No Way to Treat a Friend

Last week’s opinion piece by Dovid Margolin titled “Why It Matters That Bill de Blasio Is a Marxist” brought back a flood of memories.

In the mid- and late-1980s, I strongly supported the cause of the Contra rebels fighting the communist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. After all, then-President Ronald Reagan had described them as freedom fighters and “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers.”

In addition to being the president of the United States, Reagan, a former actor, was a very charismatic and convincing speaker.

If he said so, it must be so, I had concluded.

I still recall where I was standing in February of 1990 when I heard that Violeta Barrios Torres de Chamorro — who had children on both sides of the conflict — had defeated Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in a free election. I was certain that Ortega would never relinquish power, so I called the headquarters of the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York, the same pro-Sandinista group with which Bill de Blasio was affiliated, and much to my shock, the deflated sounding individual who answered the phone confirmed that Ortega had conceded the election and was stepping down.

More than a decade later, I was hosting a highly intelligent baal teshuvah for a Shabbos. In the course of conversation he mentioned to me that prior to his becoming religious, he had traveled to Nicaragua and volunteered for the Sandinistas.

I was floored, and made some comment about the Contras.

“I was there,” he told me. “The Contras were terrorists,” he informed me.

It wasn’t a conversation for a Shabbos table, so I pushed off my research for a weekday.

I soon discovered that while Ronald Reagan presumably had very good intentions in going all out for the Contras, he sure had his facts wrong.

There is no doubt that the Sandinistas were Marxist thugs who were guilty of a long list of reprehensible actions — including their persecution of the tiny Jewish community in Nicaragua. But their crimes paled in comparison to those committed by the Contras, who in reality were a large, well-funded gang of hoodlums, responsible for coldblooded massacres of countless innocent civilians.

Unlike the Contras, whose sole goal was to overthrow the Sandinistas, regardless of the cost to innocent lives, the Sandinistas also did much to improve the life of ordinary civilians. In 1984, in an election that most outside observers deemed fair and free, the Nicaraguan people re-elected the Sandinista regime. (In 2006, more than 16 years after he was booted out, Ortega was returned to power again in a free election — and is still president today.)

Outraged at the Reagan administration’s support of the Contras, tens of thousands of Americans — including my Shabbos guest and many other Jews — traveled to Nicaragua to volunteer for the Sandinistas.

So did Bill de Blasio.

It was unlikely that these volunteers were even aware of the way the Sandinistas persecuted the tiny Jewish community. In my numerous conversations in the 1980s with individuals on both sides of this debate, I don’t recall it ever being brought up.

Whether Bill de Blasio should or shouldn’t have volunteered for the Sandinistas is a moot topic, but insinuating that his doing so is somehow a reason not to vote for him, is in my opinion, incorrect.

As a councilmember and later as the public advocate, de Blasio was always there for the Orthodox Jewish community.  In a recent private conversation with a greatly respected askan who has remained neutral in this race, I asked why so many prominent members of our community have actively assisted the de Blasio campaign.

The response was very much what I expected.

He confirmed what I already had heard from others. In the past, de Blasio’s door was always open to askanim and he was always receptive and sensitive to the particular needs of mosdos and individuals within the community.

While personally I would have greatly preferred to hear a clearer and firmer commitment from de Blasio regarding protecting the right to metzitzah b’peh and I abhor his stance on moral issues, he has been a true friend to our community and we owe him our gratitude.

While I have no doubt that Mr. Margolin meant well in his well-written piece, this is no way to treat a friend.