New Jewish Push To Free Alan Gross

As Diplomacy Falters, Wife Pleads for Release From Cuban Jail

Pushing for Freedom: Judy Gross pleading for more action to free her husband, Alan Gross, at the recent Jewish Federations of North America gathering. Advocates for Alan Gross are shifting to a more open campaign after quiet diplomacy failed.
courtesy of jfna
Pushing for Freedom: Judy Gross pleading for more action to free her husband, Alan Gross, at the recent Jewish Federations of North America gathering. Advocates for Alan Gross are shifting to a more open campaign after quiet diplomacy failed.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 21, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

courtesy of gross family

“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.

But even as they motivate Jews to get involved in pushing for Gross’s release, his advocates have chosen so far to avoid taking a stand on the Helms-Burton law and on the issue of a broader American-Cuban rapprochement. It is a shift that some believe could expedite Gross’s release. But this is seen as a political nonstarter, especially in an election year in which President Obama has to worry about the Cuban-American vote in Florida, a crucial swing state.

The campaign to win Gross’s release now includes weekly interfaith vigils held outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, letters sent by Jewish leaders to members of Congress and a set of national grassroots events planned for the weekend of December 3, which marks the second anniversary of Gross’s arrest.

“The community seems ready to help us in the fight,” Judy Gross wrote in a November 15 email exchange with the Forward. “Our hope is that the Jewish community will use its incredibly strong global voice to tell the Cuban government that we want Alan home now.”

Gross’s family and lawyers say the veteran aid worker’s mission in Cuba was to provide unfiltered Internet access to members of the Jewish community to help them better communicate and to learn about Jewish life outside the island. But Cuba had declared that any action taken under the Helms-Burton law would be viewed as an act against its sovereignty.

Gross, a social worker and international development expert who was employed by a private firm under contract to USAID, is widely described as relatively naive and anything but a cloak-and-dagger type. Since his arrest at Havana Airport in 2009, Gross has reportedly lost nearly 100 pounds. He now suffers from various medical conditions. Back home, his daughter and mother are fighting cancer. Initially, leaders of Cuba’s Jewish community distanced themselves from Gross, but later they began helping him in prison.

The past two years have seen flurries of diplomatic activity around Gross, but little progress has been made.

According to an October Associated Press report, Cuba, in talks with U.S. officials and intermediaries such as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, has proposed to exchange Gross for members of the Cuban Five, a group of agents convicted in 2001 for trying to spy on U.S. military installations and American Cuban expatriates in Miami. The United States has rejected pardons for the four who remain in jail. But it has reportedly offered to press a Miami federal court to allow one of their number, who has been released on parole, to finish his probation period in Cuba, in exchange for Gross’ release. Cuba has rejected this.

Gross himself appears to view the possibility of a prisoner swap favorably, especially after Israel agreed to release hundreds of imprisoned Palestinians in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Rabbi David Schneyer, founder of Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community of Greater Washington, recently visited Gross in prison and wrote in a report, “Having learned about the recent swap of Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians, [Gross] felt that the U.S. and Cuba could do the same for him and the Cuban Five.”

Julia Sweig, director for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations and a leading expert on Cuban-American relations, said a prisoner swap seems unlikely. She said the United States could discuss a shift in its relations with Cuba that would also include the release of Gross — if it had the political stomach for it.

“But there is no political will in the U.S. government when it comes to Cuba,” she said. “Gross is a victim of the broader U.S.-Cuba paralysis, and here the blame goes squarely to American politicians.”

She cited Cuban-American lawmakers such as Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, who use their positions on the House and Senate foreign relations committees to block attempts to change American policy toward Cuba. State Department officials also seek to avoid the confrontational issue.

Obama has shown little appetite to take bold steps to improve ties with Havana. Political analysts say he can ill afford to risk angering Cuban voters when Florida is a linchpin to his re-election strategy.

Meanwhile, Jewish individuals and organizations with close ties to Cuban-American lawmakers have been reluctant to push them to ease their opposition to negotiating with Cuba.

“People in the Cuban Jewish community feel very sad and want to see him released,” said former community member Arturo Lopez-Levy, who left the country 10 years ago. “But people,” he added, “feel it was totally irresponsible for the USAID to send him there.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.