Amid the charges and countercharges exchanged between Washington and Managua, the lot of Nicaraguan Jews--numbering only a few dozen--has become a focus of attention in the United States and of attacks against the Sandinista government.
According to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, an organization devoted to combating anti-Semitism, the Sandinistas have systematically repressed and forced into exile Nicaragua's small Jewish community. The league's charges, first aired in May, have been disseminated widely.
Some influential Americans considered friends by the Sandinistas have harshly criticized them on the basis of the league's report and the Reagan administration has added anti-Semitism to its accusations against the Nicaraguans.
Sandinista officials say the league has propagated a severe distortion of the situation here. Their denial of the charges is backed up by a number of the few resident Jews, who say that despite the league's contention that the "entire Jewish community" was driven out, they are living in peace and relative prosperity.
Both sides in the conflict believe it has broader implications, and deeper roots, in other battles far away from here. Last summer, Nicaragua broke relations with Israel, whose government was long allied with Anastasio Somoza, the dictator overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. During the Nicaraguan revolution, Israel shipped arms to Somoza after Jimmy Carter had ended all U.S. support of his government. The Sandinistas received similar support from the Palestine Liberation Organization and have close relations with the PLO.
A year and a half ago, Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Latin American department, met with Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto in New York to ask about reports from Nicaraguan exiles concerning persecution of Nicaraguan Jews.
The Sandinistas first responded with facile denials, said Rosenthal, then a letter to D'Escoto last fall remained unanswered and the Nicaraguans stopped returning his telephone calls.
Sandinista officials now say the issue got lost in the whirl of other problems, particularly those with the United States, and they erred in not being more responsive. In May, the league's bulletin published a report by Rosenthal.
Only two Nicaraguan Jews, Abraham Gorn and Gorn's brother-in-law Isaac Stavinsky, both now living in the United States, were cited in the report. Rosenthal said in an interview that "I've met with other people who are similarly aggrieved. These two are in the news because they are the ones who came forward."
The Reagan administration, which backs rebel groups trying to overthrow the leftist Sandinistas, picked up the charges of anti-Semitism. Despite reports to the contrary from the U.S. Embassy here, President Reagan suggested that the Sandinista government had stifled Jews' religious freedom.
Nicaraguan authorities, their concern aroused, now are seeking to deal with the storm. They met once with Rosenthal in June, supplied him with a lengthy report on the situation and have scheduled a second meeting for today between their ambassador in the United States and the rabbi.
The Sandinistas also have offered to restore to Jewish ownership a synagogue that was abandoned in 1979 and taken over a year later by the government for use as a youth group headquarters.
But the remaining Jews here say they are too few to support the building, and they deny there is any reason for the uproar in the first place.
"What do you want to say?" asked Jaime Levy, a French Jew who immigrated before World War II and set up a textile and garment import business. "That I was persecuted? It is absolutely untrue."
In addition to denying that they or their government are anti-Semitic, Sandinista officials pointed out that four government have Jewish ancestry, although they are assimilated and some practice Roman Catholicism. Levy and his several fellow Jews who have remained unassimilated also issued denials.
But since Rosenthal went public May 23, the accusations have seemed to have a higher volume than the denials. On May 27, the Nicaraguan consul's home in Toronto was stoned by youths who, according to press reports, said they came from the Jewish Defense League. A newspaper reflecting rightist views in the U.S. capital, The Washington Inquirer weekly, published a story June 3 headlined "Little Hitlers in Managua."
The charges were repeated Wednesday in a lengthy opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal written by the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Even critics of administration policy toward Nicaragua have voiced strong concern. Ten days after Rosenthal's report appeared, Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Latin America, released a letter in which he accused the Sandinistas of "government-sponsored anti-Semitism" and expressed outrage at having read about the "forced exile by your government of the entire Jewish community."
The day after Rosenthal met with Nicaraguan Ambassador Antonio Jarquin on June 6, the rabbi's office issued a statement calling on the Nicaraguan government to return the synagogue, which it said had been confiscated from the Jewish community here and plastered with anti-Zionist propaganda. This statement said the Anti-Defamation League's charges had no connection to U.S. policy on Nicaragua.
On July 20, however, Rosenthal visited the White House with Gorn and Stavinsky. According to an account by the league, Reagan told those present: "Virtually the entire Jewish commmunity of Nicaragua has been frightened into exile . . .. Please share the truth that communism in Central America means not only loss of political freedom but of religious freedom as well."
