Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

No kaddish for Castro

An image of Cuba's late President Fidel Castro is displayed in the Regla neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Edgard Garrido *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SALKIN-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Nov. 28, 2016.

(RNS) Fidel Castro was the man who first taught me to be afraid of death.

It was during the Cuban missile crisis, and I was 7 years old.

I remember my parents sitting in the den, watching the television – and shuddering. The reason was clear; there was the threat of Soviet missiles aimed directly at our country.

My parents’ fear was contagious. It leapt across the room and entered my soul. That was the day that I first learned to be afraid of death.

And now, the man who was my first “malach ha-mavet,” or angel of death, is himself dead.

I am not mourning Fidel Castro.

I am not mourning Fidel Castro, because I live in south Florida, surrounded by his victims. Those are the Jews who fled after the Castro revolution nationalized their homes and businesses.

These Jews are proud to be “Jewbans,” and they carry within them a sense of sadness and enduring exile.

In the words of the Cuban Jewish poet José Kozer:

The store in Havana has turned to dust, and my father, dust-coated Jew, comes home each day with a rye loaf under his arm.

All the stores in Havana have been shut,

The workers, all fired up, have started marching;

again, the old dust-coated Jew, my father

carries the Ark of the Covenant on his way out of Cuba.

I am not mourning Fidel Castro, because I have no love for leftist revolutions.

Once upon a time, I did. Like many of my generation, I confess: As a teenager, I had posters of Che Guevara in my room.

He was a romantic figure — so suave and dashing. When the U.S.-backed Bolivian army assassinated him, that act almost elevated him to a Jesus-like status. Esquire magazine once did a parody of the Last Supper, putting Che in Jesus’ chair.

Except: Guevara was a terrorist. He had no compunction executing masses of helpless peasants. He died in a failed attempt to extend the communist revolution to Bolivia.

Guevara made leftist, revolutionary violence “cool.” He created a cult of violence that allowed leftists to embrace — or, at the very least, to rationalize — Palestinian violence against the Jews.

Which leads to: I am not mourning Fidel Castro, because he was not “good for the Jews.”

The Castro regime was deeply anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967. Castro and Guevara served as role models for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Cuba was involved in training Palestinian fighters. The Cuban government decorated the late Yasser Arafat.

Perhaps this was because Castro simply admired revolutionaries — of any stripe.

No matter. He was directly responsible for the death of many Jews, and many others. He trained PLO terrorists, and they learned their lessons well.

I am not mourning Fidel Castro, even though his relationship with the Jews was complicated.

With all that I have said, you would have thought that Castro hated the Jews.

Not so.

In the Patronato, the main synagogue/Jewish community center in Havana, there was a photograph of a Hanukkah party in which Castro embraces the children of the community, and dances with them.

Castro had often quipped that he believed himself to be of Jewish ancestry — a not-so-unreasonable claim, considering the popularity of Castro as a Sephardic surname.

Perhaps he knew that Maimonides was a Sephardic Jew; that might be why Cuba co-sponsored a UNESCO conference commemorating the 850th anniversary of the birth of the great philosopher.

And, while Castro was clearly anti-Zionist, he never blocked Jewish emigration to Israel; on the contrary, members of socialist Zionist parties made official visits to Cuba.

In Cuban schools, the Holocaust is taught as a uniquely Jewish tragedy, not simply another example of fascist crimes.

And, let the record note: The Holocaust memorial in the Havana Jewish cemetery is the oldest in Latin America – erected in 1946.

Finally, I am not mourning Fidel Castro because communism is a moral and spiritual failure.

A moral failure: Communism has left a pile of bodies in its wake — between 85 million and 100 million people. In that sense, it far outstripped Nazism in the depth of its evil.

A spiritual failure: Decades ago, Will Herberg wrote:

This Marxist religion was in part illusion, and in part idolatry; in part a delusive Utopianism promising heaven on earth in our time, and in part a totalitarian worship of collective man. As religion, Marxism had proven itself bankrupt.

It is ironic.

Both Judaism and communism emerge from similar impulses.

They both have linear views of history. In Judaism, the human story is progressing toward tikkun olam and perfection. Communism came out of a fevered impulse to create a society in which there would be no poor and no rich.

That is why the Communist Party was a haven for so many Jews. They may have given up on God and Torah. But they needed a place to put their world-repair energies.

