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Cuba’s Jewish History, from Columbus to the Present

Aug. 23 2017

Yosef ben Levy Ha-Ivri was a Spanish Jew who converted to Catholicism in 1492, just before Ferdinand and Isabella’s decree banishing Jews from the country went into effect. Shortly thereafter—now using the name Luis de Torres—he joined Christopher Columbus on his voyage across the Atlantic; legend has it that Columbus thought de Torres’s knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages might be helpful in communicating with the natives. Less than a year after their arrival, de Torres died on the island of Cuba, the first known Jewish resident of the New World.

Over the centuries, several waves of Jewish immigrants came to the island: first conversos, later American Jews, then Sephardim from Turkey, and finally Ashkenazim fleeing the Holocaust. Although Fidel Castro encouraged rumors that he was a descendant of conversos, his official treatment of Jews told a different story, as Irene Shaland explains in her brief history of Jewish life in Cuba:

Unlike the Soviet Union [after World War II], Castro’s domestic policies tended not to be anti-Semitic. The gravest threat to all Cubans, including Cuban Jews, was the revolutionary implementation of socialism—“Socialism or Death” as Castro and his comrade Che Guevara termed it—that entirely destroyed the Cuban economy. Entrepreneurs and the middle class were wiped out, which of course meant that many Jews lost everything.

All Cubans who fled the catastrophe being inflicted on their country were declared traitors and enemies of the revolutionary state. Out of nearly 15,000 Jews, fewer than 1,000 remained. Those thought to be religious activists were sent to labor camps created specifically for religious people, gays, exit applicants, and political dissidents. The new constitution stated that any religion was illegal as a manifestation of counter-revolutionary attitudes and actions. Most synagogues and Jewish schools were closed or abandoned, and as the totalitarian state asserted itself, the Jews had to . . . assimilate and adapt. They were not Jews anymore, but Cuban citizens and comrades.

And like the rest of the Cubans, they had to get used to poverty and rations, revolutionary atheism, and fear of political persecution. They also had to face ferocious anti-Israel propaganda, including anti-Semitic cartoons in state-controlled media, especially after Castro broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973. . . .

Fidel’s political career began at the University of Havana, where he became close to the Cuban People’s party and its leader Eduardo Chibas, who was then president of the Committee for Hebrew Palestine and supported the creation of the Jewish state. … [Nonetheless], books by Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, [and] Anne Frank, among many others, were banned. . . . Cuba hosted training camps for Palestinian terrorists and trained and equipped terrorists in the Middle East. It is known, for example, that Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal found safe haven and support in Castro’s Cuba.

Read more at Sephardi Ideas Monthly

More about: Communism, Conversos, Cuba, History & Ideas, Immigration, Palestinian terror

 

Europe Has a Chance to Change Its Attitude toward Israel

Dec. 15 2017

In Europe earlier this week, Benjamin Netanyahu met with several officials and heads of state. Ahead of his visit, the former Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein addressed a letter to these European leaders, urging them to reevaluate their attitudes toward the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the gravity of European anti-Semitism, and the threat posed by Hamas and Hizballah. In it she writes:

For years, the relationship between Europe and Israel has been strained. Europe tends to criticize Israel for simply defending itself against the continual threats and terrorist attacks it faces on all its borders and inside its cities. Europe too often disregards not only Israel’s most evident attempts to bring about peace—such as its disengagement from Gaza—but also chides it for its cautiousness when considering what solutions are risky and which will truly ensure the security of its citizens.

The EU has never recognized the dangers posed by Hamas and Hizballah, as well as by many other jihadist groups—some of which are backed by [the allegedly moderate] Fatah. The EU constantly blames Israel in its decisions, resolutions, papers and “non-papers,” letters, and appeals. Some of Europe’s most important figures insist that sanctions against the “territories” are necessary—a political stance that will certainly not bring about a solution to this conflict that . . . the Israelis would sincerely like to resolve. Israel has repeated many times that it is ready for direct negotiation without preconditions with the Palestinians. No answer has been received.

The European Union continues to put forth unrealistic solutions to the Israel-Palestinian issue, and the results have only aggravated the situation further. Such was the case in 2015 when it sanctioned Israeli companies and businesses in the territories over the Green Line, forcing them to close industrial centers that provided work to hundreds of Palestinians. The Europeans promoted the harmful idea that delegitimizing Israel can be accomplished through international pressure and that negotiations and direct talks with Israel can be avoided. . . .

[Meanwhile], Iran’s imperialist designs now touch all of Israel’s borders and put the entire world at risk of a disastrous war while Iran’s closest proxy, Hizballah, armed with hundreds of thousands of missiles, proudly presents the most explicit terrorist threat. Europe must confront these risks for the benefit of its citizens, first by placing Hizballah on its list of terrorist organizations and secondly, by reconsidering and revising its relationship with Iran.

Read more at Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Europe and Israel, European Union, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israel diplomacy