Jews for Goats: Castro's Secret Deal With Israel

Before Havana cut ties, Cuba’s Jewish ambassador in Tel Aviv proved that the communist leader was right about the prodigious milk production of Israeli goats, and sent his boss a plane filled with them.

Fidel Castro and Cuban Ambassador to Israel Ricardo Wolf in the 1960s. Castro signed the picture.
Courtesy Shlomo Slutzky and the Wolf Foundation

In the early 1960s, an El Al Israel Airlines aircraft that had made the long flight from Israel landed in Cuba. Its passengers weren’t required to present passports on arrival or pick up their luggage and proceed to a hotel. There actually were no human passengers on the flight, which instead was carrying dozens of Israeli goats that had to leave the landscape of the Holy Land behind and get used to life on a communist Caribbean island.

Exchanging goats for Jews Haaretz

What were these Israeli goats doing in Cuba shortly after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power? It turns out that Castro had taken notice of Israeli goats and was just waiting for the chance to taste their milk following the establishment in 1960 of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“Fidel thought there were goats in Israel that produced milk like cows,” recounted Clarita Malhi, who worked at the Cuban embassy in Israel. “He was really enamored by the technical progress Israel had made in the field of agriculture.”

The Cuban ambassador in Israel was a Jewish millionaire revolutionary by the name of Ricardo Wolf (Ricardo Subirana y Lobo in Spanish), who decided to fulfill the dream of his boss who had sent him to Israel. The ambassador went looking for goats that “produced milk like cows” and could be shipped far across the ocean.

Yitzhak Zilber, a Cuban Jew and a member of Kibbutz Gaash, was chosen for the mission. Zilber, 89, sent Haaretz photos in which he is seen with the goats he found, waiting for a plane at the airport and travelling around Cuba.

Zilber with one of the goats.
Zilber family album

“It wasn’t simple to obtain goats. There were issues with the Agriculture Ministry. It was necessary to have a certificate issued for each goat and all kinds of [other] things,” Malhi recalled.

Ultimately, when the goats for the mission were found, they were brought together at the airport, awaiting the moment when they could be airlifted to Cuba. An El Al plane landed in Israel from Cuba with new immigrants from the Cuban Jewish community who had decided to flee Castro’s revolution. They came as part of an agreement under which Cuba effectively exchanged the immigrants for the goats.

“They brought the airplane with the immigrants. We went to the airport to receive them,” Malhi recounted.

After the immigrants arrived, the plane was emptied of its entire contents to make room for the goats. The flight to Cuba went off relatively smoothly, but the plane had to make a stop so the goats could be fed and milked.

“It seems to me it was in Spain,” Malhi said, adding: “Do you know how much we had to pay El Al for this whole thing?”

Officials at the airline, by the way, don’t remember the incident, but they did not deny that it happened. For his part, Marvin Goldman, an expert on the history of El Al to whom Haaretz was referred to answer questions for this article, said it is entirely possible that El Al flew the goats to Cuba, but raised the possibility that perhaps El Al flew them to the United States and from there they were shipped by another company.

Zilber at Israel's Lod international airport.
Zilber family album

The Haaretz archives contain a piece of information that might buttress the story about Castro and his Israeli goats. In an article in July 1961, it was reported that the Israeli Agriculture Ministry had sent an expert to Cuba to help the Cubans improve goat breeding.

Malhi recounted the story of Castro’s Israeli goats in 2014, shortly before she died, to Shlomo Slutzky as part of a film he is currently making about Wolf, the Cuban ambassador.

Wolf, who was born in Germany, emigrated to Cuba in the 1920s and became a close associate of Castro. As a wealthy industrialist, he gave a large sum of money to finance the revolution. He later politely declined the offer of a cabinet position, but asked Castro to appoint him ambassador to Israel. Castro assented and Wolf arrived in the country in 1960 as Cuba’s first – and only – ambassador. The trade involving the goats and the new immigrants was funded by Wolf personally.

In 1973, diplomatic relations between Cuba and Israel were severed following the Yom Kippur War. Wolf chose to remain in Israel rather than return to Cuba. In 1976, he established the Wolf Foundation in Israel and gave it $10 million. Since then, on an annual basis, the foundation has conferred the Wolf Prize to scientists and artists from around the world. (The 2017 prize recipients will be announced on January 3).

Wolf passed away in 1981. There are pictures hanging in the foundation’s offices of Wolf with Castro, who died last month. The photos reflect the warm relationship between the two and are signed by the Cuban communist revolutionary leader with greetings to Wolf as his ardent supporter.