Castro allows secret exodus; Quiet deal with Israel lets hundreds of Jews emigrate from Cuba


BEERSHEBA, Israel -- Hundreds of Jews have been emigrating from Cuba to Israel over the past several years in a hushed arrangement between a staunch U.S. ally, the Israeli government, and one of America's longest-standing enemies, President Fidel Castro.

Israeli officials anonymously confirmed the arrangement yesterday. Leaders of the Jewish community in Cuba also confirmed the emigration of more than 400 Jews to Israel since the early 1990s, leaving behind approximately 1,000 in Cuba's once-thriving Jewish community.

There was no comment from the Cuban government, which was closed for a national holiday yesterday. A leader of the Jewish community in Cuba denied that the operation was secret.

"Yes, the agreement exists ... since about four years ago," Raquel Marichal, a member of the executive board of the Cuban Hebrew Community, told Reuters news service. "But there is no secret emigration. The fact that something is not known about does not mean it was secret."

Some Cuban Jews have worked their way into the Israeli mainstream. Others are having difficulty.

Moshe Stoler is among the latter. In Cuba, his status as an architect entitled him to a three-bedroom house with a garden and a fairly new Russian-built Lada automobile.

Here, Stoler, 65, supplements a small government pension by working part time as a caretaker. He lives with his wife, Rachel, in a walk-up flat with two small bedrooms and a tiny, windowless living room.

Worse, he's threatened with eviction.

Still, he has no regrets.

"All our lives we wanted to be here," he said.

Lured by a mix of economics and religion, the penniless Jewish immigrants have struggled to learn Hebrew and have trouble finding jobs that match what they attained even under Cuba's desperate economy.

Describing the effort as well-intentioned but poorly executed, the weekly newsmagazine Jerusalem Report writes that "the newcomers feel they've encountered little more than unkept promises in the Promised Land."

But they keep coming. A group of 13 is to arrive this month.

Eitan Bihar, 26, fit in right away. A regional computer network manager for the Bank of Cuba, he found a ready market for his engineering and English skills at an American-Israeli company called the Clockwork Group.

In Cuba, he was born Jorge Rivero Bihar, but adopted a Hebrew first name when he moved here. He celebrates his new life on a Web page featuring photos of his family and friends.

"For me it was too easy," he said. "I was very lucky."

Earlier emigrations

This exodus is just the latest departure of Jews who settled in Cuba over the centuries, having come mostly from Europe and Turkey. A group of young Zionists arrived here before the 1959-1960 Cuban revolution, lured by the dream of nation-building and collective life on the kibbutz.

After the revolution, Castro allowed Jews to be repatriated to Israel. Many of Cuba's 15,000 Jews left when the Castro government began nationalizing businesses, emigrating to the United States and elsewhere.

The shrunken Jewish community remaining in Cuba entered two decades of near-silence as the Castro regime officially embraced atheism. Jewish practices fell into disuse. Families such as the Stolers who had hesitated to leave with the earlier wave found themselves blocked by a general crackdown on emigration.

In 1991, the Castro government opened up emigration, provided that the person had a visa to another country and a letter of invitation. Four Jews were allowed to come to Israel in July 1992 for religious reasons.

But organized emigration did not get under way until the next year. In contrast to the United States, where encouragement to leave Cuba came from the right wing of the Cuban exile community, for Cuban Jews the assistance came through the international left.

According to David Rot, who serves as liaison to Cuba for Israel's left-wing Meretz Party, the catalyst was Margarita Zapata, a longtime Castro friend who comes from a family of Mexican revolutionaries and has close ties with Nicaragua's Sandinista Party. Speaking on Israel Radio yesterday, she said the decision was made by Castro himself.

After her intervention, Castro reached an agreement with the Jewish Agency to allow small numbers of Jews to leave Cuba each month on condition that the agency not embarrass the Cuban government, Israeli officials said.

