By Aaron Feigenbaum.
The rebirth of U.S.- Cuban diplomatic relations a few weeks ago was heralded by the release of Alan Gross, a Jewish aid worker who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. After decades of hostility by the Castro regime towards Jews, and especially towards Israel, this symbolic gesture could signal the opening of Cuba’s Jewish community to the world. However, visitors to Cuba will see a very different Cuban Jewry than the one of the pre-Castro years.
According to popular legend, Cuba’s Jewish past begins in 1492 when three Conversos (Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism) voyaged on Christopher Columbus’ fleet to the New World. One of them was Luis Torres, Columbus’ translator, without whom the first Spanish settlements in Cuba might never have been. The island’s rich soil allowed the Spanish settlements to develop the sugar and tobacco industries the Spanish colony needed to survive, and this was the first attraction of Jewish merchants to the island.
Then, in an ironic twist, the Spanish Inquisition came to Cuba and began persecuting the very people who helped establish the colony in the first place. A particularly dark chapter in Cuba’s history occurred in 1613 when the Converso Francisco Gomes de Leon of Havana confessed that he was a secret Jew, and was martyred for his faith. Arrests of so-called “crypto-Jews” continued periodically in Cuba, and though most were not killed, they were still required to forfeit a large portion of their wealth.
In 1649, Portugal conquered Brazil, causing thousands of Jews to flee the dreaded Portuguese Inquisition. Many of these refugees arrived in Cuba, thus marking the first mass immigration of Jews to Cuba. Despite continued persecution lasting as late as 1783, Cuban Jews established trading networks not only with neighboring Caribbean Jewish communities, but also reaching as far as Amsterdam and Hamburg.
The Inquisition was officially abolished in the early 1800’s, and Jews were finally free to worship publicly in 1881. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, which ended Spain’s rule in Cuba and in which a large number of Jews served in the American army, many Jewish-American businessmen came to Cuba and became heavily involved in the tobacco and sugar cane industries. Jews were particularly instrumental in tobacco-growing as they were the first to grow the crop under a protective cloth to keep it dry, a practice still in use today. Jewish traders also helped move sugar cane between Cuba, Portugal, Brazil, and the Dutch Antilles.
A wave of more than 5,000 Jewish immigrants from Turkey and North Africa arrived in Cuba just before the start of WWI. These Ladino-speaking immigrants were quickly able to adjust to life in their new homeland. Cuba’s first Orthodox shul, Adath Israel, was built in Havana in 1925. Due to America’s strict immigration quotas in the 1920‘s and 1930‘s, many Jews leaving Europe decided to stay in Cuba where anti-Semitism was rare. Many of these new immigrants prospered in the garment industry. The Cuban Jewish population, centered in Havana, numbered over 20,000 at this time. A Central Jewish Committee was founded in the 1930‘s to organize Cuban Jewry.
Anti-Semitism became a real threat beginning in the 1930‘s when Nazism found its way into the country. Cuba’s oldest newspaper, the Didrio de la Marina, reprinted articles from infamous Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher’s “Der Sturmer.” Nazi agents began agitating against the Jews. Rumors arose of a Jewish-led anti-government strike planned for Erev Yom Kippur, 1933. This false accusation led to many Jewish businessman being forced to open their shops on Yom Tov.
Fulgencio Batista’s military dictatorship, which came to power in 1933, allowed Jews to apply for full citizenship for the first time. However, his regime also instituted a law requiring 50% of all employees to be Cuban-born, causing many Jews to lose their jobs. Despite these setbacks, Jewish life in Cuba was relatively stable and the population continued to grow. Havana became a prime vacation spot for American Jews, particularly Hollywood types such as screenwriter Ben Hecht who infused Cuba with some of the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown.
As persecution in Europe ramped up in the late 1930‘s, many Jews turned to Cuba for refuge. Some 3,000 German and Austrian Jews were allowed to enter Cuba in 1938-1939, reportedly because of President F.D.R.’s promise to lower tariffs on Cuban sugar imports. However, the Cuban government changed its mind in 1942 when it denied entry to the S.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying over 900 Jewish refugees. Despite efforts by the American government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the ship was forced to return to Europe. Some of the passengers found safety in England, but over 200 others perished in the Holocaust.
The Cuban government announced its support for the Balfour Declaration in 1947, but strangely voted against the U.N.’s partition plan for Palestine. Nevertheless, Cuba officially recognized Israel in 1949.
