Israel’s biggest fan may not even be Jewish, but an Orthodox Catholic Cuban-American.
According to his own telling in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, prior to immigrating to the US at the age of 13, Cesar Alvarez, Co-Chairman of the 1800 lawyer firm Greenberg Traurig, was raised in Cuban religious schools with a highly negative image of Jews and Judaism.
How did Alvarez move from many of the extremely negative pre-Vatican II notions of Jews, to winning awards from Jewish organizations not only for his general support for Israel, but more specifically for his support for the IDF and to opening the first full Israeli branch of an American law firm?
Alavarez himself admits his special relationship to the Jewish community, Israel and the IDF are atypical for someone with his background even if most Christian Americans are generally supportive of Israel.
He says that the starting point for him was getting to know Jews when he immigrated to the US since he believes “people are not born with prejudices, someone puts them in your mind” and they can be unlearned if you are forced to confront reality and real people.
Alvarez also notes with some mischievous and satirical humor that changing toward having positive notions of Jews was easier for him than for Protestants which he learned at his Cuban school were much worse.
His family came to the US when he was a teenager since his father had attended law school with Fidel Castro and viewed him as “the worst human being” he knew even as “most Cubans” and even Alvarez’s mom viewed Castro as a “great savior.”
Though Alvarez did not speak a word of English when he arrived, his father thrust him into American society in a school in Florida away from where most Cuban-exiles attended – something he notes forced him to learn English in only two to three months.
Alvarez says that out of 5,000 students, 2,500 were Jewish-American, 2,500 were Irish or Italian-American, with the school’s diversity being composed of him and “one other Cuban kid and one black kid.”
He recounts that he got along well with the other Cuban and the Black student, but that he had “no choice but to integrate” including with the large Jewish population, and he found that surprisingly he got along well with many of the Jewish students.
Next, Alvarez rattled off a fascinating history of Jews who had helped him and his family at every “inflection point” of his life – “whenever I looked around for help, the hand that was always there was a Jewish hand,” he adds.
The first was Max Siegel, who gave his parents favorable rental terms so that they could open up a clothing shop, though Siegel’s landlord-partner wanted to reject them since they could not pay rent plus a security deposit.
After that, Alvarez met the Jewish lawyer who would completely change the trajectory of his legal career, founding partner Mel Greenberg.
He remembers that “I had no intention of working for any law firm” upon graduating law school, having assumed that he and his brother could develop a small practice right away representing Cubans since they were among the first bilingual Cuban-American lawyers.
Crediting Greenberg with being “the first one in Miami who figured out that Cubans were not going back so quickly, that Cubans were making an impact in Miami, so he looked for a Cuban lawyer to penetrate that community.”
Greenberg called one of Alvarez’s law school professors, who was also a friend of his, and the professor recommended Alvarez.
Next, “Mel called and asked if I was interested in visiting Miami, and said he would fly me there and pay my expenses – I had never flown on an airplane!”
Despite Alvarez’s original reluctance to change his plans, he describes being taken in by Greenberg’s salesmanship and his pitch that he could make more money as a junior partner at Greenberg’s firm than the highest number he thought he might ever make on his own.
There were many other influential American-Jews, each of who steadily brought Alvarez in closer contact with Israel and eventually the IDF.
Regarding Israel and the IDF, Alvarez is as unambiguous a supporter as one could have, stating “I’m not embarrassed by my opinion about Israel. I know how important Israel is and I see the IDF as being the key for Israel to survive.”
He explains that he views Israel as important because it makes Jews around the world freer or safer than they would be without the multifaceted direct and indirect support they get from Israel.
Moreover, he notes that “Israel was founded after World War II, and ‘never again’ is a very important part of what Israel represents,” in protecting Jews from the dangers of prosecution or genocide as from the Nazis.
To Alvarez, Israel is a democratic “oasis surrounded by everyone who would like there to be no Israel” and Israel is unfairly hounded by critics and “labelled as an aggressor” for “defending itself.”
Growing close to anger, a major contrast for a man who remains strikingly mild-mannered the rest of the time, Alvarez exclaims, “Israel did not ask for rocket fire. It did not ask people to come explode themselves” in suicide bombing attacks on Israeli cities.
He explains that this unfair treatment and the problematic “moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas” in the news regarding Israel’s self-defense and recent wars in Gaza was “one thing that got me really going.”
Alvarez has also very publicly opposed all boycotts of Israel despite the potential impact and limits on a global clientele, many of which are far less likely to pick a law firm which is openly pro-Israel.
The most striking decision was becoming the first American law firm to establish a full-service branch in Israel, whereas most American firms with Israeli clients hire local counsel or have one lawyer on the ground who drums up business along with using local counsel.
He states that he told Israel office-head Gary Epstein, “We’re doing the right thing. I don’t care what the impact is - let everything else fall where it may.”
In a recent email that Alvarez sent to the entire firm, he also took an aggressive stance against what he views as a recent uptick in antisemitism.
Alvarez wrote that Jews stand “for what is right regardless of the odds! And this is done in an environment of increasing and very disturbing anti-Semitism all around the world,” whereas anti-Semites “all over the world just keep repeating the same lies and are masters of misleading the uneducated…We, the non-Jews, like me, have to do more to stand up and tell the real facts.”
Asked where he has seen the uptick that brought him to send out such an unusual email, he said that some of the rough economic times in the US and in other parts of the world since 2008 have let loose some dormant anti-Semitic feelings.
He says recent years have brought more anti-Jewish comments, especially since no one suspects that an orthodox-catholic Cuban like him would have such strong Jewish sympathies.
Alvarez went as far as to say that recent years have given him a bit of a window into how Adolf Hitler could have “come to the forefront” in 1930s Germany during its economic crisis.
Some other major recent initiatives Alvarez was involved in included opening new offices in Berlin and Warsaw, but for Jews and Israelis, this orthodox-catholic Cuban-American will always be known for being one of the best and most unexpected friends. sign up to our newsletter