In May 1983, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization dealing with instances of anti-Semitism worldwide, issued a statement denouncing Sandinista Nicaragua as “a country without Jews, but not without anti-Semitism.” The statement set forth the complaints of a number of Nicaraguan Jewish refugees who said that they had been compelled to leave the country on account of threats and harassment by the Sandinistas, that their personal property had been unjustly confiscated, and that their synagogue had been expropriated. The ADL went public with these charges only after having worked fruitlessly behind the scenes for a year-and-a-half to persuade the Nicaraguan government to make restitution to the Jews and to return the synagogue.
The White House quickly invited the ADL’s spokesman on this issue, Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, and a couple of the Jewish refugees to address one of the weekly meetings of its Central America Outreach Group, and President Reagan himself was soon echoing the charges of anti-Semitism in speeches defending his policy with regard to Nicaragua.
The Sandinistas were as quick to respond to the ADL’s public charges as they had been slow to respond to its private appeals. They vehemently denied that they were anti-Semitic, pointing to the presence of five Jews in leading positions in their own government. As for the synagogue, it had been expropriated, they said, because it was part of the personal property of Abraham Gorn, a wealthy Nicaraguan who had been president of the Jewish community and who was a “Somocista.”
As it turned out, the five “Jews” cited by the Sandinistas as evidence of their philo-Semitism may all have had Jewish ancestors, but not one was identified with the Jewish community. The only ones in the group with any religious affiliation at all were practicing Roman Catholics, ineluding Minister of Education (now Ambassador) Carlos Tunnerman and Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal, a Jesuit priest, gained worldwide attention during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Nicaragua when newsphotos captured the kneeling priest seeking to kiss the papal ring and receiving instead a stern lecture from the pontiff on the duty of obedience to his bishop. Further to the discredit of the Sandinistas’ argument, the Jewish refugees produced a deed of ownership to the synagogue, showing clearly that it was the communal property of the congregation and not of Mr. Gorn.
But if the Sandinistas were less than adept at defending themselves against the charge of anti-Semitism, they soon got help from Americans, some of whom were their supporters, others of whom were not. Ironically, the most important help came from the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua. Ambassador Anthony Quainton looked into the allegations and reported, according to newspaper accounts of his leaked confidential cable to Washington, that “the evidence fails to demonstrate that the Sandinistas have followed a policy of anti-Semitism or have persecuted Jews solely because of their religion.” Being “a member of the Jewish religion,” the cable went on, “is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to result in . . . persecution” by the Nicaraguan government.
Although no one questioned the diligence of Ambassador Quainton’s investigation, he himself agreed in a letter to Rabbi Rosenthal of the ADL that there was an important gap in his research: virtually all the Jews had already fled Nicaragua, and he was unable to interview them. Moreover, despite the fact that he seemed to deny the gravamen of the accusations of anti-Semitism, Ambassador Quainton’s conclusion contained a note of ambiguity, acknowledging as it did that Jewishness could indeed have constituted one contributing factor among several that led to the persecution of Nicaragua’s Jews.
Next, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee joined the argument, becoming embroiled in a dispute with Rabbi Rosenthal in the pages of the Jewish press. Rabbi Tanenbaum agreed that some “anti-Semitic acts” had been committed, but he maintained that “anti-Semitism, as opposed to anti-Israel foreign policy, was not Sandinist official policy,” and that “the real problem with Nicaragua was one of political anti-Israel positions rather than classical theological anti-Semitism, and therefore requires a different response.” The quarrel between the two rabbis grew rather heated, but it seemed to be less about the facts of the case than about how to react to them.
The debate over Sandinista anti-Semitism intensified in 1984 when a group called New Jewish Agenda sponsored a delegation to Nicaragua to look into the issue. New Jewish Agenda describes itself as a voice for “progressive” Jews, and takes positions that are often at variance with those of most other Jewish organizations. Domestically, it advocates the use of racial quotas in hiring and promotion; in the Middle East, it calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state through negotiations between Israel and the PLO.
