As violence worsens, Haiti's tiny Jewish community hangs on
JTA / February 11, 2004
By Larry Luxner
PETIONVILLE, Haiti — At the once-elegant El Rancho Hotel in the hills above Port-au-Prince, aggressive young men peddle exotic African sculptures next to the taxi stand, and colorful Haitian paintings decorate the reception area.
Yet it's hard not to notice the black, wrought-iron menorah smack in the middle of the lobby.
"My father was Jewish," explains manager Elizabeth Silvera, as she sips a cup of coffee in the hotel's near-empty restaurant.
Like many members of Haiti's mulatto elite, Silvera — a practicing Catholic — is proud of her family's tenuous ties to Judaism in a country dominated by Catholicism and Vodou beliefs.
Yet today, Haiti has no more than 50 Jews out of a total population of 8.5 million. Most of the Jews who did live here have fled to the United States, Panama and elsewhere in recent years, in the face of crushing poverty and worsening violence.
In the past week, more than 40 people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests aimed at toppling President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power.
Aristide, a former priest who spent four years in Israel studying theology and speaks six languages including Hebrew, was already overthrown once before, in 1991. He returned to the presidency three years later under the protection of U.S. Marines.
Despite Aristide's overwhelming popularity among the 80% of Haitians living in abject poverty, charges of corruption and election fraud have tainted his presidency and stalled most of his large-scale programs to improve the country's collapsing infrastructure and health-care systems.
The anti-Aristide violence — and the government's equally bloody response to quell it — have also marred Haiti's international image as its marks the 200th anniversary this year as the world's first independent black republic.
"The country is very poor and there's no business here, so the Jews don't stay long," said David Ades, an intellectual who works in real estate and writes political articles for Le Nouvelliste, a daily newspaper in Port-au-Prince.
Ades, 71, is a Sephardic Jew whose father came from Syria and his mother from Egypt. He recently returned to Haiti after spending more than 20 years in Brooklyn.
"After my divorce, I figured the best thing for me was to go back to my roots," said Ades, whose two sons still live in New York. "I was always part of the community, but I never had a Jewish education."
Not much is known about Haiti's Jewish history, except that Luis de Torres, the interpreter of Christopher Columbus, was the first Jew to set foot in Haiti, in 1492. The first Jewish immigrants came from Brazil in the 17th century, after Haiti was conquered by the French. These marranos were all murdered or expelled — along with the rest of the white population — during the slave revolt of Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1804.
Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a synagogue in Jeremie, a city along Haiti's southern peninsula that was home to many mulatto families of Jewish origin; there are also vague historical references to Jewish tombstones in the port cities of Cap Haitien and Jacmel.
Gaston Michel, a local tourism official in Jacmel who claims Jewish roots, says "the Jews in Haiti had to hide their Judaism. You couldn't go to school if you weren't Catholic."
Yet by the end of the 19th century, Sephardic Jews began arriving from Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. In 1937, Haitian officials — like their counterparts in the neighboring Dominican Republic — began issuing passports to Eastern European Jews fleeing the Nazis. Many of those grateful Ashkenazim stayed until the late 1950s.
Gilbert Bigio, the community's de facto leader, says that at one time, as many as 300 Jews lived in Haiti.
"Every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our house was completely full," recalled Bigio, noting that until recently, all religious ceremonies were held at his home. But attendance for the High Holidays has gradually dwindled, along with Haiti's Jewish population in general. "The last Jewish wedding here was my daughter's, eight years ago, and the last brit mila [circumcision] was that of my son, 30 years ago."
Bigio, 68, lives in a big, beautiful house overlooking a hill in Petionville, one of the few upscale neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. Behind the well-guarded house is a luxurious swimming pool and a gazebo for outdoor parties.
Like most of the other Jews who remain in Haiti, Bigio is considered extremely wealthy in a country where 60% of the population is illiterate and 76% of children under the age of 5 are underweight or suffer from stunted growth.
"I don't think there's resentment against people who are rich here," says the retired businessman, who speaks English, French and Haitian Creole. "If you know how to manage success, people admire you instead of hate you."
Other prominent Jewish families include the Weiners, who are involved in coffee exports, and the Salzmanns, who fled Austria right before the Holocaust and remain in Port-au-Prince. These and other families helped build Haiti's modern infrastructure and stayed on during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, which ended in 1986 when Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was overthrown and exiled to France.
"Haiti wasn't always a poor country," said Bigio. "When Haiti had three or four million people, everything was beautiful. But between 1950 and today, the population has nearly tripled. We suffer because Haiti hasn't developed like all other countries around us, especially the Dominican Republic. If most of the Jews left, it's because they were hoping to live in a developed country, where their children could marry among themselves."
A case in point is Bigio's wife Monique, who wasn't born Jewish — though she converted to Judaism long ago with the help of a visiting rabbi from Miami.
And while he isn't a religious man, Bigio is especially proud of the Sefer Torah he keeps in his study; after all, it's the only Torah in all of Haiti.
"My uncle came from Aleppo, Syria, in 1896, and my father 20 years later, during World War I," he told JTA. "They were escaping the Ottoman Empire, and at that time, there was a French law created by the Justice Ministry that would give French citizenship to the minorities in this region of the world."
The family prospered in the export of cotton, cacao and a valuable wood known as campeche.
"Most of the Jewish families in Haiti were in the textile and retail businesses," he said. "We're also in industry and trading. We have a small steel mill, we distribute edible oils, and we work a little in banking."
Bigio is also the honorary consul of Israel in Haiti, which explains the enormous Israeli flag flying in front of his house — as well as his bulletproof Mercedes SUV.
A few Israelis live in Haiti, including noted photographer Daniel Kedar, whose wife, Maryse Pénette, is the country's former tourism minister. There are also a few Jews scattered among the staff of the U.S. and French embassies in Port-au-Prince.
But no active synagogue exists in the capital city — home to nearly all the country's Jews — or anywhere else in Haiti for that matter.
"Making a minyan is difficult," he said. "Even when there was a bigger community, we always prayed at someone's house. It seemed that the Jews came to Haiti but did not intend to stay, so they didn't build anything."
Asked if he's ever experienced anti-Semitism in Haiti, Bigio laughed.
"On the contrary, the Haitians have a lot of respect for the Jews, and a lot of admiration for Israel," he said, pointing out that Haiti voted for the UN partition of Palestine in 1947. "Aristide has a lot of affection for Israel, he speaks Hebrew, and relations between Israel and Haiti have always been very good."
Bigio says Haiti annually imports $20 million worth of Israeli goods, ranging from telecom equipment to Uzi machine guns. There's also an organization in Port-au-Prince called Club Shalom formed by Haitians who have studied in Israel, thanks to scholarships provided by the Israeli government.
"I helped finance a venture called Sodexol to crush beans and make edible oil, in a joint venture with Israeli investors," he said. "The factory's still here, but the Duvalier government nationalized the plant, and little by little, it has fallen into neglect."
Bigio declined to discuss politics or offer a Jewish perspective on the current revolt against Aristide.
"Our principle, which we respect daily, is to not mix in Haitian politics," he explained. "Even after three generations, we are considered foreigners. So we believe that to have good relations with the government, we have to step aside. We take care of business, and let them take care of politics."