The Jewish Agency's spokesman, Michael Jankelowitz, declined to comment.

Both Cuba and Israel had reason to keep the arrangement secret. Cuba, a Soviet client, broke relations with Israel after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and became a champion of the Palestinian cause.

Israel, the biggest American aid recipient, has been one of only one or two countries that could consistently be counted on to vote at the United Nations in support of the United States' economic embargo against Cuba. But Israelis say there is no bitterness between Israel and Cuba, and, according to the new arrivals, there is very little anti-Semitism in ethnically mixed Cuba.

Castro's conditions aren't fully known, but Rot said: "What Margarita Zapata told me was that people who go out from Cuba should not talk bad about the system in Cuba."

And in several interviews during the past several days, none of the Cuban immigrants have spoken ill of their former leader. They have nothing against Castro, Rot said.

Cardiologist Alberto Toruncha,

who came to Israel in December 1998, a year after his daughter's family, speaks with pride of how the Castro government expanded health care throughout the Cuban countryside, where doctors were rare and expensive before the revolution.

But, taking a break from lunch with his young granddaughter at a McDonald's last week, he glanced fondly at the child and said: "The most important thing is her future."

Ninety-five percent of those who left, left for economic reasons, said Andres Novoa, 40, who trained chemistry teachers at a Cuban college and now works at an institute connected with Ben-Gurion University here. But he blames the U.S. embargo and not the Cuban government.

The exodus is shrinking Cuba's Jewish community, estimated at less than 1,500, at a time of religious revival in Cuba. Jews in several Cuban cities are learning about their traditions and being trained to conduct religious services. They are doing it with considerable help from Jewish organizations in the United States and Canada, which have

sent not only religious materials but kosher food and medical supplies.

Novoa, for one, had become a leader of the Jewish community in Santiago de Cuba, and taught himself enough Hebrew to conduct a bar mitzvah service for his son and nephew.

Religion was an important reason for coming here, he says. "I didn't decide to do it until I was sure of my identity as a Jew."

Cubans apply for visas through the Canadian Embassy, which represents Israel's interests in Havana. Travel costs are absorbed by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which also provides new immigrants with money and housing. Immigrants are usually sent to absorption centers here and in Ashqelon, along the Mediterranean coast.

Barriers for immigrants

The biggest problem encountered by many is the difficulty in learning enough Hebrew to hold down a job. Without it, many are forced to accept manual labor. The Jewish Agency provides language training, but some immi

grants don't stick with it long enough to become proficient.

People who come with a profession generally manage, Rot said.

But it depends on the profession; computer skills are in greatest demand. Welders and heavy equipment operators also find work easily, he said.

Dr. Toruncha, 63, has overcome the barriers of language and age because of his skill as a cardiologist who has worked to develop new treatments. He is working at Beilinson Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Housing is another serious problem. The small apartments at the absorption centers in Beersheba and Ashqelon are intended for new arrivals. Yet the Stolers and six other families in Beersheba have stayed for years. In July, all seven were served with eviction notices.

They have been assured that they won't be forced to leave until they obtain other housing. But Rot and a fellow Cuban Israeli, Haim Hayet, argue that Cubans are being deprived of benefits unfairly because they are categorized with immigrants from the rest of the Americas, who usually arrive with far greater means of support. They also lack what the Russians have here: a large and supportive community of people who speak the same language.

If they were considered on a par with Ethiopian Jews, who were brought here by the thousands a decade ago in a highly publicized feat, they would be eligible for a hefty mortgage subsidy, Rot said.

The secrecy surrounding Cuban immigration was broken in an article last month in the London's Jewish Chronicle. This week, the Israeli press jumped on the story, but the Jewish Agency refuses to comment.

According to Rot, the secrecy might not have done the Cuban arrivals any favors, because it has deprived them of the kind of community support and public attention given to emigres from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

Now that they're getting publicity, the question is whether Cuba will allow the emigration to continue.

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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