The delegation’s report, signed by eleven of its thirteen members, including Rabbi Marshall Meyer, a prominent former leader of the Jewish community of Argentina, and Hector Timerman, son of Jacobo, said that the group had “searched for any evidence to support charges of anti-Semitism” but that “none were found.” The report was rather upbeat about Nicaragua in general, concluding: “It was made abundantly clear to us and confirmed by leaders of the Sandinista government that Nicaragua welcomes Jewish participation as well as participation from any group in the reconstruction of a pluralistic society.” The delegation urged Nicaraguan Jewish refugees to “consider taking the government of Nicaragua at its word—that they are welcome back,” and it volunteered to “monitor and report on” the treatment of any who returned to Nicaragua.
Despite the claim that no evidence of anti-Semitism could be found, however, the delegation’s report itself contained some evidence. It referred to articles in the Sandinista-controlled newspaper, Nuevo Diario, alleging that Jews control world finance, and headlines such as “Jews Bomb Beirut.” The report did condemn these expressions, but attributed them to “sloppy journalism” and to Nicaragua’s “history of sensationalistic, yellow journalism.”
The report also acknowledged as fact the Jewish refugees’ assertions that the Managua synagogue had been attacked with an incendiary device during worship services in 1978. But the delegation claimed that it could not “satisfactorily resolve” whether the attack had been conducted by Sandinistas, as the worshippers who witnessed it charged, or “was instead attributable to Somoza provocateurs,” as Sandinista supporters now suggested.
Finally, in the words of the report, “the question of whether property was confiscated because of its ownership by Jews, or whether regulations governing confiscation were applied to Jews in a discriminatory manner, lies at the heart of allegations of anti-Semitism.” The delegation concluded that the answer to both of these questions was no.
But these were not, in fact, the questions at the heart of the charges of anti-Semitism. The heart of the charges was that the Sandinista Front had conducted a campaign of harassment and intimidation aimed at Nicaraguan Jews, which caused them to flee. Astonishingly, the report simply failed to address this issue—even though it had been presented directly to the delegation by three of the refugees who met with the group at the Miami airport as it was en route to Managua. Although the report’s introduction contained a paragraph describing this meeting, the body of the report omitted any mention of its substance, merely noting in passing: “It is clear to us that [the Jews who fled], many of whom are refugees from the Holocaust, did feel frightened and threatened by the violence and disorder that accompanied the toppling of Somoza. It is not our purpose or place to judge whether . . . such fear was reasonable or justified.” This is all the more astonishing since the refugees themselves had told the delegation that what made them feel frightened and threatened was not the random violence and disorder but specific incidents of Sandinista hostility. And the question of whether their fears were generated by real as opposed to imagined persecution was in fact the central question to be raised.
The one member of the delegation who did address this issue was Rabbi Francis Barry Silberg of Milwaukee, who refused to sign the group’s report and instead issued a public demurrer. In it he said: “While there appears to have been no program of persecution of Jews in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas’ actions have certainly created a climate of concern sufficient for the mass emigration of Jews after the ‘triumph of the revolution.’ These actions include . . . their inability to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. . . . Subsequent developments . . . confirmed the wisdom of that flight.”
While Rabbi Silberg’s dissent received scant attention, the delegation’s report was covered in the major media, and it was echoed in two articles in Moment, a Left-liberal Jewish monthly, by delegation members Robert Weisbrot, an assistant professor of history at Colby College, and Cynthia Arnson, a congressional aide and a former staff member of the Institute for Policy Studies.
In her article, Miss Arnson charged the Reagan administration with knowing that the claims of anti-Semitism were false. In support of this contention she quoted Ambassador Quainton’s cabled doubts that the Sandinistas “have persecuted the Jews solely because of their religion”—but she omitted the word “solely” (without indicating an ellipsis), thus altering the meaning of the passage. She also presented selective quotations from Michael Gale, President Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community, and from Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, to argue that these two “representatives of the administration had denied that anti-Semitism was involved in the Nicaraguan saga.” In truth, Gale was in the forefront of publicizing the issue of Sandinista anti-Semitism within the administration and Eagle-burger, in the very same paragraph from which Miss Arnson quoted, went on to refer to the ADL’s allegations. Miss Arnson also reported that a delegation from the State Department’s human-rights bureau had visited Nicaragua and investigated the charges of anti-Semitism, finding them baseless. But Elliott Abrams, then the head of the bureau, has denied that such a delegation existed, and Miss Arnson, when challenged, has refused to name its members.