Jewish ethics forbid us to celebrate the death of an enemy. “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,” counsels the book of Proverbs. At the Passover seder, as we name the plagues that befell Egypt, we spill drops of wine to remember the innocent victims.

So, no – I am not celebrating Castro’s death.

But he was the last Pharaoh in the Western Hemisphere.

And that means that there is now one less Pharaoh in the world.

(Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and writes the Martini Judaism blog for RNS)

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

23 Comments

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  • An absolutely spot on commentary. I particularly noted one brief insight which I would pass on to Aragon the Atheist. Mr. Salkin quotes Will Herberg, “This Marxist RELIGION (i.e. Communism; emphasis mine) was in part illusion; and in part idolatry; in part a delusive Utopianism promising heaven on earth in our time, and in part a totalitarian worship of collective man. As Religion, Marxism had proven itself bankrupt.” Thus, the religion of Communism has much to answer for when it comes to religious depredations on humanity, far and above that of Christianity if one wants to measure by sheer numbers. This, of course, does not excuse ANY depredations committed by those who identify as Christians, or any other religionist for that matter..

  • A somewhat different take has been argued in that communism and capitalism are simply opposing extremes based on happiness realized through the material progress of the Industrial Revolution. To an extent, then communism’s benefit has been to offer a counterpoint to capitalism which needed to demonstrate its moral superiority to advance its cause. But I think that unbridled capitalism is increasingly apparent to also harm humankind, albeit in different ways, through a worship of maximizing individual/corporate wealth.

  • Maximizing individual and corporate wealth is what has created the stark contrast between Cuba and North Korea, and that of the rest of the world. Redistribution of wealth does nothing to inspire the best and brightest to continue with innovations and efficiencies that create the margins that represent wealth in first place.It doesn’t matter to me that the wealthy–through innocation and risk-taking, get a bit wealthier. Capital doesn’t just sit around, unless it’s the 1st generation nouveau riche! It has to get reinvested, and that creates jobs and economic activity that is a blessing to the less-wealthy.

    If those command economies had leaders with any sense of morality or loyalty to their phiolsophy, those meager margins would be faithfully distributed among the masses, making them less poor. Instead they go to Swiss bank accounts of the likes of Castro. In this context, it’s an admission of ignorance to even mention “moral superiority!” Although amoral, capitalism produces leaders with a bit more character!

  • Glad someone else acknowledges Communism as a religious belief. This is as opposed to bringing up Communism up to atheists when they want to gloss over foibles done in the name of one’s faith.

  • In all fairness, the assumption that laissez faire capitalism is the best way to run an economy doesn’t work in the developed world either. Mostly because of the tendency towards monopolistic practices, collusion and oligarchy which occur when left without some measure of control.

    “It doesn’t matter to me that the wealthy–through innocation and
    risk-taking, get a bit wealthier. Capital doesn’t just sit around,
    unless it’s the 1st generation nouveau riche! It has to get reinvested,
    and that creates jobs and economic activity that is a blessing to the
    less-wealthy.”

    You are working off an obsolete model as to how many companies do business in this day and age. Most of it having to do with how corporate executive compensation has now been linked with financial performance of a company rather than corporate growth. Once CEO’s started looking at short term stock gains as their primary source of income, concern over long term growth ceases. Innovation being something which is bought and acquired rather than developed.

    Companies which create wealth from their production are likely to create jobs to expand their own markets, to encourage further growth. Ones which extract wealth, actually look to destroy jobs, to encourage corporate paring down and austerity, and care nothing of markets beyond short term financial market gain. Money doesn’t end up trickling down in such instances but is locked up at its wealthiest. Taken out of the economy and hoarded or used purely to benefit the wealthy (such as buying political influence). It stops being capital.

    You are correct about the efforts at a purely communist economy have always been destructive misery producers. From Collectivization to Maoist ideas of agrarian and industrial production. Its why China and Vietnam are essentially capitalist countries with a committee of dictators.

    Economic principles, as with government forms as well, generally the extremes are bad news and far closer to each other than they are to saner middle.

  • There are clear benefits to capitalism, but that’s not a magic wand either because it leaves out the sick, injured, old, and disabled. There are also the issues of monopolies, greed, hoarding wealth and other problems.

    Economies work best when they are a mix of capitalism and socialism. It’s getting the mix right that is the root of disputes.

