestinians. I think Jean Wyllys made a mistake.”
He continued: “A left-wing Congressman should go to Israel only to publicly denounce the state for its occupation of Palestine. They certainly shouldn’t go to declare that there is some kind of equal conflict between the two nations that needs pacification. Because of this, he made a big mistake.”
WHAT MADE MATTERS worse was that Wyllys appeared at a university that is a symbol of Israeli occupation. Much of Hebrew University of Jerusalem is built on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem that was illegally expropriated by Israel and, for that reason, was recently the subject of a new and influential boycott. A letter signed by 351 international academics explains that “while all Israeli universities are deeply complicit in the occupation, settler-colonialism, and apartheid, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is particularly noteworthy.” It goes on to highlight how “the university is complicit in the unequal treatment of Palestinians, including those who are citizens of Israel”; “restricts the freedom of speech and protest of its few Palestinian students”; and is affiliated with Ariel University in the occupied West Bank, while refusing to recognize academic credentials from the Palestinian Al Quds University.
In 2014, Hebrew University created a scholarship fund exclusively earmarked for students who were serving in the brutal military assault on Gaza in which 2,131 Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, were killed and over 100,000 were left homeless, according to U.N. figures. “The university is joining the war effort to support its warrior students, in order to minimize the financial burden,” read an official letter sent to “friends and alumni.” At the time, Wyllys supported President Rousseff’s criticism of the assault on Gaza as a “disproportionate use of force” and months later endorsed a humanitarian mission to Gaza.
This week’s conference attended by Wyllys is titled “Brazil and Israel: Social and Cultural Challenges.” It took place January 5 and 6 and was sponsored by Hebrew University, Brown University, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Israeli Confederation of Brazil, among others. According to an event description, “Brazil and Israel are two countries with complex social, cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. … In both countries the state and civil society have been involved in addressing issues of cultural diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness. Programs and policies have been developed to overcome historic marginalization of different groups, with varying degrees of success, and at times in spite of criticism by other sectors of their respective countries.”
This type of tepid, comparative discourse full of progressive, humanist slogans is popular among liberal defenders of the unabashedly illiberal state of Israel. Where critical observers see self-evident injustices (in, say, the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the ongoing siege of Gaza, and the fundamental settler-colonial essence of Israel), a liberal Zionist sees complexity that demands study and discourse rather than blanket condemnation: Yes, the state is run by right-wing extremists, but we — the liberal Zionists — are Good People, just like you are, so let’s study the nuances.
But there are clear moral imperatives at play in Israel’s occupation of Palestine: During decades of such self-praising “dialogue” among liberals, Israel has systematically dismantled Palestinian civil society and illegally occupied its lands, killing or imprisoning those who stood in its way, and stoked radicalism on all sides. It is precisely because participation in these endless conferences effectively serves as liberal cover, forestalling any serious confrontation with the ugly truths of the Palestinian situation, that many, including Wyllys’ own PSOL party, support a boycott of Israel.
In an open letter published on Wednesday, the Front for the Defense of the Palestinian People, a Brazilian pro-Palestinian group, argued that “Israel’s tactic of inviting personalities and authorities to participate in lectures at their academic institutions — whose historic complicity with the occupation is amply proven — aims to transmit the idea of normality to the world, while maintaining apartheid, colonization and occupation of Palestinian lands.” The letter expressed surprise over Wyllys’ trip and added that his Facebook posts show “you do not understand the history and the occupation.”
A pointed animated image by Brazilian cartoonist Vini Oliveira that made the rounds on left-wing social media encapsulates the anger felt by many. In it, a Star-of-David-struck Wyllys poses for a selfie in front of a young Palestinian bleeding on the ground as a smiling sun, the symbol of his PSOL party, merrily beams in the distance (The Intercept is republishing it with permission).
AS THIS CONTROVERSY unfolded this week, Wyllys and his press team quickly and forcefully responded to critics, attempting to justify his decision to attend the conference. But in so doing, they only fanned the flames of outrage by attacking critics and echoing common, unsophisticated pro-Israeli talking points on terrorism, anti-Semitism, and civil rights. Wyllys repeatedly conflated Hamas, the political party that was democratically elected and has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007, with “ISIS or other criminal gangs” — a staple of Israeli rhetoric under Netanyahu.
Wyllys also characterized the separation wall that divides Israel from the West Bank and separates many Palestinian farmers from their land as being “constructed by Israel to impede terrorist attacks,” parroting the standard Israeli justification that is disputed by critics who say it is part of a larger policy of illegal land grabs and forced separation.
