Cuba’s Jewish History, from Columbus to the Present
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.