The 1950‘s could be considered Cuban Jewry’s glory years. The community was well integrated into the country’s social and economic life. They built an impressive cultural center in a suburb of Havana, as well as social clubs and medical clinics. The community also published a monthly magazine called “Israelita.” The Patronato Shul was built in the mid-1950’s by the affluent Jewish community, and the Adath Israel shul was remodeled. The Jewish population remained at over 20,000, 75% of which was concentrated in Havana. Havana had a total of five shuls, a kosher restaurant, a Jewish high school and five Jewish elementary schools.
The fortunes of Cuba’s Jews declined drastically when the Castro regime came to power in 1959. Castro’s nationalization of private businesses resulted in economic devastation for the Cuban Jewish community. About 90% of the community left Cuba as a result, including 7,000 in the first two years of Castro’s reign. Most immigrated to America, but some went to South America and Israel.
Like other members of religious groups in Cuba, Jews now faced a number of restrictions such as limited access to jobs and education, as well as not being allowed to form religious organizations. However, unlike the Soviet Union, Jews could freely practice their religion, buy kosher food, and receive foreign donations. Anti-Semitism was a virtual unknown in Cuba as the criminal code protected against religious and ethnic discrimination. At the same time Castro took a fierce line against Israel and in the late 1960’s, a number of Jews who had spoken out against the government were placed in labor camps.
Anti-Israel denunciations by Castro and the state media became the norm, and the regime developed close ties with the PLO. A Cuban government official who defected to the West alleged that Cuba trained PLO terrorists in the 1970’s on its soil. Cuba officially cut diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973. That same year Cuba sent 1,500 troops and military supplies to help the Arabs in the Yom Kippur War. The alleged PLO terrorist training was then corroborated by Yasser Arafat’s visit to Cuba in 1974. Relations with Israel deteriorated even more when Castro made a speech at the U.N. in 1979 comparing Israeli policy to Nazi genocide.
Jewish activists were now closely monitored by the state and Jewish life in Cuba deteriorated further. Several shuls closed in the 1980’s and in the early 1990’s. Israel carried out a secret plan called Operation Cigar. As a result of the program’s success more than 400 Cuban Jews were able to make aliyah to Israel.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought with it a measured degree of liberalization by the Cuban government. Jews were allowed to form religious organizations for the first time in many years. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was allowed into the country and has been helping the Jewish community there ever since, coordinating basic supplies such as medicine, kosher food, and school equipment. Thanks to the outreach efforts of organizations such as Chabad, many intermarried spouses have converted to Judaism. In a very limited gesture of goodwill towards Israel, Cuba invited then – Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Lau in 1994. The Rabbi met with Castro. He also confirmed that these conversions were valid.
Currently, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler acts as Cuba’s chief rabbi while also serving as chief rabbi for Santiago, Chile. He travels to Havana several times a year to perform bar mitzvahs, weddings and more. Jewish visitors to Cuba frequently stay at the Hotel Raquel, which has stained glass windows depicting Jewish themes and paintings by a local Jewish artist.
The reaction by Cuban Jews towards Obama’s rapprochement with the Castro regime is mixed. Older immigrants to America, who experienced Castro’s oppression firsthand, have misgivings about a political warming up towards Cuba. However, many of the younger generation see this as an opportunity to change Cuba for the better and open up relations with the 1,500 or so Jews still living on the island. Others take a wait-and-see approach. At this point in time, this is probably the most sensible. Whether relations with America and a potential end to the embargo will bring in political change and economic improvement to Cuban’s, or whether it’ll merely prop up the Castro regime, remains to be seen.
What is clearer is that despite living under a dictatorship, the Jewish community in Cuba is in relatively good standing now, at least compared to many places in the world. Despite the regime’s virulent anti-Zionist and anti-religious Marxist doctrine, anti-Semitic attacks are today unheard of. Both Raul and Fidel Castro have expressed goodwill towards Cuba’s Jews and both have participated in Chanukah celebrations. Fidel Castro criticized his ally Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, for denying the Holocaust. Fidel’s affirmation of Israel’s right to exist earned him praise from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said he has a “deep understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Nevertheless, in light of Cuba’s anti-Israel activities, Israel understandably refuses to join the U.S. in opening relations with Cuba.
In any case, G-d willing, the thawing of relations with America will bring good tidings for Cuba’s Jews.
(Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Breakingisraelnews, Forward)