Another Castro, another day for Cuban Jews

Fidel Castro’s may be stepping down after 50 years as president of Cuba, but Cuban exiles say precious little will change for the few Jews remaining on the island

“This means absolutely nothing for the Cuban Jewish community,” said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “Why would they be affected? There will be no change in policy.”

Castro’s younger brother Raúl Castro, who has been directing the country’s day-to-day affairs since Fidel took ill about a year and a half ago, is widely expected to be named his brother’s official successor by Cuba’s 31-member Council of State when the council meets in Havana on Monday, Feb. 24.

While Cuba under Fidel Castro has been stridently anti-Israel, Cuba’s Jews have enjoyed relative religious freedom in the country. The country’s new leadership is not expected to make any immediate changes to the status quo on either of these two policies.

Stanley Cohen, international chairman of the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project, said Castro’s retirement will have no effect on Cuba’s foreign relations. Cohen has taken more than 900 Americans to Cuba on 35 humanitarian missions with B’nai B’rith.

He estimates that Cuba has some 1,300 Jews, many of them converts.

“In Cuba, they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that Fidel is no longer there. It’s the rest of the world that’s concerned,” he said.

On Feb. 19, the ailing 81-year-old revolutionary leader of Cuba said in a letter published on the Web site of the official Communist Party newspaper Granma that he would quit, 19 months after being stricken by an undisclosed illness that has kept him out of public view.

Bernardo Benes, a 73-year-old banker who left Cuba in 1960 and played varsity soccer with Raúl, now 76, while both men were students at the University of Havana, said Fidel Castro was not an anti-Semite. He declined to speculate on Raúl’s attitudes toward Jews.

“I can assure you that Fidel has great admiration for the Jewish people. I had some conversations with him about Judaism and Israel, and he showed a tremendous amount of interest,” said Benes, who was the former legal counsel for Cuba’s largest synagogue, the Patronato.

“In spite of that, his government’s policy has been horrendous for Israel. Fidel is a difficult personality. Most people don’t understand who he is.”

Indeed, Castro has been no friend of Israel.

In 1966, he opened guerrilla training camps for Palestinians, beginning a lifelong relationship with Yasser Arafat. Speaking to the First Party Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 1975, two years after breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel and assisting the Syrians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, Castro declared, “Yasser Arafat is a man we deeply love and admire and to whom we have always shown our solidarity.”

In 1975, Cuba co-sponsored a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, and in 1991, it voted against the U.N. proposal to revoke that resolution. And at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, Castro called on delegates to “put an end to the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people” by Israel.

Despite the lack of diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Havana, private Israeli businessmen are among the top investors in Cuba’s citrus-export industry and have poured tens of millions of dollars into a suburban Havana office complex.

Estimating the number of Jews in Cuba is virtually impossible, experts say, because while large numbers of Jews have left the island in recent years, there also have been numerous conversions to Judaism. Moisés Asís says the island has no more than 400 or so bona fide Jews left.

Asís, a former Hebrew teacher in Havana and general-secretary of Cuba’s B’nai B’rith lodge, says the Jewish community in Cuba frequently exaggerates its size “in order to show that they need more assistance and more money.”

He said approximately 800 Cuban Jews have left for Israel since 1992; about half stayed in Israel, with the rest emigrating to the United States.

Ascribing the large number of Jewish converts to Cuba’s favorable treatment of Jews, Asís speculated that about 80 percent of the people who attend synagogue services in Cuba “have nothing to do with Jewish life.”

Among other things, Jews are entitled to kosher meat rations three times a month and frequently receive generous “care packages” from wealthy Jewish communities in the United States and Canada.

“Actually, if you compare it with other former communist countries, the situation for Jews in Cuba is better,” said Asís, who now lives near Miami.

“Fidel Castro was hostile to religion in general, but not to Jews in particular. He was more hostile to Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, but because the Jews were so few — and most of the people attending services were elderly — they weren’t a challenge to his power. For that reason, he was very tolerant of the Jewish community.”

Cohen, of the B’nai B’rith relief project, doesn’t expect any dramatic changes in Cuba’s Middle East policy — or in anything else — as long as Castro remains alive.

“The people in Miami are as happy as can be, but people in Cuba today are just ho-hum,” Cohen said. “He’s already been gone for awhile, so they just made it official.”