September 11, 2012
By David Arthur Walters
THE MIAMI MIRROR
Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith was deeply offended by my impetuous speculation on his role in a supposed cultural clash between Cuban Americans and Jewish Americans in Miami Beach, which culminated politically, at least according to urban myth, with a so-called Cuban coup over the Jews, or rather a compromise that resulted in a the dominance of the city administration by Cuban Americans for the last dozen years.
According to local lore, Miami Beach “civilians” wanted to hire one Melinda Carlton from Kansas as city manager in 2001, but Jorge Gonzalez of Hialeah was installed by the “militants” instead, and he allegedly proceeded to fill the administration with Cuban Americans favored by the Cuban power elite centered in Hialeah. As for then commissioner Jose Smith, he reportedly planned to run against the incumbent mayor, David Dermer, in 2005, but he allegedly made a deal to take the city attorney job in 2006.
Jorge Gonzalez was forced into retirement this year after several city employees responsible for the enforcement of ordinances and laws were arrested by the FBI. Although Gonzalez had taken the city forward in some respects during his long tenure, it was felt that he had become exceedingly arrogant, that his power had corrupted him, so to speak, and that he had sold out to big developers and the like. The last straw was his handling of a proposed new convention center.
Jose Smith seemed arrogant and unresponsive as well, taking no action on the community’s concerns unless he was expressly asked to do so by the ruling elite, saying that was all he could do according to the city charter, therefore some residents thought that a charter amendment and a proactive city attorney was needed. A few local businessmen even recommended that the top three officers in each city department be fired in order to effect real change.
“The bigoted, delusional, defamatory comments referring to ‘Cubans’ and ‘Jews’ are most disturbing,” Smith said in a public record email to the editor of the SunPost. “I happen to be BOTH! That kind of language is reprehensible and should be condemned.”
My remark was not bigoted, delusional and defamatory, although it may seem impolitic, impolite, and inconsiderate. He certainly had historical reasons to be oversensitive about both sides of his ‘dual’ ethnic identity. And it is even normal to identify with one’s own kind, however that might be defined. Of course to identify with some people is to be identified by others who may perceive us as threats to their identities, to their ways of life, so they are naturally hostile. Indeed, some residents active in the community thought my speculation on Cubans and Jews was inflammatory and better left unsaid. But should we also stop discussing gay and lesbian issues in South Beach, or women’s issues for that matter? No, our identifications are influential and therefore warrant discussion.
Jews that had been treated relatively well in Cuba were no longer welcome there with the advent of communism in 1959. The majority of Cuban Jews at one time were Sephardic, or “Spanish” Jews descended from Jews that once populated the Iberian Peninsula, the rest being Ashkenazic (Ashkenaz was the first son of Gomer), descended from Jews that once populated Germany along the Rhine. Nearly ten thousand Cuban Jews found refuge in South Florida, many of them in Miami Beach, joining the many Jews that were already there.
Jose Smith, born in Havana, graduated in 1967 from Miami Beach High Senior School, where he played baseball under legendary coach Skip Bertman while coaching baseball himself for the Miami Beach Recreation Department. I asked him about his religious denomination and whether his family had experienced discrimination in Miami Beach.
“While my family did not face discrimination,” he said, “many Cuban Jews did, particularly in housing and employment.” He said he has been a member of Temple Menorah in North Beach for fifty years: “Temple Menorah and Rabbi Abramowitz graciously welcomed Cuban Jewish immigrants in the early 1960's while other synagogues did not. It is a conservative synagogue serving primarily Ashkenazi Jews, half of them Anglo and half Hispanic. Shortly thereafter, Cuban Ashkenazi Jews established the Cuban Hebrew Congregation at the Washington Federal Building on 12th and Washington. I generally adhere to the principles of Conservative Judaism. However, I am comfortable in Orthodox as well as in Reform synagogues, and respect everyone's right to pray (or not) as they wish.”
