Fidel, Chavez and the Jewish question
Jeffrey Goldberg, 7 September 2010
(This is Part I of a report on my recent visit to Havana. I hope to post Part II tomorrow. And I also hope to be publishing a more comprehensive article about this subject in a forthcoming print edition of The Atlantic.)
Followed by Chavez: ‘We Respect and Love the Jews’
A couple of weeks ago, while I was on vacation, my cell phone rang; it was Jorge Bolanos, the head of the Cuban Interest Section (we of course don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba) in Washington. “I have a message for you from Fidel,” he said. This made me sit up straight. “He has read your Atlantic article about Iran and Israel. He invites you to Havana on Sunday to discuss the article.” I am always eager, of course, to interact with readers of The Atlantic, so I called a friend at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig, who is a preeminent expert on Cuba and Latin America: “Road trip,” I said.
Castro opened our initial meeting by telling me that he read the recent Atlantic article carefully, and that it confirmed his view that Israel and America were moving precipitously and gratuitously toward confrontation with Iran. This interpretation was not surprising, of course: Castro is the grandfather of global anti-Americanism, and he has been a severe critic of Israel. His message to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, he said, was simple: Israel will only have security if it gives up its nuclear arsenal, and the rest of the world’s nuclear powers will only have security if they, too, give up their weapons. Global and simultaneous nuclear disarmament is, of course, a worthy goal, but it is not, in the short term, realistic.
Castro’s message to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, was not so abstract, however. Over the course of this first, five-hour discussion, Castro repeatedly returned to his excoriation of anti-Semitism. He criticized Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the “unique” history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.
He went on, “Well, I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew of a bird that was a called a ‘Jew,’ and so for me the Jews were those birds. These birds had big noses. I don’t even know why they were called that. That’s what I remember. This is how ignorant the entire population was.”
He said the Iranian government should understand the consequences of theological anti-Semitism. “This went on for maybe two thousand years,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. They have been slandered much more than the Muslims because they are blamed and slandered for everything. No one blames the Muslims for anything.” The Iranian government should understand that the Jews “were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world, as the ones who killed God. In my judgment here’s what happened to them: Reverse selection. What’s reverse selection? Over 2,000 years they were subjected to terrible persecution and then to the pogroms. One might have assumed that they would have disappeared; I think their culture and religion kept them together as a nation.” He continued: “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.” I asked him if he would tell Ahmadinejad what he was telling me. “I am saying this so you can communicate it,” he answered.
Castro went on to analyze the conflict between Israel and Iran…
Sep 9 2010, 9:30 AM ET
Jeff is observing Rosh Hashanah today, but he wanted us to share this news with Goldblog readers. — Bob Cohn, editorial director Atlantic Digital
During a visit to the International Tourism Fair in Caracas yesterday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced he would meet with leaders of Venezuela’s Jewish community. “We respect and love the Jewish people,” said Chavez, who added that opponents have falsely painted him as “anti-Jewish.”
Chavez has been a close ally of Iran and a strong critic of Israel. He severed ties with Israel in January 2009 to protest its actions in the Gaza Strip. A series of recent incidents have ignited concerns about anti-Semitic violence in Venezuela.
The Chavez remarks came one day after Jeff wrote on this blog about his recent reporting trip to Havana and his conversations with Fidel Castro. Castro excoriated anti-Semitism and criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust. The former Cuban president called upon Ahmadinejad to “stop slandering the Jews.” (Castro also expressed misgivings about his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that’s another story.)
Jeff reports that, according to people he has been in touch with overnight, Chavez’s new rhetoric and willingness to meet with Jewish leaders is “a direct result of Fidel’s statement.”