Little Remains of Cuban Jewry’s Rich Past

El Patronato synagogue in Havana, Cuba.
El Patronato synagogue in Havana, Cuba.

By Rafael Medoff

The new U.S. policy of rapprochement with Cuba, which was accompanied by the celebrated release of imprisoned Jewish aid worker Alan Gross, probably will give American Jews greater access to a Jewish community with which few are familiar. But visitors will find that the years have not been kind to once-thriving Cuban Jewry.

During the centuries of Spanish rule in Cuba, no more than a scattered handful of Jews lived there. Catholicism was the only religion the Spanish colonial authorities permitted. The modern Jewish connection to Cuba began in the 1890s, when a number of American Jews lent their support to the Cuban liberation movement, headed by Jose Marti.

After the Spanish-American war of 1898 resulted in Cuban independence, American Jewish businessmen began settling on the island. By 1904, the Cuban Jewish community, numbering more than 300 families, established its first synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation, which was part of the Reform movement. During the years leading up to World War One, more than 5,000 Sephardic Jews from Turkey and North Africa settled in Cuba. Thanks to their fluency in Ladino, they were able to adjust quickly to life in a Spanish-speaking country. The island’s first Orthodox synagogue was founded in 1914.

As the U.S. tightened its immigration restrictions in the 1920s, more European Jews went instead to Cuba, although in many cases they saw it merely as a way station until they could enter America. The Cuban Jewish population grew to more than 20,000, and Havana, although still the center of the community, was now supplemented by clusters of Jews in smaller cities on the island.

Cuban Jews first began to experience serious anti-Semitism in the 1930s, as the impact of the worldwide depression stimulated extreme nationalism and ethnic scapegoating. Nazi agents seeking to spread Hitler’s influence in Latin America helped stir up anti-Jewish resentment in Cuba, and the country’s oldest newspaper, Didrio de la Marina, began reprinting articles from Julius Streicher’s Nazi publication Der Sturmer. Rumors on Yom Kippur eve in 1933 that Jews planned to aid anti-government strikers resulted in the police forcing dozens of Jewish businessmen to open their stores on the holy day.

Military strongman Fulgenico Batista, who took power in 1933, for the first time allowed Jews to apply for full citizenship. But he also pushed through a law requiring that at least 50 percent of all employees of businesses be Cuban-born. Although not aimed at Jews, it had the effect of ousting many Jews from their jobs. Nevertheless, the Cuban Jewish community felt reasonably secure and continued to gradually expand, reaching a peak of more than 20,000 in the 1930s.

American Jewish vacationers were regular patrons of the fabled Havana nightlife. In his autobiography, Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht described how he and a colleague would sometimes, on a whim, bring dozens of friends to Havana for a week of drunken revelry. “Cafes were raided and native female entertainers were carried off,” he recalled cheerfully. “Americans were still loved and grinned at by foreign eyes, [so] there was a minimum of broken heads.”

In the wake of the German annexation of Austria and the growing number of German and Austrian Jews seeking havens, about 3,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Cuba in 1938-1939. One U.S. newspaper columnist speculated that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had secretly agreed to lower tariffs on Cuban sugar imports in return for Cuba opening its doors to refugees. That theory was soon discredited, however, when the Cuban authorities refused to permit the landing of the 930 passengers on the St. Louis refugee ship in May 1939. In 1942, Cuba imposed a ban on all immigrants from Axis countries.

Many Cuban leaders sympathized with the Zionist cause, and the Cuban Senate in 1947 unanimously reaffirmed its previous endorsement of the Balfour Declaration (in which a British dignitary recognized the need for a Jewish homeland in Israel). The Cuban ambassador’s vote against the United Nations plan to partition the Palestine mandate thus surprised many. The reasons for that about-face remain a source of controversy among historians. In any event, the installation of a new Cuban government in 1949 resulted in Cuban recognition of the state of Israel.

The 1950s were a time of relative prosperity for Cuban Jewry, crowned by the construction of an expensive and elaborate cultural center in the Havana suburb of Vedado. Cuban Jews also established their own social clubs, medical clinics, and a monthly magazine, Israelia.

The Communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959 changed everything for Cuba’s Jews. Although some individual Jews were part of Castro’s government, his policy of nationalizing private businesses decimated the Jewish community. Within the first two years of the Castro regime, nearly 7,000 Cuban Jews, including most Jewish leaders, fled the country. Altogether, about 90 percent of Cuba’s Jews left. Most went to America, and a small number immigrated to Israel or South America.

Castro adopted a harsh anti-Israel line, and hosted Third World conferences where extreme denunciations of Israel were the norm. Castro also established close relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which reportedly helped Cuba supply weapons to Communist revolutionary groups in Latin America. A Cuban diplomat who defected to the West reported that throughout the 1970s, Cuba’s embassy in Damascus in turn shipped arms to Palestinian terrorist groups in Lebanon. Whether the new U.S.-Cuba rapprochement will result in friendlier Cuban relations with Israel remains to be seen.

Visitors to Cuba today will find only about 1,500 Jews. There are just a handful of functioning synagogues and a single kosher butcher. The community’s last rabbi passed away in 1975. A New York Times correspondent who visited Cuba in 2007 reported that it was so difficult to find the required quorum of 10 adult males for morning prayers that the Jewish community initiated a custom of counting its Torah scrolls as members of the minyan. Forthcoming visitors are not likely to find that the situation has changed very much since then.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author of 15 books on the Holocaust, Zionism, and Jewish history.