By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Fidel Castro was often praised for not being anti-Semitic. He had a “deep understanding” of the history of the Jewish people Benjamin Netanyahu once said. He told an inteviewer in 2010 that as a boy he had heard fellow Cubans blame “the Jews” for “killing God.”He condemned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and noted “Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms.”
Most Jews fled Cuba when Castro came to power, dwindling from 15,000 to around 1,500 by 2014. One Castro entered the Soviet orbit the official anti-Zionist and anti-Israel line became common in Cuba, but most writers argue it did not flow over into anti-semitism. Only one anti-semitic incident, stone throwing at a synagoguge during the 1973 war, was recorded in decades. The AJC says that “the Castro brothers have not engaged in anti-semitism.” However, “despite shunning anti-Semitism and allowing hundreds of Cuban Jews to make Aliyah, the Castro brothers have consistently opposed Israel and its policies.”
“Still, Jews here could get kosher meat, a fact many here point to as a sign of the absence of anti-Semitism in Cuba,” claimed the JTA in 1996. The article claimed that the “revival” of Jewish religious worship stemmed in “part from a 1991 law passed by the Cuban National Assembly that allows Cubans to be members of the Communist Party and to participate in religious associations.” In 1999 a JTA article noted that 400 Jews had been allowed to immigrate to Israel. State Department spokesman James Rubin welcomed “The fact that members of the Jewish community have been allowed to immigrate to Israel is a step forward in Cuba’s overall religious freedom policy.”
Wait a sec, wasn’t Cuba free from anti-semitism? Castro was “reluctant to publicize special treatment arranged for the Cuban Jewish community,” the 1999 piece claimed.
The reality is revealed in an interesting report was revealed regarding an episode in 1994 in which Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau attempted to get Castro to allow kosher meat into Cuba. An Israeli diplomat named Joel Barromi told Haaaretz writer Adi Schwartz in a 2006 interview surprising details. The Cuban leader had initially rejected Lau’s request to bring in kosher meat. “I told you that I am fighting against the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in my country…do you want to make my people anti-Semitic,” Castro asked. “We have the practice of allocating 150 grams of bread a day, but the Jews in Cuba would have meat? [The people] will have a horrible hatred for them, envy them tremendously and loot their homes if under such conditions you see to import kosher meat for the Jews, you yourself create the anti-Semitism that I have been stopping.”
This is the example of supposedly stopping anti-semitism, to threaten Jews that if they should want to eat kosher meat that they would “create” anti-semitism. Castro was at first admitting that he had starved his country by putting it on bread rations, but surely Cubans eat some meat. So why would some meat for Jewish people “make” them anti-Semitic? One wonders whether “envy” for Muslims eating Halal would create the same excuse for Islamophobia just because Muslims celebrate Eid by eating a sheep? According to articles the same Cuba that feared meat would force people to be anti-semitic, was welcoming to Halal food.
The real truth was that Castro wanted to sell himself as being the lone figure that could prevent anti-semitism, much like many other leaders who claim they are “friends” of the Jewish minority by “preventing” anti-semitism. But the reality of any society is that anti-Semitism shouldn’t need to be prevented. When there are only 1,500 Jews among 11 million people, why would there be any anti-Semitism? Can anyone imagine a leader claiming that if people of color ate meat that therefore racism would be acceptable? Of course not.
Because of the low expectations for Cuba, the fact of there not being visible anti-semitism was somehow given as a badge and award for Castro, when the reality is any world leader should be expected to condemn anti-semitism. Why was Castro heralded for simply admitting the Holocaust happened?
The reality in Cuba was that Jews were deeply suppressed, unable to practice their religion for decades, denied kosher meat, and kept from immigrating and impoverished. The theory that these restrictions happened to other communities doesn’t make the treatment of Jews acceptable. The existence of racism against one group, doesn’t make it ok for another.
The reality is that Castro should not have been rewarded for threatening anti-semitism upon a tiny minority, and he should have been condemned for driving Cuba’s Jewish community and the rest of its people into penury.