The congressman has also repeatedly invoked anti-Semitism in a manner that would make Alan Dershowitz proud. In one comment, he argues that many of his detractors claiming to be “anti-Zionists” are simply using that label to mask their true anti-Semitism. He has lectured his audience on the diversity of backgrounds and opinions among Zionists, Israelis, and Jews, arguing that one cannot blame all Zionists for all of the sins of Israel (“complexity”).
Wyllys’ argument is, among other things, a straw man. BDS is not a movement opposing all Zionists. Instead, it targets the modern embodiment of Zionism, the ethno-religious supremacist “Jewish State of Israel,” whose militarized subjugation of Palestinians has been enforced under “doveish” Israeli administrations as well as the hawkish right. The tears of the increasingly marginalized liberal Zionists have not improved the daily lives of Gazans.
Wyllys has drawn particular criticism for perpetuating Israel’s “pinkwashing” tactic, whereby the Netanyahu government highlights the country’s relatively progressive stance on LGBT rights to curry favor for its overall policies of occupation with liberals and LGBT individuals, all while glossing over other, massive human rights abuses outside of the LGBT realm. As Sarah Schulman argued in a 2011 New York Times op-ed, this is “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” “Gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool,” said Aeyal Gross, a professor of law at Tel Aviv University.
This pinkwashing approach attempts to characterize Israel as the sole bastion of tolerance in a sea of homophobic Islamic extremism, and thus implies that Israel should be supported by all those that believe in LGBT rights. Forget the other stuff: little things like the brutal decadeslong occupation of the Palestinian people punctuated by the occasional flattening of entire neighborhoods. This propaganda method evangelizes that the only metric for judging a country’s morality, or at least the paramount one, should be LGBT rights.
This tactic echoes the broader, post-9/11 attempts by American neocons to exploit liberal positions on social issues to generate support on the left for its agenda of militarism, by, for instance, cynically depicting the war in Afghanistan as a feminist cause or confrontation with Iran as one driven by concern over LGBT rights. In November 2001, the Bush administration dispatched Laura Bush to depict the war in Afghanistan as “a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” and — even after 14 years of fighting that has killed untold numbers of Afghan women — some women’s groups continue to support that war on feminist grounds.
Wyllys has rebuffed the accusation that he has fallen for pinkwashing, characterizing it as a “conspiracy theory” and “disrespectful to us, LGBTs.” He followed that protest by offering a pitch-perfect rendition of the standard pinkwashing:
The rights achieved by the Israeli LGBTs are a light in a region dominated by fundamentalism, totalitarianism, misogyny and homophobia, and I congratulate these people for their advances. […] And solidarity with the Palestinians should not prevent the left to denounce the oppression that (for example) homosexuals suffer in Islamic countries, or to recognize the democratic achievements in Israel!
As The Forward’s Jay Michaelson points out, aside from pinkwashing being manipulative propaganda that relies on a false caricature of all Muslims nations in the region (Beirut and Istanbul both boast vibrant LGBT life, for instance) and downplays anti-LGBT forces in Israel, “a country can be pro-gay and anti-human-rights.” Most importantly, these “progressive” social policies fail to trickle down to the Palestinian LGBT community. “Yes, it’s hard to be gay in Gaza – just as it’s hard to be gay in Meah Shearim. But queer Palestinians will tell you that the regime of land confiscation, settlements, checkpoints, ID cards, building restrictions, and of course the wholesale bombing of civilian areas is a far heavier burden,” Michaelson writes.
In an interaction that appears to have since been deleted, when one Facebook follower asked, “Jean, when will you visit the Gaza Strip?” Wyllys’ account (signed by his communications team) responded, “Maybe you don’t know that the Gaza Strip is currently under the control of the terrorist organization Hamas. It is not, therefore, a safe space for an open homosexual…but maybe you can go. Good luck!” In a later comment, he said he “would also like to go to other Middle Eastern countries, but I cannot, because in many of them I could be hanged or imprisoned for being gay.”
It’s certainly true that Islamic fundamentalists, like their Jewish and Christian peers, generally are not reliable LGBT allies and homosexuality is technically illegal in Gaza and many Muslim countries, but the suggestion that Hamas would be so foolish as to harm a visiting foreign dignitary simply because he is gay is either horribly naïve or incredibly disingenuous — or both. It is a baseless, cartoonish, fearmongering distortion of Hamas as a gang of irrational, backwards, blood-thirsty terrorists — incidentally, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs produced such a cartoon last year, which has since been taken down after it was widely condemned (go to 0:28).
