The Aftermath of
the Elian Gonzales Affair:
A Jewish Perspective
Dana Evan Kaplan
with permission of the American
Considering all that has transpired,
it is hard to believe that it has been less than a year
since two fishermen found Elian Gonzales floating in
an inner tube off the Florida coast. Americans have
endured an unbelievable barrage of news stories and
commentary about this episode, and most of us are thankful
that it finally reached a conclusion.
return to Cuba may have upset many of the anti-Castro
activists in the Florida Cuban-American community,
but polls show that a solid majority of Americans throughout
the rest of the country supported the reunification of
Elian and his father. In Cuba the sentiment is not all
that different. On several recent visits I witnessed Cubans
react in mock horror whenever the name "Elian"
was mentioned on TV or radio. "No more," they
begged me. "No more! We can't bear to hear any more
"Elian-fatigue" most Cubans support the Communist regime
on this issue. Although they are having a very tough time
economically, it only seems logical to them that Elian
should be returned to his father. Even Juan Miguel Gonzalez'
determination to return to Cuba does not surprise them.
He is, after all, one of Fidel's faithful. "He's going
to be a star here!" one Cuban told me. Another made the
motions of a beard-their symbol for President Castro-and
told me "He's already offered Juan Miguel a number of
high-ranking positions." Furthermore, Juan Miguel has
family in Cuba and he genuinely likes living in the country.
Whatever his motivations, most Cubans seem to feel that
if he wants to live in Cuba that's his choice, and if
he wants his son to live in Cardenas with him, that is
also his prerogative. Many Cubans continue to bemoan their
country's economic plight, but a substantial number have
increased their support of the Castro regime as a direct
result of this episode.
issue has certainly focused more of our attention on Cuba.
In addition to the Elian affair, there have been a number
of trade missions, several prominent defectors, a possible
spy, cultural and artistic exchanges, and even a series
of baseball games. All of this attention has led to curiosity
about the Jewish community on the island, and dramatically
increasing numbers of American Jews are participating
in UJA Federation (now called the United Jewish Communities)
missions to visit the Cuban Jewish community firsthand,
bring food and medicine, and participate in religious
and cultural activities. B'nai B'rith and a number of
other organizations, headquartered not only in Miami but
also in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere,
also sponsor such missions.
have attracted quite a bit of controversy in their own
right. The Forward, always looking for a sensationalist
angle, published a front-page article and an accompanying
editorial in April 2000 attacking the frequency and wisdom
of the missions. Reporter Melissa Radler wrote that there
were no fewer than 30 missions to Cuba planned by local
federations over the next four years. In addition, the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee spent $142,800
in 1998 to help the 1500 Jews "it says live in Cuba".
Radler cites the 1999 American Jewish Yearbook estimate
that puts the island's Jewish population at closer to
600. She writes, "Although the missions aren't subsidized
by the Jewish charities, the cost of travel and accommodations
for the 30 groups headed for Havana dwarfs the amount
the Joint is spending there."
was even harsher. The writer, presumably then-president
and editor Seth Lipsky, wrote that all of these missions
are "enough to make one wonder whether the reason for
all this is merely to help the 600 Jews trapped in the
Communist country. Or will the backers of the biggest
American Jewish charitable structure emerge with those
pressing for a soft line on the Communist regime during
the twilight years of its dictator, Fidel Castro?" But
having visited Cuba a number of times in the last several
months, I can state with certainty that not all the Jews
in the country feel "trapped," and I witnessed first-hand
the wonderful work being done by the Joint. The money
being spent is certainly substantial, but it covers a
full-time community coordinator brought in from Argentina,
programming costs, and other more concrete forms of aid.
In June the
same newspaper printed a lengthy letter from Rabbi Emanuel
Viñas of the Bronx. Rabbi Viñas wrote, "As a Cuban Jew
and rabbi living in America, I feel a personal and professional
duty to express my support for much of what you wrote…Jewish
organizations should not be visiting Cuba as often as
they are. Fidel Castro uses each of these visits to improve
his chances of having the embargo lifted, which would
allow him to continue enslaving the Cuban people at an
even greater profit than at present." Strong words, and
by no means atypical for a Cuban American, Jewish or Christian.
But this is
certainly not the view of many of those left in Cuba.
