JERUSALEM, Oct. 11 (JTA) – Hundreds of Cuban Jews have secretly emigrated to Israel over the past year – with the apparent blessing of Fidel Castro. The aliyah of some 400 Cuban Jews, mostly younger people, is believed to be part of an attempt by one of the world’s few remaining hard-line Communist – and fervently anti-Zionist – dictators to win favor with the United States. The Jewish immigrants are now in an immigrant absorption center in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, where they have been besieged by the media. What brought them there was a combination of Castro’s desire to see crippling economic sanctions lifted and a six-year-long effort that enlisted the help of the granddaughter of a famous Mexican revolutionary. Israel Radio on Monday reported that six years ago, Margarita Zapata, the Jewish granddaughter of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, had used her personal friendship with Castro to raise the matter with the Cuban leader. According to the report, Zapata was in Israel at a gathering organized by the left-wing Mapam movement, now part of Meretz, when the matter was raised at a dinner hosted by the then-head of Mapam’s international desk. “We found that [Zapata] was very close to Castro because of her personal biography,” Monica Pollack told Israel Radio. She said Israelis of Cuban background convinced Zapata to use her ties “to help get Jews of Cuba out and bring them to Israel.” Zapata told Israel Radio that she spoke with Castro and he personally decided that anyone who wants to emigrate can do so. Zapata said she believed “everyone will want to immigrate to Israel.” Jewish Agency for Israel representatives have been involved in field work to identify potential immigrants in Cuba. Canada reportedly provided the visas for the Jews, many of whom traveled to Israel via Europe. An Israeli involved in the contacts speculated that only 200 to 300 of Cuba’s estimated 1,500 Jews would come, given a lack of central organization in the community. Pollack, along with Israeli officials, said that Castro’s cooperation most likely derived from the hope it would help thaw relations with the United States and ease his country out of its deteriorating economy. Another Cuban Israeli involved in the contacts said that if given the green light from the United States, Israel would establish diplomatic ties with Cuba “in a second.” Meanwhile, media crews descended on the Ashkelon absorption center Monday to speak with some of the Cuban immigrants. While some expressed satisfaction with being in Israel, others voiced some of the same complaints heard by other immigrant populations over difficult living and work conditions. “We have no work,” one woman told Channel Two television. “Living here is like living in a ghetto, worst than anything else I have ever seen. Sometimes it makes me think I want to go back,” said another, Pedro Luis. Others are reluctant to speak out for fear of jeopardizing the chance of others leaving Cuba and for fear of reprisals against family members left behind. Reports estimated that an additional 200 Cuban Jews were expected to be able to emigrate by next June. Most members of the Cuban Jewish community are descended from Polish and Russian Jews who fled czarist pogroms at the turn of the century. When Castro came to power in 1959, most of the then-15,000-strong community managed to flee, with the majority settling in the United States. Hebrew University Cuba specialist Margalit Bejarano told the London Sunday Telegraph that there is far less anti-Semitism in Cuba than in the former communist states of Eastern Europe. “Castro never denied Jews kosher food or the right to organize cultural activities,” he said, while noting that the practice of religion – Judaism or Christianity – is usually a bar to university and to some professions. Castro, 73, has been among the most virulent critics of Israel and most ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause, but official relations with the Jewish community of Cuba have become more noticeably warmer in recent months. This was demonstrated by the Cuban leader’s attendance at an Israel cultural evening at the Patronato synagogue in Havana, the largest of Cuba’s four remaining synagogues, last Chanukah. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which provided Cuba with some $5 billion in aid each year, Castro was forced to modify his anti-Zionist stance and seek to establish new economic ties with the non- Communist world. Cuba is billions of dollars in debt and ration books are said to often run out halfway through the month. In 1996, the United States further tightened its economic blockade in accordance with the Helms-Burton Law, and many Cubans now regard the lifting of sanctions as their most vital need. Unofficially, Cuba and Israel are said to be interested in resuming diplomatic ties, but Israel is understood to be holding back for fear of arousing Washington’s ire. (JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.)
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