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Despite grievances, Cuban olim
feel lucky to be in the Jewish state

By Avi Machlis

ASHKELON, Israel, Oct. 19 (1999) - (JTA) -- As the dramatic story of the immigration of 400 Cubans to Israel was broadcast across the world last week, the new Israelis put the spotlight to good use and publicly aired their grievances after many months of silence.

But even the three drab, seven-story buildings where they live in the Jewish Agency for Israel absorption center in Ashkelon could not keep the immigrants from bursting with excitement. And when a government delegation led by Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir paid a visit to this southern coastal town last week, Grisel Hernandez insisted on making a statement.

``I am very satisfied in Israel," said the 30-year-old former English teacher in impressive Hebrew. ``Every day when I wake up in bed I say thank you."

The combination of grumbling and joy accurately reflects the complex situation these immigrants feel here today.

Many are angry at how they have been treated in the months since their arrival, yet most of the immigrants interviewed by JTA say they are happy to be in the country, and none said they wanted to leave.

Although they embraced the media spotlight, they are still unsure how the recent publicity surrounding the story will affect the chances of their relatives, among some 1,300 Jews left in Cuba, to emigrate.

An official close to the situation, however, said the latest group of about 15 people, down form original estimates of 20, had already departed Cuba and was expected in Israel on Wednesday, indicating that the publicity has had no negative effect on the exodus.

Typically, between 15 and 20 Cubans arrive in Israel each month, the official said.

Only last week did Israeli military censors open the subject to the media. As details emerged, it became clear that the Jewish Agency had assisted in the emigration of some 400 Jews since 1995. The Jewish Agency had entered an agreement with Fidel Castro to keep the operation quiet in return for an obstacle-free operation.

Although the Cuban immigration was not widely known, one thing is certain, says Hernandez: Castro ``knew about the entire thing," she says, wondering why the mission was shrouded in secrecy. ``Nothing happens in Cuba that Fidel does not know. And in Cuba, professionals, doctors and teachers cannot leave without permission from Fidel Castro or his buddies."

Immigrants here say it is much more difficult for professionals to secure an exit visa from the country, and Israeli officials say the majority of the immigrants who have arrived are blue-collar workers.

In addition, among the Jewish immigrants are many non-Jews who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which grants even grandchildren of a Jew the right to aliyah. In a tiny Jewish community like Cuba, say immigrants, intermarriage is inevitable.

``I am not Jewish, but I feel like a Jew," says Alfredo Sotolongo, 41, wearing a red cap, gold earring and bracelets, a fat cigar wedged between his fingers. ``During the last 8 years, we were very active in the synagogue."

Sotolongo came to Israel with Violeta Perez Nieto, his second wife, and four stepchildren. His stepson Ewduin Perez, 24, is also not technically Jewish. But when Jews began reviving community life in the early 1990s after Castro became more tolerant of open religious practice, the family started going to synagogue.

Perez's grandfather was Jacobo Perez Meshulam, who immigrated from Turkey to Cuba and was a founder of the local synagogue.

``We lived with him, and during my childhood I always remembered seeing the Jews swaying at prayer," says Perez, recalling the small group of Jews who remained devout even when the regime was less tolerant.

A few years ago, a group of youngsters began organizing activities.

``I began going to Friday night services, Shabbat morning services, and every Sunday I participated in Hebrew classes," says Perez.

Perez mentions the name of Jose Miller, a community leader who apparently was close with Castro, as having been one factor in Castro's decision to let the Jews go. But he, and most other immigrants interviewed, say they found out they could leave via rumors that spread through the community like wildfire.

As the word spread, Perez, who was working in a cigar factory, made his decision, and headed for the Canadian Embassy to submit his paperwork.

Canada, which maintains relations with Cuba, helped facilitate the emigration since there are no diplomatic ties between Israel and Cuba.

Perez does not hide his motives, and does not profess any Zionist ideology, yet he says he is willing to work hard, serve in the army and start again in Israel if given the chance.

``I came because life was hard in Cuba," he says. ``We felt like dogs in Cuba, but here I feel like the same dog with a different collar."

Eitan Behar, who was known in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba as Jorge, is one of the immigrants whose desire to come to Israel stemmed from a reawakening of his Jewish identity.

Behar, a 27-year-old engineer, was the youth leader of Hatikva, which he describes as ``a small, but very active" group in the Jewish community in Santiago, which began to hold regular Sabbath gatherings in 1993.

The renewal of Jewish life was ``very powerful for us, very intense," he says in a telephone interview from Beersheva where he lives with his wife, Nili.

``We realized we didn't know how to do services, Kabalat Shabbat, to sing the tunes."

For help, his community turned to the Jewish community in Havana, to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and to other groups from the United States, Latin America and Canada.

Learning about Judaism, he says, naturally led him and Nili to learn about Israel, where they decided to make a new life.

Behar said things are working out according to his plans, but he admits, ``As immigrants we have several obstacles to overcome: language, getting a job, learning a new country."

For most of the immigrants, the biggest problem is that they have been granted immigrant rights similar to those received by immigrants from Western countries.

But unlike their Western counterparts, Cuban immigrants were not allowed to bring any money or property out of Cuba. Their snappy dress in designer clothing is misleading; two suitcases of clothing were all they were allowed to take out. The rest of their property was nationalized.

The immigrants argue they should therefore be eligible for the same absorption package granted to immigrants from impoverished countries like Ethiopia. Most importantly, they want to receive the same amount of assistance for buying an apartment.

Israel's Absorption Ministry says the average Cuban family will receive up to $30,000 for a mortgage, while the average Ethiopian family is granted as much as $75,000.

The Jewish Agency has allowed the Cubans to stay at their absorption centers longer than the usual six- month period, knowing that their status must first be ironed out.

``I am still optimistic," says Perez, echoing the sentiments of many immigrants at the absorption center, some who were upset at the Israeli media for making it sound like many were on the verge of leaving the country.

``Israel is our country and we love this country," says Alexe Colon, 23, a fiery redheaded young man who left his law studies in Havana to come to Israel.

``We do not want to go back to Cuba, but we do want to be given mortgage rights similar to those of the Ethiopians."

Isis Segal, 29, agrees. ``We have no work yet, and it is very difficult, but it was very hard to keep quiet for so long," she says. ``We only hope the publicity will not hurt the chances of our relatives coming to Israel."

Last week, as the publicity began to dissipate, Cuba appeared to be dispelling rumors that Jews would be kept from leaving. Alejandro Gonzalez, Cuba's foreign minster, said Cuba had never blocked the exit of any Jews nor had they encouraged them to leave.

Reports of a secret deal to allow Cuban Jews to leave were ``cheap sensationalism," he said. ``We will not stop" them from emigrating, ``nor have we obliged them to do so,'' he said.

(JTA staff writer Julia Goldman in New York contributed to this report.)

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