  • First you misconstrued which side needed to demonstrate moral superiority. I should have clarified as in capitalism’s association with human rights. But bit of an understatement to say that the wealthy get a bit wealthier. Productivity gains over the last 20 years hasn’t realized income gains for most people – technology and off-shoring/out-sourcing replaced those high-paying manufacturing jobs. There is a reason for the phrase income inequality gap. And it is not just Castro using off shore bank accounts – or don’t you recall the massive leak of data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonesca? And I do see unbridled capitalism as nurturing corruption in support of the bottom line – Valeant pharmacy or VW with its fake emission control system as just two examples. Which is why I cringe at the thought of deregulation as being maybe good for business but perhaps skewing a system of checks and balances.

    And one twist to your argument as to innovation is Havanna’s Center of Molecular Immunology, the source of some innovative cancer (and other diseases) treatments and vaccines now being trialled in the US. And somehow, if deemed effective, I cannot see drug companies here offering a lung cancer vaccine for its current price of a dollar per vaccination.

  • Capital goes where it’s treated well, where it brings the greatest return. That’s why most of the governments of the world have a low corporate tax rate, while billions languish off-shore because the US corporate tax rate is around 35%.

    Monopolies in developing countries are supported by the legal systems in those countries who maintain monopoloes for thir oligarchs who are politically connected. Please read Hernando deSoto’s Mystery of Capital. -(ISBN 0-465-o1615-4)This Peruvian economist has spent his lifetime, effecting legal reforms that allow the informal economies in those countries to operate legitimately and grow their business because they have collateral at the bank to effect such growth. Those small businesses have done more to relieve poverty than all the government programs put together. This is grass-roots capitalism, where everybody wins: the entrepreneurs, their customers, and the government who reap the taxes paid.

  • “That’s why most of the governments of the world have a low corporate tax
    rate, while billions languish off-shore because the US corporate tax
    rate is around 35%.”

    Actually the US corporate tax rate is about the same as France, Japan and Germany give or take 1-3% Billions languishing offshore are likely to continue to do so when one’s business is wealth extraction, not production.

    “Monopolies in developing countries are supported by the legal systems in
    those countries who maintain monopoloes for thir oligarchs who are
    politically connected.”

    Part of that support is the lack of or removal of a regulatory environment.

    “Those small businesses have done more to relieve poverty than all the government programs put together.”

    Small businesses depend on a regulatory environment and big government support to avoid being run roughshod over larger actors in the market. There are many aspects of society to which there is no “market solution”. A free market healthcare and prescription drug system isn’t doing great favors for the American public. In fact it is one of the top 3 sources of draining of money from the working and middle classes (besides predatory lending and securities manipulation).

  • Gee, as such a true-heart cheerleader, why aren’t you already living on that super-innovative island that’s the mother of innovation in drugs, business, education, music and moral theology? Those who will follow in Castro’s footsteps in keeping all this innovation and modernation alive certainly will need the support of “useful idiots” like you! Whatever you lack in creature comfort, living on that blessed island, can easily be made up with that comforting smugness of being morally superior to those living in the new dark ages elswhere!

  • These small businesses being set free via legal reform are all in developing countries. They are not dependent on a regulatory environment or big government; you must be thinking of the USA.

    Free market health care and prescription drug system have never been tried in the US. Maybe they will yet get their chance. Lasik surgery has worked extremely well, dealing directly with supply and demand with their customers. The technology has improved and the prices keep coming down, because no government Medicare or other insurance is involved. Let’s see you dispute that! It’s the closest thing we have to a free market system, and it’s working beautifully.

  • You are blissfully fact free here. In developing countries, small businesses aren’t free. They are dependent on having to navigate a sea of corruption and coercion from larger actors. These are countries which largely have sold their resources to neo-colonial overseas interests. Its how China has become one of the largest investors in African infrastructure.

    Do you know what really helps to combat poverty in the developing world, political reform. Democratization and rule of law. These lead to the growth of middle classes. Courts which are purged of endemic corruption provide safe venues for foreign investment by small to mid sized interests. Its how Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan were able to go from stagnant economies to vibrant ones in fairly short tines.

    “Free market health care and prescription drug system have never been tried in the US. ”

    That is completely untrue. Our current system is just that. Especially prescription drug care. Prices are set by demand and the discretion of the companies for many drugs.