Still more zealous in defending the Sandinistas against the charge of anti-Semitism was Rabbi Balfour Brickner of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue of New York, a long-time leader in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform). In 1984 Rabbi Brickner visited Nicaragua; he wrote afterward that it made him feel the way Israel had made him feel “in the late 50’s and early 60’s,” when he liked Israel better than he does today. “Then, Israeli government leaders were as informal and accessible as members of the junta are in Nicaragua today,” he wrote. “The inescapable fact,” he went on, “is that Israel has been deeply involved in thwarting popular forces for democratic and social change in Latin America, forces similar in ideology to those which brought Israel into existence,” and he added: “No wonder she is viewed with sometimes not so quiet resentment and smoldering distrust.” As for the Nicaraguan government, not only does it not persecute Jews, “it doesn’t persecute Catholics or Protestants either. It does challenge, and sometimes expels, those who, in religious garb, conduct counterrevolutionary activities.”
If in this last formulation Rabbi Brickner began to approach the rhetoric of the Sandinistas themselves, a subsequent rumination on the subject went even further toward embracing Sandinista views. Writing in the Washington Post, he said: “If Jews fled Managua after the revolution, it was not because the incoming government was anti-Semitic; it was because that government wanted to isolate and strip power . . . from supporters of the dictator who had been overthrown. Of the few Jews who had remained in Managua after the 1972 earthquake, many were strong supporters of Somoza.” Where the New Jewish Agenda report had simply elided the refugees’ tales of intimidation and persecution, Rabbi Brickner now took the further step of implying that the persecution was justified by the Jews’ own past actions.
How did Rabbi Brickner know that the Jews were“Somocistas” without having interviewed them? Apparently, the Sandinistas told him so. They also seem to have told him they were not responsible for the firebombing of the Managua synagogue. Doctoring Ambassador Quainton’s words à la Cynthia Arnson, Rabbi Brickner characterized the allegations of Sandinista anti-Semitism as a “canard,” adding: “and we Jews know it.”
Rabbi Brickner’s version soon achieved the status of received wisdom. When, earlier this year, President Reagan again cited anti-Semitism on his list of Sandinista misdeeds, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, replied that “It is woefully inappropriate for the President to resurrect these discredited canards.” Perhaps more significantly, the New York Times relied upon Rabbi Brickner in an editorial criticizing the President: “Of the millions who heard Mr. Reagan describe the ‘desecrating and firebombing’ of Managua’s only synagogue, how many will catch up with the rejoinder, by Rabbi Balfour Brickner . . . ? He says the building was abandoned during street fighting in 1978, a year before the Sandinistas seized power. The rabbi’s own investigation in Nicaragua failed to sustain Mr. Reagan’s charge of virulent anti-Semitism.” On the same day, the Washington Post ran a lengthy “news analysis” column by reporter Joanne Omang. She wrote: “Reagan said ‘the entire Jewish community [was] forced to flee Nicaragua.’ [But] Nicaragua’s few Jews closed their synagogue for lack of use, and most who left had backed Somoza. A 1983 State Department inquiry found no evidence of anti-Semitism.” Even the Washington Jewish Week dismissed the story of persecution as emanating from the testimony of only two refugees.
Curiously, while various groups and individuals purporting to examine this issue traveled to Nicaragua, where virtually no Jews were left, none sought to track the story to its source—the refugees themselves who were now living mostly in Miami or Costa Rica. In the last few months we have endeavored to do exactly that, interviewing members of each of the refugee families we could locate and who were willing to talk to us. Of the seventeen families that comprised the bulk of the Jewish community prior to the rise of the Sandinistas, we now have accounts from all but two.1 From comparing individual stories, we believe that we are able to piece together a pretty clear picture of what happened to Nicaraguan Jewry.
Until the Sandinista triumph, the Jewish community comprised approximately fifty individuals. The breadwinners were virtually all engaged in business or commerce, some with small enterprises and some with rather substantial ones. The community maintained a synagogue; although it did not have a rabbi, it conducted regular worship services, and one of its number was always designated as its president. Today, all but two or three individuals live outside of Nicaragua.
