Lawrence Solomon: Castro reaches out to Israel

(Oct. 2) Cuba’s appeal to Israel has worked brilliantly. He may be ­turning to Jews for foreign investment.

Cuba may be turning to Israel and Jews for foreign investment. That, in any case, is my assessment of recent moves by Castro and Cuba that have warmed them to Jews everywhere and instantly reversed the antipathy that many Israeli Jews have felt following Cuban acts of hostility toward Israel. These included cutting off relations with Israel prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, training Palestinian terrorists, and signing the United Nations’ Zionism Equals Racism resolution, among others.

In late August, shortly before Cuba’s President, Raul Castro, announced that as many as one million Cubans, or about 20% of the country’s workforce, would be losing their jobs as part of an historic privatization and liberalization of the Cuban economy, Fidel Castro invited journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine to Havana for an interview. In it, Castro broke with decades of hostility toward the Israeli state. He criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for being an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. He identified with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s awesome responsibility as the leader of a country charged with avoiding another Holocaust. He said: “[If] I were Netanyahu … I would remember that six million Jewish men and women of all ages were exterminated in the concentration camps.” He even hinted at a re-establishment of ties with Israel. Adding the personal to the political, Castro also made a point of praising Netanyahu’s 100-year-old father, an eminent historian.

Castro’s choice of Goldberg, an Israeli-American and one of the most prominent writers on Middle East politics, sent another message of support for Israel. Goldberg is seen as a war hawk, disliked by the anti-war left for countenancing an attack on Iran (and prior to that, on Iraq). During Goldberg’s stay in Havana he also participated in a photo-op, just published, with Castro and leaders of the Cuban-Jewish Community.

While Castro embarked on this charm offensive, a Cuban newspaper, The Militant, translated a speech by Raul Castro that castigated the Obama administration for failing to lift the U.S trade embargo, as well as the European Union for its “unfair, discriminatory and meddling” support of the U.S. position. Raul Castro signalled Cuba’s desire to find other economic partners, saying he would not allow the United States and the EU to “pen us in,” and emphasizing the need for Cuba to develop “an efficient and robust agriculture” that would allow the country to feed itself.

Fidel Castro’s olive branches to Israel — noted for its agricultural prowess — would be a logical consequence of Cuba’s desire to attract the foreign investment and expertise needed to avoid being penned in, and it would also be consistent with the long and largely warm history that Fidel Castro and Cuban Jews have enjoyed. Although most Jews fled Cuba after Castro came to power in 1959, many supported the revolution and some became part of the ruling elite. Castro for the most part treated those Jews who remained well, leading to a Jewish community in Cuba that suffered no unique privation and enjoyed privileges, such as the ability to import foods on religious grounds, that effectively gave Jews rights denied other Cubans.

Castro also gave very public endorsement to things Jewish. In 2006, for example, at an official state ceremony in memory of the Jews who died in the Holocaust, Castro inaugurated the installation of Israel’s official emblem, the seven-branch menorah, by lighting it in a central Havana square. In attendance was Rafi Eitan, the recipient of a Cuban medal for agricultural investment for his role in establishing a vast citrus operation in Cuba. Eitan was also note-worthy for non-agricultural investments — his company had brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to develop office buildings, residential complexes, and a shopping centre.

Castro comes by his interest in Jews honestly — as he has often remarked, he is descended from the Marranos, Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. This interest in Marranos also explains his interest in Netanyahu’s father, an expert in the history of the Jews of Spain and the author of The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, considered by many to be a definitive history. Perhaps coincidentally, the elder Netanyahu, whom he admires and wishes to meet in person, is also a hawk on Israel’s need to protect itself from belligerent neighbours.

Castro’s appeal to Israel and Jews, and his implicit distancing of himself from past harsh actions against Israel, has worked brilliantly. Soon after Castro’s views were published, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu praised Castro lavishly for his “unique intellectual depth” and “deep understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel” and a major Israeli daily predicted that Israeli tourism to Cuba could double this year due to the warmth that Castro engendered.

The thaw between Cubans and Jews will doubtless attract the attention of Jews in other countries as well. Until Obama or a successor lifts the trade embargo on trade with America, which remains Cuba’s most-sought source of foreign investment and foreign trade, Jews in Israel and elsewhere are likely to represent Cuba’s fastest-growing source of foreign capital.

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post, Oct 3, 2010

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