    Lasik surgery is not vital healthcare. At best its an elective procedure. Something pretty much considered a luxury, much like how the cost of liposuction has gone down considerably. Its hardly a useful example. Such a model doesn’t work for an ER, cancer treatment, or even regular diagnostic medicine and checkups. Demand and necessity are far greater. Nobody will die if they don’t get their lasik.

    Lets face it, 30 years of supply side economics have not created general prosperity, done jack squat to combat poverty and have the effect of eroding the middle class. The last 2 generations are in much shakier ground in obtaining benchmarks of middle class life than their predecessors. Home ownership, investment in securities, regular access to adequate healthcare, professional education and gainful employment are far more precarious and difficult than they were for the previous generations.

  • Jeff, Amen. Just Amen. I remember some years in South Florida, Cuban Jews and others who left Cuba in favor of free enterprise–my children’s school friends!

  • We are speaking of what is, vs. what can be, via legal reform, the likes of which Dr. deSoto has brought about in many of these countries.

    With your condescending long treatises, you obviously have something to prove. Whatever it is, you’re getting nowhere with me!

  • Actually deSoto worked in a heavily regulated environment in Peru, albeit one loaded down with corrupt waste. Legal reform means largely cutting through corruption in regulatory processes, but not removing the process itself. Administrative reform, not deregulation.

    DeSoto has a large number of critics. Most notably how his scheme for land titling for the poor actually encourages displacement by the wealthy in gentrification efforts once areas are legally titled. Making the poor, poorer.

  • I certainly see your point, and long ago came to the conclusion that capitalism untempered by genuine Christian charity has the potential, in terms of human suffering, to give communism a good run for its money

  • I believe that Roosevelt also argued along the same lines as to the need of a ‘Square Deal” in terms of domestic policy.

  • To go back one comment. Cuba is a country which continues to change/evolve and is not a realistic comparator to North Korea. Some of its quality of life achievements are remarkable in terms of Cuba being a relatively poor country. So it is worth thinking about how the US, a hugely rich country, compares – oh wait, I almost forgot that almost all the wealth of the country is in the hands of a few.

    And actually, there are five major/brand name American businesses operating in Cuba and a line-up of interested businesses if the US removes its trade embargo. And my best guess is that 25 or so years from now, Cuba will likely adopt a socialist democracy form of governance. Cuba has lots of metaphorical warts but it is worth considering what it has achieved in certain areas.

  • I’m certain FDR implemented the “New Deal,” and think that Truman extended that with the “Square Deal.” Of course, I may be in error regarding Truman.

  • It isn’t that Castro didn’t deserve criticism. But it seems here that what Salkin takes away with one hand, he gives with another. It is against his religion to rejoice over the death of an enemy and yet he lists all the reasons why he should rejoice.

    In addition some of the criticisms of Castro seem to decontextualize what Castro did. Remember that Castro led a violent revolution that resulted in an oppressive regime. However, what Castro was rebelling against and was supported by the US, that is until Castro’s rebellion arrived, was a brutal and corrupt government under Batista. Did Castro support terrorism? Perhaps. Did the US conduct terrorism by striking civilian targets in response to Castro’s rebellion? Definitely. Did Castro support terrorism by supporting the PLO? Yes. Did the US support terrorism by supporting the IDF? Also a yes. Did Castro allow the USSR to place nuclear armed missiles in Cuba? Yes and that was a time period I remember well too. But did the US place nuclear armed missiles on Russia’ border in Turkey? Again that is a yes.

    BTW, the Communism referred to by Salkin is more correctly called Bolshevism. Many Socialists, including some contemporaries of Lenin, regarded what resulted from the Revolution hijacked by Lenin to be a Bourgeousie dictatorship and thus it could not qualify as any kind of Communism or Socialism. Here we should note that what makes something Communist or Socialist in the Marxist tradition is the rule of the proletariat. There was no rule by the proletariat employed by either Lenin or Stalin.

    Yes, Castro provided some good services to his nation. But that doesn’t make up for the oppression and tyranny he employed while ruling Cuba. And the suffering he caused must never be forgotten. But again, without workers ruling the nest, his regime struggles to qualify as a Marxist regime. And here we should note that the results of revolutions often significantly mimic the kind of rule they overthrew. That occurred in Russia in the October 1917 Revolution. That occurred, to a degree here, in our own revolution where American elites took the place of British elites in ruling our nation. And it is not unreasonable to speculate that at least some of the brutality and corruption of the Batista regime found its way to Castro’s government.

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