NEW YORK (Jun. 23)
Cuba has become one of the most popular destinations for American Jewish delegations.
Now one national Jewish organization wants to do more than bring humanitarian and religious supplies to the island nation’s tiny Jewish community.
The American Jewish Congress is moving toward calling on the United States government to end its decades-old economic sanctions against Cuba.
Such a move would break with the general Jewish position to stay on the sidelines of the volatile issue.
“We are looking at it very seriously and want to see what we can do,” Phil Baum, executive director of AJCongress, said in an interview.
Baum said he could not say for certain that his group will formally call for an end to the embargo, but added, “My hunch is yes.”
A decision will be made after the group’s leadership visits Cuba within the next few weeks, he said.
“The purpose of the trip is to help be influential in improving the situation of Cuban Jews and to evaluate the impact of U.S. sanctions,” said Baum, who acknowledged that the “two issues are linked.”
Cuba’s estimated 1,800 Jews enjoy freedom to practice their religion, but they share the same severe economic hardships — food rations and paltry salaries – - that the rest of the population endures.
“The American embargo has had a serious impact on the quality of life in Cuba and as a result there is diminished economic opportunity for everyone,” the AJCongress president, Jack Rosen, said after he visited Cuba last month.
U.S. sanctions have had “little apparent effect on government policy,” said Rosen, who met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro for six hours during his visit.
Baum said this week that U.S. policy enforcing economic sanctions is inconsistent.
He cited President Clinton’s recent move to waive sanctions against European firms investing in Iran’s energy sector, a move that the AJCongress and other U.S. Jewish groups protested.
“There is a reluctance to maintain sanctions against countries that have a far worse human rights record than Cuba,” Baum said.
American Jewish groups dealing with Cuban Jewry traditionally have avoided engaging in any political issues.
Some have supported the easing of travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba as a means of facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid to the Jewish community.
But at least one Jewish organizational leader would like groups to continue to stay out of the Cuban political fray.
“It would be somewhat counterproductive” for a Jewish organization to call for an end to sanctions against Cuba, said Tommy Baer, president of B’nai B’rith International.
“There are pros and cons with respect to the embargo. The political situation is such that the United States will not lift the embargo — at least not yet.”
B’nai B’rith has a Cuban chapter in south Florida and “we have to respect their views as well,” Baer said, referring to Cuban Jewish expatriates who support the embargo.
B’nai B’rith has maintained a chapter in Havana since 1943, and in recent years has stepped up its involvement with the Jewish community there, regularly sending medical supplies, clothing, books and religious items.
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism maintains ongoing relationships with several congregations in Cuba.
And during the past two years, local Jewish federations across the United States, as well as delegations of the United Jewish Appeal, have frequented Cuba.
So heavy was the traffic that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which coordinates much of the U.S. Jewish interaction with Cuban Jewry and maintains a staff presence in Havana, has appealed for groups to cut back on the number of visits, which have been somewhat overwhelming for the community.
For its part, the AJCongress has been intermittently involved with Cuba over the years, said Baum.
Cuban Jewry has become a priority for the group this year because of Rosen’s personal interests, Baum said.
Rosen, who became president of AJCongress in May, was traveling and unavailable for an interview.