Harassment of Jews by the Sandinista Front (FSLN) began during the year prior to its seizure of power. Most Jewish families began receiving abusive and threatening telephone calls, some of them every day, others every few days. The callers identified themselves as Sandinistas, used foul and abusive language, made specific derogatory reference to the Jewishness of their respondents, and uttered death threats both against the heads of households and against their children. In some cases, similar threats and abuse were conveyed in postcards or in graffiti sprayed on Jewish homes and places of business. Some received warnings from friendly employees with links to the Sandinistas, and a few were followed or approached with threatening messages by men on the street whom they did not recognize.
These threats were underscored by an event that occurred during a Friday-night service in December 1978. That night, an incendiary device was hurled at the synagogue, igniting its wooden doors. When some of the worshippers emerged from the building they were confronted by a carload of armed men, recognizable to them as Sandinistas, who pointed guns at them and ordered them back inside. Eventually the assailants fled and the fire was extinguished; the building was not destroyed and none of the worshippers was seriously injured.
Contrary to Rabbi Brickner’s assertions, there is evidence to corroborate the victims’ claims that the attackers were Sandinistas. Mauricio Palacio, who at the time was employed by one of the Nicaraguan Jews, and is now himself a refugee in the United States after having grown disillusioned with the Sandinistas, has given a signed statement confessing to his part in the 1978 arson attack against the Managua synagogue. The aim of the attack, he says, was not to injure but further to intimidate the Jews. In this it was successful.
As the fighting between FSLN insurgents and Somoza’s National Guard reached its climax in the summer of 1979, several Nicaraguan Jews left the country. When the Sandinistas triumphed, these individuals, as well as a couple of others who coincidentally found themselves out of the country on business, had to decide whether to try to return. One who did was the community’s president, Abraham Gorn, an elderly businessman and reputed friend of the first Somoza (who had ruled the country until the mid-1950’s). Shortly after his return, Gorn was imprisoned by Sandinista authorities for a few weeks, during which time he (like some other prisoners) was compelled to sweep streets. Upon his release he sought refuge in the Costa Rican embassy and secured safe passage out of the country with the assistance of the Costa Rican government.
Another who attempted to go back after the revolution was Sarita Kellerman. (Her husband, Oscar, whom both Kellermans deemed to be in greater danger, remained in the United States.) Night after night, her house was searched by uniformed armed men claiming to look for weapons and pocketing whatever possessions struck their fancy. After a few weeks, she left, not to return.
Some who left the country because of warnings that their lives were in danger never considered returning. Isaac Stavisky was told at gunpoint, “Next time we’ll get you, you Jew.” Gyula Pinkes and Laszlo Gevurt, business partners, suffered repeated attacks on their homes, during which FSLN combatants shouted, “We know Jews live here.” After being warned by a friend whom they took to be well-connected that the FSLN was “coming after the Jews,” they fled.
Those who remained after July 1979 suffered a pattern of petty harassment which within a year or two impelled them to leave as well. Against the background of these threats, the large radical Arab presence that soon materialized in revolutionary Nicaragua seemed particularly ominous.
The Sandinistas had close and longstanding ties with the PLO and Libya. Many, including Nicaragua’s Interior Minister Tomas Borge, had received guerrilla training in PLO camps in Lebanon, and some had participated in PLO operations, such as the 1970 hijacking of an El Al airliner. After the Sandinista revolution, these relations became formalized: both the PLO and Libya began providing economic and military aid, including training, and the PLO opened a fully accredited embassy in Managua, employing scores of operatives. Borge publicly pledged to Yasir Arafat that “the PLO cause is the cause of the Sandinistas.”
Like Jews the world over, Nicaragua’s Jews felt a sense of emotional attachment to the Jewish state. One, in fact, had acted as Israel’s “honorary consul,” or good-will ambassador, to Nicaragua. Since the harassment experienced by the Jews was accompanied by the shouting of anti-Israel slogans and the daubing of graffiti associating Zionism with “Somocism,” the increasingly strong Sandinista-PLO ties and anti-Zionist tirades in the Sandinista-controlled media became a source of fear for the remaining Jews.
To add to their fears, the stragglers received hints of other perils lying in wait. Some were told by acquaintances that Sandinista authorities were looking to arrest them or were intending to arrest their colleagues or relatives if they returned to the country. One Jewish store-owner was told by a customer who worked in the prosecutor’s office that there was “a file on everyone in the Jewish community.”