It is important to realize that the vast majority of the
Cuban Jewish community emigrated in the five or six years
immediately following the 1959 revolution, and by 1965
only about 10% remained. While Fidel Castro originally
had a tremendous amount of support from virtually every
sector of the population, and was careful to avoid any
overt identification with the Communist Party or Communist
ideology, actions that he took in the first several months
of his rule made it clear that his government's policies
were contrary to the interests of the middle and upper
classes, as well as to foreign business concerns. A mass
exodus of the upper and middle classes began by early
1960. The few Jews who remained did so for many reasons,
only one of which was ideological sympathy with Fidel's
form of communism. It is not at all certain that the majority
of those who stayed were ever Communist, and many of those
in the community today either were not born at the time
of the revolution or were small children, and so never
made a conscious choice at all to stay in the country.
Nevertheless, it is clear that after living in Cuba all
of these years the Jews have absorbed many of the attitudes
expressed by the government, which is the only public
position that one can hear on Cuban TV, radio, or newspapers.
But many people still continue to think independently,
despite the efforts made to push the party line.
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
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.
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.
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.
number of news reports suggested that the Cuban government
was claiming victory in the propaganda war with the Cuban
exiles, but it seems more likely that the exiles lost
the battle all by themselves. Many of their spokespersons
made inaccurate, exaggerated or blatantly false statements
on TV, which didn't help their cause either. I heard respectable
representatives argue, for example, that Cuban parents
have no rights over their children in Cuba, but rather
that the children were the property of the state. While
this of course has a basis in the idiosyncratic Cuban
Communist ideology, the way that it was presented was
so distorted as to make it unrecognizable.
the following paragraphs, to the dotted line below, did
not appear in the "Congress Monthly" article.)
I was resentful that the congress people and other Cuban
American representatives in Florida who spoke so often
and passionately on TV would alter the facts so blatantly.
The inbred Miami Cuban community has taken the trauma
that they experienced and magnified it to the point where
just uttering the word Castro is enough to send them into
fits of uncontrolled weeping, a phenomenon I watched on
television numerous times. They act as if this was a community
that experienced something of the magnitude of the holocaust.
But this is not what happened to them, and without slighting
the degree of trauma that they feel, I think I speak for
a great many who believe that they can and should move
on with their lives and that the American government should
form a rational policy toward Cuba based on legitimate
American political and economic interests, rather than
on the intense hatred of a segment of the Cuban American
community in South Florida.
was a symbol for both the Castro government and the conservative
segment of the Cuban American community. For the conservative
Cuban Americans the little boy represented freedom, specifically
their struggle to leave Cuba as it became increasingly
Communist and non-democratic. Most had their businesses
confiscated and they felt betrayed by the revolutionary
government, which many of them initially supported. For
Castro, Elian Gonzalez represents an opportunity to proudly
reassert the Cuban commitment to Cuban sovereignty. Castro
has always been able to combine Cuban nationalism with
loyalty to his own form of revolutionary government. The
issue was ideal, because most Cubans could easily support
the cause of returning Elian to his father to Cuba whether
or not they were supporters of the regime, whether or
not they were Communist sympathizers, and whether or not
they felt the country was being managed competently.
Many American rabbis discussed Elian in their sermons.
Most are on the constant lookout for topics that their
congregants will be able to relate to, and that they can
conceptualize with a Jewish religious context. The Elian
episode fit very nicely.
J. Shapiro of Congregation B'nai B'rith in Santa Barbara,
California, argued that "there are many appropriate and
moral ways in which we can express our disagreement with
the government of Fidel Castro, but holding a 6-year old
boy hostage is not one of them (1)." Shapiro writes that
he supported the federal government decision to forcibly
remove the little boy from the home of the "Miami relatives":
have never been more proud to be an American: proud
that President Clinton and attorney General Reno decided
that upholding the law was more important than playing
to the crowds. It would have been very easy to grant
young Elian asylum here, to grant his extended family
custody of a motherless child and leave it at that.
But this is a country of laws, and this child also has
a father. We may detest the political system of Cuba;
we may even believe that we have a right to work for
its overthrow. But that isn't the same thing as denying
a father and son their god-given right-absent any evidence
of abuse or neglect-to be together. Juan Miguel Gonzalez
has a right to raise his son, and if that means doing
so in Cuba, as much as I might believe they would both
be better off herein the United States, then so be it.
