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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Jamaica

April 17, 1981
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— There are going to be changes in the Jamaican posture at the United Nations, I was told here by knowledgeable officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These sources differ, however, in how major the change will be. The former government of Prime Minister Michael Manley, which was swept out of office in democratic elections last October, voted consistently at the UN with the Soviet Bloc.

The pattern continued at the last General Assembly even though most of the voting took place after the elections–after the new pro-Western government of Prime Minister Edward Seaga had assumed power. But hold-over Ambassador Donald Mills voted with the Arab-Soviet Bloc on seven of the eight resolutions attacking Israel and the Camp David agreements.

Now that a new Ambassador, Sir Egerton Richardson, has arrived in New York, there will be less concurrence with the Soviet Union, I was told. But that does not mean that Jamaica will vote consistently with the United States. Although the new government is dependent on Washington and the friendship of the American people for financial aid and the restoration of its tourist trade, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugh Shearer emphasized that his country is not in America’s pocket.

He said at a recent meeting: " Jamaica does not take instructions from the United States or any super-power. If it happens that our view coincides with the United States, that’s good for them. If it happens that our views and the views of Russia coincide, that’s good for them."


I was assured, however, that one of the major issues on which Jamaica agrees with the United States is in support of the Camp David accords and the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The General Assembly opposes the peace treaty but Jamaica will no longer vote with its majority on this issue as it did last fall. Shearer is disappointed that the nonaligned nations have not had the guts to demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

"Jamaica regards the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as an assault on the most fundamental principles of the non-aligned movement," he said. In almost the same breath, Shearer went on to support fully "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the withdrawal of Israel from Arab territories. " Like many Black diplomats, Shearer juxtaposes in his own mind, the Soviet invastion of Afghanistan and Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Another psychological influence on Jamaican attitudes is Israel’s relations with South Africa. Whether you are talking to a cabdriver or a Foreign Ministry official the conversation soon deteriorates into highly-exaggerated blathering on Israel’s trade with South Africa.

Jamaica’s influential but declining Jewish community is doing what it can to improve Israel’s image. A few months ago a new organization was formed named Yadid–the Israel-Jamaican Friendship Association. The leaders of the Jewish community, Ainsley Henriques, president, and Ernest deSouza, secretary and lay leader, are devoting their time and organizational talents to furthering the aims of the new organization. Henriques and deSouza are leaders of a community which has seen better times. It is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Western hemisphere. Two hundred years ago there were half a dozen synagogues all over the Island. Now there is only one synagogue in the capital, Kingston.

At a recent Friday evening service in the Kingston synagogue there were 20 residents and a half dozen American tourists, 12 men and 14 women. This was a "fabulous attendance" according to Marion Lopez, one of the residents. The style of the bima and seats was Sephardic and the floor was covered with sand like several other Sephardic synagogues in Amsterdam and the Caribbean. The prayer book was entirely in English with a few Hebrew blessings transliterated.

The congregation’s lay reader (the last rabbi left a couple of years ago) is deSouza who was on vacation. This evening services were conducted by Charles Alexander, a 27-year-old attorney, who had just returned from Jerusalem where he represented the Jamaican community. The cantor was Walter deSouza, a cousin of Ernest. He stood in the choir loft next to the organ and led the congregation in old Sephardic melodies and a traditional "Yigdal."

Both Walter deSouza and his cousin, Ernest, who is the de facto "rabbi" of the congregation, had Christian mothers. In their opinion, this did not make them or their families less Jewish. "My father sang in the synagogue choir for 44 years, " Walter de Souza told me at the "Kiddush" in the social hall. " I sang with him as a boy. Now my eldest son often sings with me." The son’s mother, deSouza’s divorced wife, is also a Christian.

Charles Alexander, the lay leader, is a different strand in the peculiar weave of Jamaican Jewry. He is a "baal-teshuva" from an assimilated Jewish family. His mother was not Jewish and his father was not interested in the synagogue. Alexander was taught by Ernest deSouza and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah a few years ago.

Alexander adapted rapidly to congregational problems. As the American tourists said good bye, he hinted broadly that they have difficulty getting a minyan on Saturday morning. As the saying goes: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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