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Fidel and the Jews

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The late Cuban leader sharply criticized Iran’s former president for propounding Holocaust denial

By DAVID RUBENSTEIN

In 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic magazine (where he is now the editor-in-chief), interviewed Fidel Castro and wrote a series of articles. Much of what Castro had to say — about Israel, about Jews and about Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — was surprising, and one could make the case it changed history.

It certainly changed the way a lot of people, Jews in particular, looked at Fidel Castro.

Ahmadinejad was all over the news in those days, and a part of his message was Holocaust denial. It took various forms, but among other things he said that Jews were using the “myth” of the Holocaust to justify Zionism.

Che Guevara (left) and Fidel Castro, in 1961. In an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, Castro said, “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims. The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.” (Photo: Alberto Korda/Museo Che Guevara, Havana, Cuba)

Castro dressed him down like a teacher smacking the knuckles of a wayward schoolboy.

“Castro repeatedly returned to his excoriation of anti-Semitism,” Goldberg wrote. “He criticized Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and explained why the Iranian government would better serve the cause of peace by acknowledging the ‘unique’ history of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why Israelis fear for their existence.”

It was powerful statement, and a timely one. Ahmadinejad was riding a wave, not just maligning Israel but trying to stake out a position as a kind of international leader, a guiding light of the left. He appeared to be making some headway, not only in the Middle East but in parts of Latin America.

Castro was relentless. He recalled his boyhood in the countryside, at the age of five or six, during Good Friday. “What was the atmosphere a child breathed? ‘Be quiet, God is dead.’ God died every year between Thursday and Saturday of Holy Week, and it made a profound impression on everyone. What happened? They would say, ‘The Jews killed God.’ They blamed the Jews for killing God! Do you realize this?”

“I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. I would say much more than the Muslims,” Castro added. “The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust.”

When Goldberg asked him if he would say the same thing to Ahmadinejad, he replied, “I am saying this so you can communicate it.”

Among those who were taken aback by that interview, and expressed admiration and gratitude to Castro, were then Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Later, Netanyahu felt constrained to apologize and explain himself to a Republican congresswoman from Miami.

Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president for almost three more years. In his farewell speech, according to an article in The Times of Israel, he said that raising the taboo topic of Holocaust denial was a major achievement of his presidency. His Holocaust remarks appeared on the Fars news site in Arabic, but not on the English version, according to the Israeli website. The same article said that Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani had taken Ahmadinejad to task for anti-Israel hate rhetoric that had brought the country to the brink of war.

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David Rubenstein lives in Minneapolis.

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