NEW YORK, Oct. 12 (JTA) -- The immigration of hundreds of Cuban Jews to Israel made big headlines this week after the story broke in the British and Canadian press.
Code named ``Operation Cigar," the departure was hardly news to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who apparently gave his blessing to the exodus years ago.
Since 1995, some 400 people have arrived from Cuba with the assistance of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental agency responsible for aliyah, or immigration to Israel.
A trickle came earlier through the efforts of the Canadian government.
The mystery surrounding their exodus -- confirmed by the Israeli government for the first time this week -- seems to stem from Castro's reluctance to publicize special treatment arranged for the Cuban Jewish community, which now totals an estimated 1,300 people.
But others see the move as part of Castro's desire to see crippling U.S. economic sanctions lifted.
Officially, Cubans are free to emigrate provided they have the appropriate paperwork and airfare. But most are too poor to leave.
Cuban Jewish leaders also confirmed that the operation had been taking place, but emphasized that it was not a secret.
``The fact that something is not known about does not mean it was secret," Raquel Marichal, a Jewish community leader, was quoted as saying.
Who first approached Castro regarding Cuban aliyah is unclear -- with many taking credit.
Indeed, Israel Radio on Monday reported that six years ago, Margarita Zapata, the Jewish granddaughter of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, had used her friendship with Castro to raise the matter with the Cuban leader.
But others involved with Cuban Jewry said they had never heard of her involvement.
But what has emerged since Israeli military censors opened the subject to the media Monday is that in the early 1990s the Jewish Agency entered into an agreement with Castro to keep their activities quiet in return for an obstacle-free operation.
A spokesman for the Jewish Agency, Michael Jankelowitz, declined to comment on Cuban aliyah.
This week, major newspapers in Europe and Canada revealed that the Canadian government had also been quietly helping the Jews of Cuba for the past 25 years by facilitating their exodus to Israel.
Cuba and Canada maintain political relations, while Cuba and Israel do not. Cuba dropped diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Officials in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs have confirmed the existence of a special office in Canada's Embassy in Havana through which Cuban Jews may apply to emigrate to Israel.
Embassy workers in Havana forward emigration requests to the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, which in turn send them to Tel Aviv.
The emigrants leave Cuba using Cuban exit visas and passports, and use Canadian travel documents to enter Israel.
The arrangement was kept secret for diplomatic reasons, said a spokesperson for Canadian foreign affairs.
``Given the relationship between the countries involved, keeping it quiet was the best idea."
The arrangement operated with ``full transparency," the official said. ``So the Israelis know, the Cubans know, obviously we know. And everyone is happy with it."
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," Bejarano said, while noting that the practice of religion -- Judaism or Christianity -- is usually a bar to university and to some professions.
Cuba became officially atheist in 1962, and as a result, the Jewish community suffered from assimilation. In the early 1990s, a revised Cuban Constitution changed the country's status to secular and members of all religions were accepted into the Communist Party.
According to Moises Asis, a Miami resident who was the principal and founder of the Tikkun Olam Hebrew School in Havana, he had started to educate his community Jewishly as early as 1985, with the support of the Chabad movement, which regularly sent visiting rabbis.
In a telephone interview with JTA, he said that in 1991, under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, he visited the United States and Israel, where he approached Jewish organizations and Israeli political parties with the idea of Cuban aliyah.
In 1992, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee approached the Cuban government and received permission to provide physical care and Jewish education to the Jewish community, according to JDC officials.
Both Asis and the JDC cite their efforts for stimulating interest in Israel among Cuban Jews.
Some reports have suggested that while Cuba and Israel may wish to reconcile, Israel is wary of Washington's reaction. The United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba since 1959.
Castro, 73, has been among the most virulent critics of Israel and most ardent supporters 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, and Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, reportedly made a visit to Castro in 1994.
But Israel is understood to be holding back for fear of arousing Washington's ire.
An Israeli official in Washington said he was ``not aware of any concerns" being expressed by the United States that Castro had approved the operation in order to curry favor with the United States.
He said Israel closely coordinates its policy vis a vis Cuba with the United States.
``Our Cuba policy is a function of the American policy," the official said.
State Department spokesman James Rubin on Wednesday welcomed the news of the Jewish immigration.
``The fact that members of the Jewish community have been allowed to emigrate to Israel is a step forward in Cuba's overall
religious freedom policy,"
``We welcome the fact that they are now in a position to emigrate more freely," he said, despite the fact that the recent news represented no apparent change in Cuba's policy.
The most recent immigrants from Cuba are now in an immigrant absorption center in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, where they were besieged by the media on Monday.
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.
``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,'' Pedro Luis told Israeli television.
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 are expected to be able to emigrate by next June.
Asis, who has not visited Cuba since he left in 1993, said he did not think the media coverage of the Cuban aliyah would negatively affect prospective olim.
Twenty are scheduled to arrive next week, according to an Israeli official, who said that if this group did not arrive it would show that the heightened attention had endangered the operation.
(JTA staff writer Julia Goldman and correspondents Naomi Segal in Jerusalem, Douglas Davis in London, Bill Gladstone in
Toronto and Michael Shapiro in Washington contributed to this report.)
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This article has also appeared in The New Jersey Jewish News.