Washington — An emotional Judy Gross recently pleaded with thousands of Jewish community leaders to help free her husband from a prison in Cuba, marking a public shift in what has been, up to now, a strategy of quiet diplomacy on his behalf.
“Let the Cuban government know that the Jewish community wants Alan home,” Gross implored her audience at the November 8 closing session of the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Her husband, Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, is serving a 15-year sentence after being accused of crimes against the Cuban state for seeking to bring banned Internet equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community.
“Alan’s only intention was to help the small Jewish communities in Cuba,” she said, “nothing more.”
The Gross case has proven to be one of the more difficult diplomatic challenges facing Jewish leaders, who would like to help free the 61-year-old suburban Washington, D.C. resident. On the surface, it is a case of an American Jew imprisoned for seeking to aid Jews living under a communist government. But in contrast to the black-and-white approach American Jews took in trying to aid Soviet Jewry, Cuba experts and Jewish activists see the need for a highly nuanced strategy. Unlike Jews in the old Soviet Union, Cuba’s 2,000-strong Jewish community enjoys religious freedom and positive, if wary, relations with the ruling regime of Raul Castro. They are also free to emigrate to Israel, with which Cuba has unofficial but productive relations.
Until now, Gross’ family and friends chose not to focus on Gross’s Jewish identity, or on his work with Havana’s Jewish community. Since his detention by Cuban authorities nearly two years ago, his supporters have feared such an emphasis would hurt the cause and could cause more trouble for the Cuban Jewish community.
The strategy changed when they realized they weren’t getting closer to winning Gross’s freedom.
“The [American] Jewish community is getting more involved because we haven’t seen movement on this issue,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “It is fair to say the Jewish community has gone beyond the tipping point on whether to get involved or not.”
Weighing in on behalf of Gross also required the Jewish community to walk a political and diplomatic tightrope.
Gross was sent to Cuba under a contract with USAID as part of a program funded under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. The controversial statute strengthens sanctions against Cuba and outlines measures meant to undermine the country’s communist regime.