Jewish families of all kinds constituted sixty-two percent of the Miami Beach population by 1982, but by 2004 only nineteen-percent of families were Jewish. Hundreds of thousands of middle- and upper-class Cubans immigrated to the United States from 1960 to 1979, the majority of them to Florida. A second wave, of nearly 125,000 Cubans, including 20,000 criminals and mentally ill persons, arrived in Florida during the early 80s.
An economic factor also pressed Jews out of Miami Beach, making them the victims of their own success. The city leaders favored tourism and real estate developments that escalated the cost of living on the beach, which was once known as “a poor man’s paradise.” Smith participated in expanding tourism in Miami Beach. He practiced law in downtown Miami after he graduated from the University of Florida College of Law, and in 1983 he formed his own firm in North Miami Beach, becoming active in government shortly thereafter, serving on the Miami Beach Tourist and Convention Center Expansion Authority from 1986 to 1991.
I asked Smith whether it was politically advantages to be a Cuban America Hebrew in Miami Beach, given the predominantly Cuban and Jewish electorate and its predilection to voting along ethnic lines.
“I cannot comment on whether it is or is politically advantageous to be a Cuban Jew on Miami Beach,” he said. “It depends on the individual. Cuban Jews have won and lost elections based on their qualifications or lack thereof. Generally, they are not too interested in government service. I am a rare exception.”
Now we might ask whether or not there would be a difference in the way Jews and Cubans would govern the city, and whether one way is better than the other. Good luck answering that one. The answer might depend on your taste, on what kind of food you like.
A contractor is going around town saying that he is certain that I am a Jew because I wanted the building permit laws strictly enforced. He also said he was absolutely sure that I am a gay Jew. Well, I am not gay, and I do not know exactly what a Jew is. I know it is something that assimilated or lost Jews have difficulty defining. My stepmother, a thrice-born-again Christian, sat me down one day to tell me that my father was a secret Jew, to which I answered, “So what? The Christians in Chicago prayed for me and gave me a sandwich, but the New York Jews gave me jobs.”
Cubans, or rather Hispanics, are supposed to be more tolerant because the most of them are Christians, and Christians are supposed to forgive sins wholesale, free of charge, whereas Jews have a procedure that must be followed. Yet I have found Jews to be tolerant of others if not of their own, perhaps due to their long history of persecution.
Now tolerance is a big issue on Miami Beach. Why have violations of our ordinances and laws been tolerated for so long? Is it the economy, stupid, or is it the Miami culture? Is it because Cuban Americans, who hate the totalitarian methods of Fidel Castro, dominate the administration? Is it because Jewish Americans, who hate the totalitarian methods of Adolph Hitler, dominate the city commission and leave the city administration with the dirty work?
My landlord’s maintenance man, a Cuban fellow, answered the question his way the other day in a stentorian tone after a code compliance officer stuck a notice on our building.
“It’s the Americanos!” he roared as he ripped down the notice. “Only Americanos insult people this way. The Americanos have put notices on three buildings on this block. We would not do that!”
My landlord is a Cuban Hebrew. He spoke no English and was broke when he arrived in Miami Beach, where he said signs were posted in front of some buildings, reading “For Rent – No Spics.” He took a busboy job to begin with, and now owns a nice home and several apartment buildings. He has managed all but one of his buildings quite well, the exception being his “ghetto” building. The situation there has greatly improved recently, thanks to the police department and code compliance. By the way, I am the only “Americano” there.
“Americanos do this!” he exclaimed again, to which the handful of tenants, all Hispanic but myself, laughed out loud.
“I know the guy who wrote the ticket,” I said, “and he is not an Americano. He is a Hispanic American.”
“He replaced the Cuban guy who was arrested,” offered one of my Cuban American neighbors. “They are cracking down, you know, because of the FBI.”
“No, only Americanos do this,” he insisted, and walked off in a huff.
So much nonsense, but it is the sort of nonsense that we should consider because it does have an influence on our behavior.