The visit was part of a series organized by the White House Office of Public Liaison under Faith Ryan Whittlesey to promote administration policy of aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels. Whittlesey later said in an interview that the Sandinistas have "persecuted Jews, Protestants and Catholics."
At least three weeks earlier, according to knowledgeable sources, the U.S. Embassy here had reported to Washington that it investigated the anti-Semitism charges and found insufficient evidence to back them up. The Nicaraguan government-sponsored National Commission for Promotion and Protection of Human Rights also had investigated and published a similar conclusion, as did the antigovernment Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights.
"This does not mean there have not been abuses," said the permanent commission's national coordinator, Marta Patricia Baltodano. "But it was not because they are Jewish, rather because they had certain connections with the Somoza regime or did not follow the Sandinista line."
The State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1982," while detailing several cases of religious conflict in Nicaragua, says, "Adherence to a particular church does not confer advantage or disadvantage in any sphere in Nicaragua."
Rosenthal said last week that he may have erred in citing Nicaragua's "entire Jewish community" as forced exiles and noted that "obviously some people have other interests and are using the story" for their own purposes. But, he said, "I feel comfortable with the factual information" reported. As to reports contradicting his own, Rosenthal said, "I couldn't believe some of the reporting out of the embassy. It was childlike."
According to Levy and Rolando Najlis--who along with Gorn's nephew Bernardo are the most prominent remaining Jews here--Abraham Gorn was arrested and held for interrogation for two weeks in 1979 because of business ties to the family of the late dictator Anastasio Somoza, particularly with Somoza's half-brother Jose.
The national human rights commission reported that Sandinista suspicions also flowed from a Jan. 27, 1979, telegram from Honduras directing Gorn to pick up an air freight shipment labeled, in Spanish, "Supplies, National Guard."
Soon after Gorn was released, he left the country in a chartered plane sent by friends in Costa Rica. His property, including a factory and estate, was confiscated. The takeover, according to Jews here and Sandinista officials, was based on Gorn's ties to the Somoza government, as were similar confiscations that hit Jews and Christians by the hundreds who fled the Sandinistas.
"When it became obvious that Somoza would be overthrown, Nicaraguans with strong ties to Somoza left the country," said a study by the University of Central America's Historical Institute here and distributed by Georgetown University's Intercultural Center. "The Jewish people who left in 1979 were part of a larger exodus from Nicaragua of those who felt their future would be uncertain with changes by the revolutionary government."
In the background were several considerations that could have made the future seem even more uncertain for Jewish businessmen linked to Somoza. Israel was clearly identified as a Somoza ally--Somoza's father had supplied arms to the nascent Jewish state in 1948--and some Jewish businessmen were reputed to be intermediaries for Israeli arms sales to the embattled Somoza government.
Perhaps as a result, an explosive charge was tossed at the synagogue in 1978 during civil unrest leading up to the civil war.
The Nicaraguan government has allowed a PLO legation to function like an embassy here. It broke relations with Israel last summer during the invasion of Lebanon. About the same time, the progovernment newspaper Nuevo Diario published an editorial backing the Palestinian cause in which it mentioned the Jewish religion as a source of support for Israel. The editorial said Reagan must have Jewish blood because of what it called his unqualified support for Israel.
"This editorial confuses Zionism and Judaism," the Historical Institute said, adding that the paper's commentary on occasion "has had clear anti-Semitic overtones."
By 1979, only 50 Jews still not assimilated remained from a community of 150 that had grown from the 1930s, then diminished rapidly after the 1972 earthquake. All but a half dozen of those, including Gorn and Stavinsky, fled during and shortly after the 1979 revolt. Most of those who left had their property confiscated.
The departure meant the synagogue stood empty. At first, some refugee families moved in, according to neighbors, but they found other housing within a year and the building was turned into headquarters for the Sandinista Children's Association under government ownership.
"All those who used to go to the synagogue left," said Najlis. "It was abandoned. Like all abandoned property here, it was taken over by the government."
The building has been painted with children's drawings of camping scenes and filled with partitions to create makeshift offices. Only the scallop-shaped windows recall its past. During a recent visit, an association official, Alejandro Morales, and one of the youngsters were seen reading "The Green Path," a newspaper distributed in Spanish by the Libyan Embassy to explain the goals of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Stung by the charges that persist in Washington, the Sandinista government has notified Levy and Najlis it would like them to form a legally recognized association and take over the former synagogue. Levy, concerned about the responsibility, telexed Rosenthal Aug. 3 saying:
"The government will pay expenses for legal fees, but we need the aid of the New York consistory for monthly maintenance of the building--taxes and the rest. Remember, there are hardly three of us."