NEW YORK (Sep. 10)
Whether the ruling Sandinista junta in Nicaragua has practiced a deliberate policy of harassment and persecution of the tiny Jewish community there since the overthrow of the Somoza government in 1979 was the subject of debate at a news conference here last week.
Rabbi Marshall Meyer, founding rector of the Latin America Rabbinical Assembly in Buenos Aires and a member of President Raul Alfonsin’s commission on disappeared persons in Argentina, asserted that during his recently concluded five-day visit to Nicaragua he found “no policy of anti-Semitism” on the part of the Sandinista government.
However, Meyer’s views on the situation in Nicaragua were challenged by a member of the 13-person delegation, which included Meyer, that visited Managua under the auspices of the New Jewish Agenda (NJA). Rabbi Francis Barry Silberg of Congregation Emanu-el B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee, in a statement issued toward the conclusion of the news conference last Thursday, said:
“While there appears to have been no program of persecution of Jews in Nicaragua, the Sandinista by a variety of actions have certainly created a climate of concern sufficient for the mass emigration of Jews after the ‘triumph of the revolution.'” The latter phrase is a reference to the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza government.
EFFORT TO ASCERTAIN THE FACTS
The delegation spent five days in Nicaragua last August meeting with government officials, opposition leaders and other personalities in an effort to substantiate charges levelled by President Reagan and others that the Sandinista government has singled out the Jewish community for persecution.
Reagan, at a White House meeting last summer, said that “virtually the entire Jewish community has been frightened into exile” by the Sandinistas. According to Meyer, this was a “ploy” by the Administration in an effort to gain American Jewish support for U.S. policies in Central America where the American government has supported rebel forces seeking to overthrow the government in Nicaragua.
The issue of Nicaraguan anti-Semitism was the subject of considerable attention last year when Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, Latin American affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, publicly charged that the Nicaraguan government has singled out the Jewish community for harassment and claimed among other things that the synagogue in Managua, Nicaragua’s only synagogue, had been confiscated and turned into a children’s center.
There were some 150 Jews in Nicaragua before the 1972 earthquake in Managua. Many left the country after the earthquake and others left during the fighting that preceeded the overthrow of the Somoza regime. There are perhaps fewer than 10 Jews in Nicaragua today.
‘EXCESSES’ ACKNOWLEDGED BY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
But Meyer, who just assumed the post of vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said he could not find a policy of anti-Semitism in Nicaragua. However, according to Meyer, leading government officials acknowledged that there were “excesses” by the military in the early stages of the new government. He said he viewed such an acknowledgement as a positive development. The exiled Jewish community of Nicaragua, based in Miami, has claimed, among other things that they had their property confiscated and that the synagogue was taken over by the government and plastered with anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda. Abraham Gorn, the head of the Jewish community there, was arrested and forced to sweep the streets of Managua before fleeing the country.
But Meyer, and Hector Timmerman, a member of the board of America’s Watch, a human rights organization, asserted that the scenario painted by the exiles is misleading. They noted, for example, that other persons had been ordered to sweep the streets when held in custody and that Gorn was not singled out for this task because he was Jewish.
ISSUE OF CONFISCATED PROPERTY
With regard to the confiscation of property, this was attributed to a decree promulgated by the Sandinistas after the revolution which called for taking properties from persons who had economic ties with the Somoza regime. The law calls for such action when it could be shown that persons had close or significant economic ties with the Somoza regime or family, according to Albert Stern, chairperson of the NJA advisory board and a Cleveland businessman, who was a member of the delegation to Nicaragua, and present at the news conference at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.
Meyer noted that the Sandinista government has maintained that those who wish to have their cases reviewed are free to return to the country and have their claims heard before a judicial body. Timmerman offered to travel back to Nicaragua with members of the exiled Jewish community to aid in this effort.
The NJA issued a 17-page report on the conclusions of the mission to Nicaragua saying they found that “charges of Nicaraguan government anti-Semitism cannot be supported” and that there is no evidence that the government is pursuing at this time or has in the past pursued “a policy of discrimination or coercion against Jews, or that Jewish people are not welcome to live and work in Nicaragua.”
Rabbi Silberg did not sign the NJA report. The NJA delegation met with members of the exiled Nicaraguan Jewish community in Miami before continuing on to Managua. The conclusions of the NJA mission have been challenged by Rosenthal as well as the exiled Nicaraguan Jewish community in Miami in separate statements issued last month.