The Aftermath of the Elian Gonzales Affair:
A Jewish Perspective

Dana Evan Kaplan

Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Congress
September/October 2000

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.

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Elian's 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 about Elian."

Despite their "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.

The entire 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.

The 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."

The editorial 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.

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