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“He didn’t travel with us, as far as I can tell,” Yudewitz said. “I don’t know who else was on the plane, or if he showed up at one of the places we went to visit.”
Though Cuba remains a dictatorship, the island’s Jewish community has lived relatively freely in recent decades. Cuban Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel and are able to practice Judaism.
During the past 20 years, American Jewish organizations have built a relationship with the Castro regime that has allowed them to make regular trips to the island, bringing with them “humanitarian supplies” such as medication, kosher food and religious items.
“I’m hopeful that the latest details won’t harm the humanitarian work being done on the ground by Jewish organizations,” said Moishe Smith, a former president of B’nai B’rith International who has traveled to Cuba on such missions.
Steve Schwager, executive vice president and CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told the Forward, “JDC’s cultural and religious work with this community continues unaffected.”
But just how Gross’s capture has affected the delicate relationship between the Cuban government and Jewish groups is difficult to determine. American Jewish officials and members of the Cuban-Jewish community must tread a fine line between telling the truth and not offending the Cuban government.
Gross was sent to Cuba under a $500,000 contract to work for USAID.
In addition to using Jewish missions to Cuba as a cover, Gross even asked fellow American Jewish travelers to smuggle electronic equipment into Cuba and then give it back to him at his hotel, the AP said.
The cell phone chip found on Gross when he was arrested would have allowed a user to make satellite phone calls without being detected.
Such activity seems to go beyond the picture painted by Gross’s supporters of a man interested in only helping Cuba’s Jews.
Nevertheless, Jewish groups continue to back Gross.
“Our position has not changed, nor is there reason for it to change,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has campaigned on Gross’s behalf. “I have credibility in our government and the [Gross] family, and don’t have credibility just because an AP story appears. Let’s move on.”
Foxman insinuated that the AP report was based on misinformation put out by the Cuban government, a “totalitarian, antidemocratic, dictatorship” that “fosters and has fostered [international] anti-Semitism, which is an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people.”
“Why should I take [the Cuban government’s] word,” Foxman asked, “as opposed to our government, the secretary of state, members of Congress and [Gross’s] family?”
Halber said Gross was being painted as a “James Bond” figure so that he can be used as “a pawn” to secure the release of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents arrested in the U.S. in 2001 on spy charges.
He said the increased publicity could work in Gross’s favor and that vigils outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington would continue.