by Nirit Ben-Ari, Ha’aretz

A field hospital established by the Israeli mission to Haiti treats dozens of earthquake victims every day, and is the only hospital prepared to perform complex surgeries and treatments in field conditions. But this delegation, which landed in Haiti following the recent earthquake, is not the first time the Jewish presence has been felt in the island.

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola—where Haiti lies today—he was accompanied by Torres, a Jew from Spain who was forced to convert to Christianity, and served as an interpreter. Following European settlement in the New World, Jews who fled the terror of the Spanish Inquisition also found refuge in Haiti. Jews who came to Haiti were merchants, plantation owners and slave-owners, and settled all over the island. In the 17th century the French came, bringing with them African slaves, who took the place of the natives whose culture was largely annihilated by the Spanish conquest.

In 1685, King Louis XIV published the document known as “Code Noir”, which set the rules of slavery in the French Caribbean colonies. Besides imposing draconian restrictions on the slaves and prohibiting the practice of all religions except the Catholic, the document ordered the expulsion of all Jews from French colonies in the islands. Most Jews left, but in Haiti, as well as other French colonies, local government facilitated softer interpretation to “Code Noir”, and Jews involved in commerce with companies that France was interested in received the status of French citizens in Haiti.

Mordechai Arbel, a former Israeli ambassador to Haiti, wrote in his book The Jewish Nation in the Caribbean (Gefen, 2002), one of the Jewish families that came to the island was Mendès-France—of the same family as Pierre Mendès-France, prime minister of France from 1954-1955.

In 1804, after the slave rebellion, the former slaves slaughtered nearly all whites on the island, including Jews, and established a Free Republic. The government of freed slaves wrote in the constitution that a white person would never be a landowner in the country. Most of the remaining Jews left, the plantations closed and trade ceased. Only a very few Jews remained and were absorbed into the nation’s elite; some of their descendants still live on the island.

From 1830, when the revolt against Russian occupation of Poland started, some Jewish families fled to Haiti, where they generally joined the upper classes. Toward the end of the 19th century, some 30 other Jewish families came from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and joined in the textile trade activity. During World War II, Haiti was one of the few countries in the world to open its doors to Jewish refugees, but most Jews emigrated after the war ended.

Anti-Semitism and Slavery: the Link
Haiti, like other Caribbean nations, is an island with a tradition of carnival celebrations. Dr. Elizabeth McAllister, a professor of religions at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, wrote in her article “The Jew in the Haitian Imagination: A Popular History of Anti-Judaism and Proto-Racism” (in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas, Oxford, 2004) that “among the cast of characters during the Rara carnival in Haiti are the ‘Jews’.”

“Jews were Europe’s original, the first object of demonization”, reminds McAllister. “In Medieval Europe, Jews were associated with the devil, cannibalism, poisoning of the holy bread. When the Europeans came to the Caribbean, they brought these beliefs and applied them with little or no change on the native population and the Africans. So in fact, anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages was the basis for racism against blacks in the New World. ”

In her investigation of the Rara carnival, held during Easter in Haiti, McAlister found a a ceremony called “Bwil Jif”, in which carnival revelers make straw dolls called “Judas” or simply “the Jews “, dragging them in the march and finally setting them on fire. But at the same time, participants also see themselves as “Jews” celebrating the crucifixion of Jesus. According to McAllister, the participants adopted the negative representation of the Jews that the Spanish brought with them as an image of resistance and protest against their oppression under Catholic masters, and they burn the “Jewish” effigy as a mockery of to the racism and oppression against the slaves.

The Israeli Connection
Former ambassador Arbel says that when he lived in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, between 1972 and 1975, he insisted on uniting the 12 Jewish families who lived then in the city, organizing events on the occasion of Jewish holidays. As ambassador, he promoted agricultural development projects and invited Israeli farmers in Haiti to teach villagers how to develop agriculture. He says that two Israeli farmers lived in the Artibonite valley for four years, and helped local residents to grow vegetables for export. Arbel recalls a moving ceremony held in the village, in which all the residents exclaimed “Vive Israel!”

But it seems the Israeli involvement in the nation was not always so positive. On Dec. 27, 1982, the US newspaper Christian Science Monitor reported that since 1968 Israel had sold weapons to two Haitian dictators—Francois Duvalier, who became president in 1957; and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, who succeeded him in 1971. The two, known as “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc,” controlled and terrorized the country with a private army. On March 27, 1983, the New York Times reported that Israel was among the few countries that had agreed to sell weapons to Baby Doc, and provided him with the long-term payment arrangement that he requested.

Paul Farmer, who would serve as President Bill Clinton’s deputy UN representative to Haiti, previously reported that Gen. Prosper Avril, the head of the military junta that took power in Haiti in 1988, received temporary asylum in Israel in 1990. Avril was the head of Baby Doc’s notorious “Presidential Guard,” and a US court ruled that he was responsible for “scandalous human rights violations.” He would later serve prison time in Haiti for his crimes.

In 1990, four years after Baby Doc was ousted from power, the popular priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti—in the first democratic elections the nation had seen. But in 1991 he was deposed in a military coup. Britain’s The Independent newspaper reported Oct. 14, 1991 that about 2,000 Uzi and Galil machine-guns from Israel were sent to Haiti in the weeks prior to the coup—with diplomats claiming the weapons went to military units especially loyal to the coup-plotters.

According to an Aug. 1, 2005 report in Jane’s Intelligence Review, weapons of Israeli origin were being smuggled through Florida and ending up with armed gangs in Port-au-Prince in this period—some in collaboration with the junta, and some opposed.

The Israeli Defense Ministry did not issue any reaction by publication time.

Now, as Israeli doctors and nurses work around the clock at the hospital that was established in Haiti, one can only hope that Israel’s contribution to the suffering nation will now focus on saving lives, and not on weapons shipments.

Translation: Pacha Dovinsky


Nirit Ben-Ari is a doctoral student in political science who teaches at Israel’s Sapir College. This article first appeared in Hebrew in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Jan. 22

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Reprinted by World War 4 Report, February 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution