The Aftermath of the Elian Gonzalez Affair:
A Jewish Perspective

Dana Evan Kaplan
(page two)

It is interesting to see how the Cuban Jewish community expresses itself on the Elian issue, as opposed to how many Cuban Americans view the same incident. During the controversy the Cuban government held huge rallies in front of the United States interests section, the unofficial "embassy" housed in a large building directly on the Malecon and rented from the Swiss government. In the early weeks first Dr. José Miller Fredman, the president of the Patronato, and shortly thereafter Alberto Zilberstein Toruncha, the president of the Adath Israel Orthodox congregation in old Havana, spoke at the public rallies. Both emphasized that Elian should be reunited with his father. Both stressed the desirability of Elian's return to Cuba. Miller in particular went beyond the minimalist position--that Elian's father should be the one to decide where the family should live--to suggest that Cuba could provide a more wholesome and less violent atmosphere for his upbringing. This position went beyond even that taken by the Catholic Church in Cuba, which argued that Elian should be reunited with his father, and that his father should then make all further decisions.

That both Miller and Zilberstein were asked to speak is but one indication of the close, mutually beneficial working relationship between the government and the Jewish community. Despite the strongly anti-Israel position that the Cuban government adopted in the aftermath of the Six Day War, and despite the break in Cuban-Israeli diplomatic relations shortly before the Yom Kippur War, the government has always gone out of its way to be friendly to the Jewish community. This sympathetic approach is even more remarkable in light of the government's policy of discouraging religious affiliation and activity. Until the 4th Cuban Communist Party Conference of 1991, religious believers were prohibited from becoming members of the Party; obviously in a one-party state such as Cuba the path to the most desirable positions was through the Communist party only. Nevertheless, the government allowed the Jewish community to keep five synagogues functioning in Havana, even after the community had shrunk to perhaps 10% of its former size. It offered to rent sections of two of the synagogues, and attempted to assist the Jewish community in numerous other ways. More recently el Lider Maximo himself visited the Patronato during Hanukkah of 1998. After sitting through several dances and songs, and an introduction by Dr. Miller, Castro spoke at length with those gathered together. In an informal manner typical of his speaking style on such occasions, Fidel asked the group to explain certain facts about Hanukkah to him, and then carried on an animated dialogue with them. There was no question that the president charmed the audience. There seemed little question that Fidel had a warm spot for Cuba's Jews and they could not help but respond.


There has been much speculation exactly why Castro seems to have adopted such a strongly pro-Jewish policy. Some suggest that in the aftermath of World War II Castro came to believe that the moral worth of any government could be determined by how it treated the Jews. Others have suggested that Castro adopted and maintained such a sympathetic policy as one way of showing that despite his alliance with the Soviet Union he remained an independent force and could take positions dramatically different from his Russian sponsors. Others have argued that he may believe that he is descended from Marranos on his father's side of the family, or from a Turkish Jewish immigrant on his mother's side. Whatever the reason, no one has suggested that the Castro government was ever antisemitic, and virtually no one has attempted to argue that they ever adopted an anti-Jewish position. Nevertheless, the anti-Israel position consistently taken by the Cuban government has upset many Jews. While this policy has been softened in recent years, it has not been entirely done away with.

The question of Cuba's policy toward Israel was addressed by a delegation from the American Jewish Congress, led by president Jack Rosen, which met with President Castro during a six-hour dinner held at the presidential palace in July 1998. Members of the delegation expressed their disappointment that Cuba was the only country in the Western Hemisphere to vote against rescinding the United Nations "Zionism is Racism" resolution. President Castro responded that he had no knowledge of the vote. Speaker Ricardo Alarcón, the Cuban representative at the United Nations who actually cast the vote, was present at the dinner. Not surprisingly, Alarcón did not offer to field the question. Other Cuban officials informally told Rosen that the vote was to be expected considering the fact that the State of Israel votes against Cuba on virtually every matter.

Now that Elian is back in Cuba the issue is no longer active. Nonetheless the residual impact of the case will continue to reverberate for months and possibly years. For the Cuban Americans--particularly those with more hard line positions--it will be a time of reflection and reevaluation. They have repeatedly expressed frustration that most of their fellow Americans did not understand (in their view) or sympathize (according to a less charitable interpretation) with their position. Many Americans saw them as shrill, hysterical, and fanatical-characteristics that helped neither them nor their cause. Few disagree that President Castro is a dictator and that the government of Cuba has unjustly confiscated businesses and generated mass migrations from Cuba, but it seems a great leap from that to the position that a group of relatives who had previously met the child only once should receive priority over Elian's own father. They picked the wrong cause and they fought the propaganda war in the wrong way.

(continued on page three)