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.

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Read more at Sephardi Ideas Monthly

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

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy