The American Jewish community has always seemed uneasy about the case of Alan P. Gross. On the one hand, he is an American citizen, a Jew from suburban Washington who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for doing nothing worse — so Gross’s supporters claim — than trying to improve telephone and Internet services for Cuba’s tiny Jewish community. Which Jewish organization would not want to do everything in its power to help Gross, who at 62 years of age is facing a 15-year jail sentence and has a mother and a daughter battling cancer?
Communal reticence to turn Gross into a cause célèbre — and there has been some, despite claims to the contrary — stems, in part, from the fact that Gross’s mission was not altogether altruistic. He was in Cuba on a $500,000 contract from a subcontractor of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Despite claims from the American government that Gross was doing nothing illegal, revelations in early February that he was carrying high-tech satellite equipment commonly distributed by the CIA and the Defense Department did little to allay suspicions that Gross’s mission, whether he knew it or not, was more than simply humanitarian. Evidence that Gross may have compromised members of at least two American Jewish humanitarian trips to Cuba, now identified by the Forward, appears only to have made matters worse.
Suspicion of Gross’s actions has always lurked in the background. Although Gross’s legal team has painted him as a naive American contractor unaware of the consequences of his actions, and although the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations protest that Gross was only trying to help the Cuban-Jewish community, executives at some major Jewish organizations say they have been skeptical for some time. “We had heard some rumors of something like this,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee. But “when it came out with so much detail, it did surprise us.”
Those details, revealed by The Associated Press, included extracts from reports that Gross filed so that USAID could track his progress. Gross’s USAID contract in Cuba fell under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which was designed to foster “democracy-building” in the communist nation. The Cuban regime perceives all Helms-Burton programs as a threat and deems all USAID programs in Cuba illegal. That’s why Gross allegedly told Cuban immigration officials that he was conducting Jewish humanitarian work when he was actually working for the American government. “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms,” Gross wrote in one report that filtered back to USAID. “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic,” he wrote in another.
Some Jewish executives see this as further proof that Gross’s case was never a Jewish issue. Because Gross was in Cuba working on an American government program, they argue it is the American government’s responsibility to free Gross. Some still chafe at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2010 appeal to the Jewish community to take up Gross’s cause. “It was total bullshit by Hillary,” said one high-ranking Jewish executive, who did not wish to be named for fear of offending the American government. “Everybody had been begging the State Department to speak up, and when she does, she does so by saying, ‘You guys need to be loud.’”
The Jewish case for Gross is weakened further by the fact that Cuba’s Jewish community had access to the Internet and to an intranet before Gross began his Cuban missions in 2009. Two years earlier, World ORT, a Jewish educational and vocational training group, funded an intranet linking six Jewish communities in Cuba. During the past decade, World ORT funded computer labs in Havana and Santiago. When Gross arrived in Cuba with his computer equipment, so goes one argument, the Cuban-Jewish community saw him as no different from just another representative from a foreign Jewish group, like B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which regularly bring to Cuba “humanitarian supplies” such as religious articles, medicine and educational materials.