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Poster of Castro in Havana
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Park in honour of Havana's Jewish community, near old Jewish quarter in Havana
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Kosher butcher shop in Old Havana
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Restored buildings in Old Havana
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Paul Myerson


Figuring out Fidel

By Paul Myerson with files from the Winnipeg Jewish Review, October 26, 2010

With the cold war now over, there are still no diplomatic relations between Cuba and Israel. Both countries and the communist revolution along with the anti-Israel rhetoric has reached deep. However, last month Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly Journal had a rare interview with the ailing  84 year old  Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. 

Castro shocked the world in speaking about the Iranian regime’s Anti-Semitism, and saying that said he sympathized with the Jews who have suffered from repeated persecution over the course of history.

“This went on for maybe two thousand years," he said. "I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything."

"In my judgment here's what happened to them: reverse selection. What's reverse selection? Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation."

Castro also stated that he doesn’t understand how the President of Iran could deny the Holocaust, when it is a historical fact.

The former Cuban president told Goldberg, when asked whether Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state, "Yes, without a doubt."

Castro referenced the Holocaust in the interview, saying "Now, let's imagine that I were Netanyahu," Castro said, "that I were there and I sat down to reason through [the issues facing Israel], I would remember that six million Jewish men and women, of all ages were exterminated in the concentration camps."

President Shimon Peres also addressed Castro's remarks, saying that the Cuban leader's support of Israel had "moved me very much."

"I must confess that your remarks were, in my opinion, unexpected and rife with unique intellectual depth," the president wrote in a message addressed to Castro.

The remarks attributed to Castro demonstrate his "deep understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel," Netanyahu said.

Israeli praise of Castro is highly unusual, as Castro has traditionally supported the Palestinians and has been highly critical of the Jewish state in the past.
Possibly,  Goldberg got the call to interview Castro because of his much-discussed piece in the Atlantic about the likelihood of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Fidel, who may be seriously  worried about nuclear war , now says that he was wrong to urge Nikita Khruschev to consider launching a nuclear strike at America during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. 

But Lawrence Solomon in the Financial Post on October 2, 2010, suggests that Castro’s  pro-Jewish pro-Israel  comments  are part of a  “charm offensive “ to lure Jewish investment in Cuba’s ailing economy. 

As Solomon wrote, “Cuba may be turning to Israel and Jews for foreign investment. That, in any case, is my assessment of recent moves by Castro and Cuba that have warmed them to Jews everywhere and instantly reversed the antipathy that many Israeli Jews have felt following Cuban acts of hostility toward Israel. These included cutting off relations with Israel prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, training Palestinian terrorists, and signing the United Nations' Zionism Equals Racism resolution, among others." 

Solomon notes that Castro invited Goldberg to Havana for an interview in late August, “shortly before Cuba's President, Raul Castro, announced that as many as one million Cubans, or about 20% of the country's workforce, would be losing their jobs as part of an historic privatization and liberalization of the Cuban economy.”

Solomon notes that Fidel’s brother Raul Castro has recently castigated the Obama administration for failing to lift the U. S trade embargo and has signaled the desire to find other foreign partners since Cuba needs to develop an efficient agriculture that would allow the country to feed itself. 

“Fidel Castro's olive branches to Israel -- noted for its agricultural prowess -- would be a logical consequence of Cuba's desire to attract the foreign investment and expertise needed to avoid being penned in..,” says Solomon.

Solomon concludes Castro’s appeal to Israel and Jews,  will attract investment by Israeli Jews and Jews all over the world. As Solomon writes:  “The thaw between Cubans and Jews will doubtless attract the attention of Jews in other countries as well. Until Obama or a successor lifts the trade embargo on trade with America, which remains Cuba's most-sought source of foreign investment and foreign trade, Jews in Israel and elsewhere are likely to represent Cuba's fastest-growing source of foreign capital.” Read the complete article.

Regardless of  Castro’s motives, given his sympathetic comments on the Jewish people and Israel, perhaps it is time that both Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula De Silva’s Brazil stopped allying themselves with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Anti-Semitic and Genocidal regime in Iran.  Maybe Venezuela and Brazil  ought look to Castro as an example with regards to relations with Israel and the Jewish people?

History of Jews in Cuba

The Jewish people have had a history in Cuba ever since the Spanish started settling there in the year 1492 (which was also the year that the Spanish expelled the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula). The Jewish population mostly consisted of Marrnos (Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in Spain) and a significant Sephardic community. The community grew to 60,000+ strong up until the Communist revolution in Cuba that occurred in 1959.

Unlike the mass exodus of Jews from other countries that were due to Anti-Semitism, the mass exodus of Jews that left Cuba for the United States and other countries was mainly due to economic reasons at the time, due to the fact that the communist regime of Fidel Castro nationalized all the businesses in Cuba, including the many ones owned and operated by the Jews of Cuba. The once 60,000 + strong Jewish community eventually dwindled down to 1600 people.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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