Castro, the Jews and Israel: A mixed legacy

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“CASTRO DEAD” shouted the headline in the Miami Herald announcing the passing of Fidel Castro, who led a revolution to seize power in Cuba, which he ruled with an iron fist for nearly six decades. 

Castro was an iconic world figure throughout his stormy and controversial career. He was the dashing revolutionary who overthrew the corrupt Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959. In his early days, he insisted that he would be a democratic leader, promising free elections and other liberties, but he soon morphed into a totalitarian dictator, crushing all dissent and sending his political opponents to prison or to face a firing squad. 

Castro also vexed 11 presidents of the United States, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Back in 1961, Castro averted being toppled from power by the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. A year later, after spy photos showed that Castro had allowed the Soviet Union to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, the ensuing crisis nearly plunged the world into a catastrophic nuclear war. Fortunately, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy came up with a face-saving solution, which allowed the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba in exchange for the United States removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey. 

In 2006, when Castro became seriously ill, he turned over his presidential powers to his younger brother Raul, now 85. Castro continued to write columns for the state-run Cuban newspaper Granma until shortly before his death Nov. 25. 

How will Castro be remembered in future generations: as the charismatic revolutionary who nearly eliminated illiteracy and organized crime in Cuba, or the thuggish dictator who was among the most implacable foes of democracy and Western values on the world scene? 

There can be no whitewashing or sugarcoating the loathsome crimes committed by Castro during his long and bitter reign. At the same time, he was a complex figure, especially when it came to his relationship with the Cuban Jewish community and with the Jewish State of Israel. 

Was Castro just another fascistic, anti-Semitic dictator, deserving of contempt by the Jewish people? From the looks of the glowing tributes to Castro by the Palestinian Authority, who praised him for being a brother in the battle against Zionism and imperialism, one might conclude that the answer is yes. 

In truth, Castro has never been regarded as anti-Semitic generally or in regard to Cuba’s Jewish community. 

Before Castro took power in 1959, about 15,000 Jews lived in Cuba. Despite Castro’s open embrace of communism and Soviet vassalage in 1961, he was never overtly anti-Semitic in word or deed. A possible exception was the imprisonment of an American Jewish visitor to Cuba, Alan Gross, who was released as part of Obama’s normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

Most of the 13,000 Jews who left Cuba did so not because of anti-Semitism, but because most were members of a merchant class whose economic lifestyle could not thrive in a Marxist command economy. Many of the Cuban Jews joined their fellow exiles in the Little Havana section of Miami. 

Castro allowed Passover and other religious supplies to come into Cuba through the Canadian Jewish Congress for many years. More recently, Cuba has allowed Jewish visitors from various Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation and Hadassah, to visit their co-religionists on the island. 

Among the many contradictory statements Castro uttered over the years was that organized religion “had no place in Cuba,” but that a person could be “both a good Jew and a good communist.” He would often cite as an example Enrique Oltuski, a Jewish Cuban communist who fought with Castro and Che Guevara against Batista in the 1950s and who served as Cuba’s vice minister of fisheries, one of the highest ranking ethnic Jews in the Castro regime. 

What accounts for Castro’s contradictory and sometimes positive attitude towards Jews? His detractors say that any seemingly positive gesture Castro made over the years was entirely cynical and an effort to project a softer image in the West. Others point out that Castro himself expressed belief that he might have been part of the large Jewish-Converso Castro family, which has its roots through the Sephardi and Converso Diaspora. 

Castro was unique among communist rulers in his attitudes toward the State of Israel through the years. Early in his regime, Castro expressed admiration for Israel and entered into an intense period of trade and cultural exchanges with the Jewish State. There was even an Israel-Cuba Friendship League, which sought to bring kibbutz life to Cuba. 

On the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Castro was appalled when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser threatened to destroy Israel and “push its Jews into the sea.” Castro wrote a letter to Nasser urging him not to go to war against Israel and admonishing that “true revolutionaries do not talk about destroying a whole people or pushing them into the sea.” 

When the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, only Castro’s Cuba and Romania maintained ties to the Jewish State. In 1973, when Castro sought to become president of the Non-Aligned Nations bloc at its meeting in Libya, he broke relations with Israel. 

In one of his last interviews with an American journalist, Castro told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine that “Israel absolutely had a right to exist” and spoke of the tragedy of the Holocaust. 

To be sure, Castro’s relatively positive record toward Cuban Jewry and his long period of cordial relations with Israel do not for a moment excuse his ruthless dictatorship, his risking putting the entire world into a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or his Stalinist model of iron-fisted rule. 

But as we take account of the entire career of Fidel Castro, his mostly positive ties with the Jews of Cuba and his early support for Israel should be noted as part of his overall record.