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Best Interests

Best Interests, Cuban Jews share fears over future return of Elian

by Michael J

April 13, 2000 | 8:00 pm

When it first emerged in November that a Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez had been fished out of the sea, Moises Asis relied on his lawyerly instincts.

To the Cuban Jewish attorney, who immigrated to Miami in 1993, the case was a cut-and-dried legal issue: The boy must be reunited with his father.

But once Fidel Castro sank his teeth into the affair and turned Elian into a rallying cry for his flailing Communist regime, Asis soon had a change of heart.

"It would be different if Elian were from any other country," said Asis, 47, who founded the Tikkun Olam Hebrew School in Havana. "But I see all of Castro's propaganda, and how he's using it to distract the public from its economic problems. Elian will not be returned to his father, to a normal life. He will be sent to Castro and used as a propaganda toy."

To justify his belief that parents' rights do not always trump all other factors, Asis draws a provocative parallel: "If a boy fleeing the Holocaust lost his mother along the way, but the father were still alive in Nazi-occupied Austria, would you send the boy back to his father?"

Castro is no Hitler, of course. But Asis and fellow Cuban Jews in South Florida generally share the anger of the wider Cuban exile community.

They are deeply troubled by the U.S. government's determination to send Elian home and by an American public that seems generally to support that decision.

At the same time, the Cuban Jewish exiles fret about Elian's future if he is forced to endure life under the Castro dictatorship.

"The Cubans and the Cuban Jews are praying for a miracle here," said Ines Matalon Kleiman, 66, the office manager for Torat Moshe Sephardic Congregation of Florida. "We want the child saved."

Cuban Jewry once numbered 15,000, but waves of emigration followed Castro's rise to power in 1959, leaving the community currently with some 1,200 people.

Many have come to America, with the vast majority settling in South Florida.

And through "Operation Cigar," a once-secret project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, some 700 Cuban Jews have landed in Israel since 1995. Another 50 or 60 are expected by the end of July.

Most Cuban Jews are descended from Ashkenazim who fled the pogroms that occurred throughout Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. About 40 percent are of Sephardi Turkish descent.

Some 2,500 Cuban Jewish families, totaling 7,000 to 8,000 members, have settled in Miami since the Cuban revolution, according to Rachel Lapidot of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

In South Florida overall, the figure may be as high as 10,000, says University of Miami geographer Ira Sheskin.

Like other Cubans, many of them recall with bitterness the circumstances of their exile. It fuels their passion for the Elian case.

"The Jews of Cuba had everything to live for; they had money and businesses," said Kleiman. "But they left it all behind and came here with nothing. Because we know what the reality is in Cuba."

To American-born Jews, the situation is far less clear. U.S. observers concede the difficulty of comprehending life under a Communist system: the restrictions on every sort of freedom; the daily intrusion of the Communist Party into private lives; the constant fear of police, whose sole purpose is to serve the regime, not the public.

Even Miami Jews who live and work among Cuban exiles are divided about how to resolve Elian's case.

"I'm a parent, so I can imagine what the father is feeling," said Linda Brockman, a reporter for The Jewish Herald, a weekly supplement of The Miami Herald.

"I'm not knowledgeable about life in Cuba. The more I learn about it, the more difficult it is for me to form an opinion," she said, adding that "what's best for the child is the most important thing. Nothing else matters."

As for the reaction of the Jews remaining in Cuba, little is known about how they view the Elian situation. The community president, Jose Miller, could not be reached for comment.

However, both Cuban Jewish exiles in Florida and American Jews who work with Cuban Jewry assume they would be afraid to speak out publicly on the topic.

The community enjoys rather good relations with Castro -- he apparently gave the go-ahead on the aliyah to Israel -- and does not want to jeopardize them.

What news has emerged is that, according to sources in Miami, Cuban Jews are anxious about the fact Elian's lead lawyer, Spencer Eig, is visibly Jewish. An Orthodox Jew, he wears a large black yarmulke and full beard.

"We heard there was discomfort about it within the community," said one source in Miami, who wished to remain anonymous.

"They're worried that when Cubans see a Jew as the lawyer, they might assume it is the work of the Jewish community rather than the work of an individual."

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