I am proud that once again we can be seen in the eyes
of the world as a nation of laws, not of political expediency."
interesting aspect of the lengthy debate on Elian was
the comparison that was all too frequently made between
Cuban migrants to the U.S. and holocaust refugees. Both
politicians and commentators made this comparison, directly
or indirectly, a comparison that is of course ridiculous.
It is not necessary to add which side was using this polemical
tool. New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani stated that the
federal troops that took Elian from his relatives' Miami
home were "storm troopers". Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire
called the Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland--where Elian
stayed with his father-a "concentration camp". One of
Smith's aides later said that the Senator had meant to
say "re-education camp" rather than "concentration camp."
Slesin, who was a "hidden child" in Lithuania during the
holocaust, has compared the Elian Gonzalez case with Jewish
children hidden from the Nazis during World War II. She
writes that former hidden children describe the psychological
ramifications of their traumatic separation from their
parents, the bonding process that occurred with their
rescuers, and the difficulties that occurred once they
were reunited with their parents. Although she admits
that the historical and political context is radically
different, Slesin argues that the psychological stages
and events that the hidden children went through are parallel
to those that Elian has and will experience.
writes that having suffered the forced separation from
her parents during World War II, she and other hidden
children that she knows felt that in Elian's case it would
be highly beneficial to him to be reunited with his father
as soon as possible. She wrote that during the holocaust
some Jewish parents were able to give their children to
sympathetic gentiles as their only possible way of saving
those children from virtually certain death. Despite the
urgency of the situation, the children felt abandoned.
Once they were living with their new family most of the
children quickly transferred their loyalty to their adopted
family. In the cases where the children's birth parents
survived and returned for them after the war, it was by
no means always a happy reunion. According to Slesin many
of the children didn't want to go back with their parents,
and felt that they were being abandoned yet again. She
therefore believes, based on her own experiences, that
it would have been far better if Elian had been returned
to his father almost immediately. The extended period
of time that he spent with the "Miami relatives" meant
that like Jewish hidden children he will now have to reestablish
loyalty to his father and he might possibly feel guilt
at "abandoning" his foster family.
Elian Gonzalez affair is on one level a family custody
case. On another level it is a manifestation of a propaganda
war between Cuban communists and capitalists, the latter
in exile. But on yet another level it is a story filled
with religious themes. Elian has been depicted as a messianic
figure; many Miami Catholics have told and retold the
story that dolphins saved him at sea. The concept of dolphins
as saviors has a Christian basis, but those Christian
sources may have borrowed it from a Midrash on how dolphins
saved some Israelite children who lagged behind during
the parting of the Red Sea. Interestingly, it is not just
the Catholics who interpreted the Elian saga in religious
terms. One of Elian's main lawyers is Spencer Eig, an
Orthodox Baal Teshuva who frequently put the fight to
keep Elian in Florida in the context of the child's right
for religious freedom. Eig compared the Gonzalez case
to that of "a Jew from communist Russia making it
to Israel and then having to be sent back."(3) Eig
appeared frequently on TV with his large black yarmulke,
an identifying symbol that none could miss. At the same
time, we all understand that Eig's position on Elian is
not the only stance that American Jews are likely to take.
that Elian is home in Cuba, the American Jewish community
may disagree profoundly on what our government policy
should be toward Cuba. As relations between the countries
continue to thaw, many of us may have the opportunity
to visit Cuba and to draw our own conclusions. While few
are likely to come away from the experience demonizing
Fidel Castro, neither are we likely to see the revolution
as a success. Cuba's unique history has created a society
unlike that of any other country in the world. Beset by
economic crisis, the Cubans are hungry, frustrated, and
waiting for change. Nevertheless many retain a certain
fondness for what the revolution has done for them, and
have ambivalent feelings about what the future may bring.
As Jews and as Americans we have an obligation to help
these wonderful people to build a future of hope and of
J. Shapiro, "From the Rabbi", Congregation B'nai B'rith
Bulletin, volume 72, number 9, (May 2000), p. 4.
is Asked over Elian Imagery", Jewish Bulletin of Northern
California, (May 12, 2000), p. 20A.
Lawyer: Why an Observant Jew is Fighting to Keep Him
Here," Chicago Jewish News, (January 28, 2000), p.3.