Within a few years, virtually all the remaining Jews had left. Almost all had their property confiscated, either under a decree aimed at those who “adhered” to “Somocism,” a hopelessly vague accusation rarely applied with anything approaching due process, or under a decree declaring that anyone who remained out of the country longer than six months would forfeit his property rights. In addition, the synagogue was expropriated.
All in all, the story of the persecution and flight of Nicaragua’s Jews is rather a simple one. Why, then, did it become enmeshed in so much confusion and controversy? In part, the answer is that the Sandinistas work hard at presenting their case, and benefit from the assistance of Americans eager to lend their talents and voices in defense of “the revolution.” But in part, too, the fact that the main motivation for the Sandinistas’ persecution of the Jews seems to have been an intense animus against Israel may have led various observers who were not necessarily predisposed in favor of the Sandinista government to conclude that what was at work here was not anti-Semitism but the distinguishable phenomenon of anti-Zionism.
In truth, however, it was the Sandinistas who were unable to separate their anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, just as their Soviet and Palestinian and Libyan brethren have been unable to do. Thus, for example, during the war in Lebanon, the Sandinista newspaper, Nuevo Diario, frequently lapsed into explicit anti-Semitism. One story contained the sentence: “Zionists, from Wall Street, the U.S. Congress, and other powerful sectors of the establishment install and depose Presidents [and] determine fundamental aspects of foreign and domestic policy.” A week later one could read: “In accordance with the Bible, Israel has committed a capital crime for which she has not yet repented, that is condemning to death and killing the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Christian revolutionaries are called upon to redouble their efforts against the theology of death.” And a week later: “For many years the Jews, who crucified Christ, . . . have used the myth of being God’s chosen people to justify massacres of the Palestinian people.” Two days after that: “The world’s money, banking, and finance are in the hands of descendants of Jews, eternal protectors of Zionism.” Perhaps most revealing was the headline, “Jews Bomb Beirut,” and the speculation that President Reagan—in view of his pro-Israel policy—must have some Jewish blood in him.
In other words, although hatred of Israel rather than hatred of Jews per se may have been what motivated the Sandinistas to persecute Jews, persecute them they did—if only because they saw the Jewish community as a whole as an extension of Israel.
The Sandinistas and their apologists now often claim that the Jews were Somocistas, but in fact there is little evidence of this. Abraham Gorn and perhaps one or two others of the wealthiest families did have business and/or social relations with the Somoza clan, but the majority of Jews did not. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that even those who did have ties to Somoza contributed in any material way to keeping him in power, such as by participating in military or political life. The Sandinistas claim to have a letter showing that Gorn made deliveries of supplies to the National Guard, but Gorn was in the textile business, and no one has shown that the supplies in question were anything but clothing.
What is true is that, as a group, Nicaraguan Jews were middle class, and this made them natural targets of Sandinista hostility. Sandinismo, after all, is a variant of Marxism, and along with everything else it has inherited from that ideology it would seem to have inherited a hatred of the middle class and a predisposition to extend that hatred to Jews. It was Marx who wrote: “What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly god? Money.” In an echo of this, Herty Lewitas, the Sandinista Minister of Tourism, son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who separated himself from the Jewish community some decades ago, told the New Jewish Agenda delegation, “I remember when I was growing up that many of the Nicaraguan Jews used to say, ‘Our country is the world, and our flag is the dollar.’” It is more likely that Lewitas was “remembering” not something Jews themselves said but something that was said about them.
Whatever the motivations behind Sandinista behavior toward Jews, the essential fact is that a tiny community—some fifty individuals—was compelled to flee. This is not a very big story; it pales in comparison, for example, with that of Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, thousands of whom have also been compelled to flee and hundreds of whom have died. But it is a true story, and a revealing one—revealing about the regime that has perpetrated this evil, and unfortunately revealing as well about those in this country, including some Jews, who have denied or defended it.
1 All the interviewing was done by Susan Alberts. Although we have no means of evaluating definitively the accuracy of the details of each of the individual accounts we heard, the stories were all compatible. In their general outlines, and in many specific details, they were mutually corroborating, and in no significant respect were they contradictory. In the past, Sandinista representatives and others have challenged the veracity of one or another individual Jew whose complaints were publicized. We find it impossible to imagine that the various stories we heard from refugees living in different countries and cities could have been fabricated and still be as mutually consistent as these were. Indeed, we found no reason to doubt the veracity of any of the individuals we interviewed.