Homophobic discrimination is real and terrible, but this type of pinkwashing overlooks the fact that it is also a global concern. Remember, anti-sodomy laws still existed in the United States until 2003 and the fight for LGBT equality is still far from finished. Evangelical Christians agitated for a new law in Uganda imposing the death sentence for homosexuality and settled for life imprisonment. Unless the congressman decided to wander into Raqqa waiving a rainbow flag, he personally has close to zero chance of being hanged for his sexual orientation, although he could not be as free and open as he could be back home in Rio de Janeiro.
ON THURSDAY, an aide to Congressman Wyllys told The Intercept that he had not visited and had no plans to visit either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip on his trip. But later that evening, Wyllys announced that he would be visiting “Bethlehem and maybe Hebron” before heading to Tel Aviv. Temer says Wyllys had no plans originally to visit Palestine, but that the backlash forced him to do so.
Wyllys also claims to have met briefly with BDS supporters from a group identified only as “FFIFP,” likely referring to FFIPP, an international group of nonprofits that describes itself as an “educational network for human rights in Palestine/Israel.” The group hosts educational seminars in Israel and Palestine that include visits to Tel Aviv. Yoav Elinevsky, the executive director of FFIPP-USA, told The Intercept that while each national chapter is independent, he does not know of any FFIPP chapter that has officially come out in support or condemnation of BDS.
Despite these concessions, Wyllys has continued to receive a deluge of angry feedback.
- “I’m really disappointed with Mr. Jean Wyllys. … To close your eyes to what is happening to the Palestinian people and choose to echo the propaganda of Israeli apartheid. … Congressman, you just won the title of ‘ex-defender of Human Rights.’ What a disappointment!” wrote Emir Mourad, secretary general of the Palestinian Arab Federation of Brazil.
- “What a monumental blunder! … I admire your work as a parliamentarian, but this time I am extremely disappointed,” wrote João Canobre.
- “The guy finalizes a text full of prejudices and reductionist views of Islamic societies claiming to proceed ‘with an open mind and without prejudices.’ … The vision of the Middle East vision presented here could well be from a European in the nineteenth century,” wrote Rafaél Antônio Cruz.
- “Support for Israel goes against Jean’s entire revolutionary and courageous posture. Research a little and see what really is happening to the Palestinians,” wrote Silvia Medeiros.
BDS has gained significant traction in Brazil. In 2014, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul canceled a major contract with Israeli defense firm Elbit Systems to develop an aerospace research center (according to a spokesperson, the then-governor’s “support for the Palestinian cause” was unrelated to the Elbit deal’s cancellation).
Last July, legendary Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil performed a concert in Tel Aviv and attended a public event with former Israeli President Shimon Peres despite intense public pressure to cancel their trip from BDS supporters including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters. After the trip, Veloso wrote an op-ed for the major Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo explaining the emotional impact of visiting Palestinian communities under occupation. “All of the complaints of BDS participants are founded,” he wrote, adding, “I like Israel physically. … But I think I will never return.”
On Facebook, Wyllys declared that he opposes BDS. “I am against boycotts against any people. I think it is mistaken to confuse the government, the state and the population. Boycott destroys bridges and favors the extremists on both sides,” he wrote, citing the failed U.S. blockade of Cuba as an example and rhetorically questioning, “Why not boycott Syria?” However, while blockades or sanctions against autocratic, semi-isolated regimes such as Cuba or Iraq have been proven ineffective because the pain inflicted on the population does not affect the leadership, the opposite is true in democratic or marginally democratic societies such as Israel or apartheid South Africa in which (a segment of) the population can vote in new leaders who promise to change policies. This is particularly true when a nation relies heavily on foreign aid and diplomatic support, such as Israel.
As the anti-apartheid leader and current BDS supporter Desmond Tutu wrote in 2010: “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of nonviolent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decadeslong support for the Apartheid regime.”
The effectiveness of boycott, divestment, and sanctions is, perhaps, precisely the reason that the state of Israel and its supporters have made such a concerted effort of combating nascent BDS movements worldwide and reach out to unnatural allies, such as Latin American leftist politicians.
Foreign politicians often visit Israel and praise its “democratic achievements” based on ideological affinity, a perceived political value or both — particularly for United States politicians, a country in which support for Israel is de rigueur and backing BDS remains all but political suicide.
But the case of Jean Wyllys is particularly befuddling. Brazil has no substantial pro-Israel lobby and support for Palestinian rights is a mainstream position. His laudable body of work at home fighting against discrimination and for social justice for all simply does not square with his new embrace of Israel and some of its most noxious rhetoric, nor does he gain any perceptible political advantage by alienating his base and crossing his party on a fundamental foreign policy issue.
Top photo: Congressman Jean Wyllys of Brazil (PSOL) speaks at a conference this week at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.
Additional reporting: Cecília Olliveira