Raul Castro celebrates Hanukkah with Cuban Jews
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA -- President Raul Castro celebrated Hanukkah on Sunday with
Cuba's tiny Jewish community, a heavily symbolic act at a time when his
government is holding a Jewish-American subcontractor on suspicion of
Neither Castro nor those assembled at Havana's Shalom synagogue
mentioned the name Alan Gross during the gathering, which was broadcast
on the state-television newscast Sunday evening. But Gross's one-year
detention without charge was the elephant in the room.
The U.S. government says Gross was in Cuba as part of a USAID program to
distribute communications equipment to the island's 1,500-strong Jewish
community, and both the State Department and Gross's wife, Judy, made
fresh appeals this week for his release. The leaders of Havana's two
main Jewish groups have denied having anything to do with him.
Castro wore a suit and a yarmulke, the head covering which observant
Jews wear as a symbol of their deference to God, and was given the honor
of lighting the first candle of the menorah. It was the first time in
more than a decade that either Castro or his brother Fidel appeared with
the Jewish community at a religious celebration like Hanukkah.
The brothers have gone out of their way to show their support for the
Jewish people in recent months.
Fidel Castro took time out from his warnings about a looming nuclear war
pitting the U.S and Israel against Iran to say that he disagreed with
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denials of the Holocaust. He
said: "I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews"
adding that Jews "were expelled from their land, persecuted and
mistreated all over the world."
The comments won rare praise from Israeli President Shimon Peres and
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Raul Castro, who took over the presidency from his brother in 2006,
thanked his hosts for a "very enjoyable afternoon," and said he hoped to
have more time on another occasion to come and talk about "the Hebrew
community in Cuba and the fabulous history of the Hebrew people."
Castro noted that he will turn 80 in June, but said he was "in good
health." He said he was pleased that his country had begun to hold
discussions on the need for a major economic overhaul. Cuba has
announced that it is laying off 500,000 state workers, while allowing
for more private enterprise.
Gross, a native of Potomac, Maryland, was arrested Dec. 3, 2009. His
family denies he was spying, saying he brought communications equipment
for use by the local Jewish community, not dissidents. The U.S.
government says his continued detention is a "major impediment" to
improved ties between the two Cold War enemies.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights for Jews. The holiday commemorates
the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. According
to tradition, a candelabra was lit with only enough oil for one day, but
it miraculously burned for eight days.