HAVANA — President Raul Castro celebrated Hanukkah on Sunday with Cuba's tiny Jewish community, a heavily symbolic act at a time when his government is holding a Jewish-American subcontractor on suspicion of spying.
Neither Castro nor those assembled at Havana's Shalom synagogue mentioned the name Alan Gross during the gathering, which was broadcast on the state-television newscast Sunday evening. But Gross's one-year detention without charge was the elephant in the room.
The U.S. government says Gross was in Cuba as part of a USAID program to distribute communications equipment to the island's 1,500-strong Jewish community, and both the State Department and Gross's wife, Judy, made fresh appeals this week for his release. The leaders of Havana's two main Jewish groups have denied having anything to do with him.
Castro wore a suit and a yarmulke, the head covering which observant Jews wear as a symbol of their deference to God, and was given the honor of lighting the first candle of the menorah. It was the first time in more than a decade that either Castro or his brother Fidel appeared with the Jewish community at a religious celebration like Hanukkah.
The brothers have gone out of their way to show their support for the Jewish people in recent months.
Fidel Castro took time out from his warnings about a looming nuclear war pitting the U.S and Israel against Iran to say that he disagreed with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denials of the Holocaust. He said: "I don't think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews" adding that Jews "were expelled from their land, persecuted and mistreated all over the world."
The comments won rare praise from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Raul Castro, who took over the presidency from his brother in 2006, thanked his hosts for a "very enjoyable afternoon," and said he hoped to have more time on another occasion to come and talk about "the Hebrew community in Cuba and the fabulous history of the Hebrew people."
Castro noted that he will turn 80 in June, but said he was "in good health." He said he was pleased that his country had begun to hold discussions on the need for a major economic overhaul. Cuba has announced that it is laying off 500,000 state workers, while allowing for more private enterprise.
Gross, a native of Potomac, Maryland, was arrested Dec. 3, 2009. His family denies he was spying, saying he brought communications equipment for use by the local Jewish community, not dissidents. The U.S. government says his continued detention is a "major impediment" to improved ties between the two Cold War enemies.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights for Jews. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. According to tradition, a candelabra was lit with only enough oil for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days.