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Washington — Ostreicher’s case was the subject of a June 6 hearing of the House subcommittee on human rights. New York senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer had expressed their support for Ostreicher’s release, and a petition calling for intervention from the United States is gaining signatures.
The Jewish community, however, has thus far been slow to respond.
Ultra-Orthodox community activists were the first to take action for Ostreicher and are still the backbone of the campaign to free him. The Orthodox Union has also recently expressed its willingness to take on the case.
New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind, the driving force behind recent protests and petitions, said that engaging the Jewish community in the Ostreicher case is an “ongoing process” and that he intends to reach out to Conservative and Reform activists in the near future.
“I don’t want this to be about the Orthodox community,” he said. “It is about an American citizen rotting in prison.” According to Hikind, public attention to Ostreicher is protecting him and ensuring that he is not harmed in prison.
Even Orthodox activists agree that the arrest of the Brooklyn businessman has nothing to do with his Jewish faith. Ostreicher, some experts believe, has fallen victim to corrupt government and law enforcement systems motivated by bribes and criminal connections. Former FBI agent Steve Moore, who worked on similar cases, described the Ostreicher affair, during the congressional hearing on the issue, as a “state-sponsored kidnapping.”
Mainstream groups say the case does not cross the threshold for getting the broader Jewish community actively involved. The American Jewish Committee recently hosted in Washington the president of Bolivia’s tiny Jewish community, which apparently is not concerned that the Ostreicher case could have any impact on it.
“Bolivia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and maintains close ties with Iran, does many things that concern us,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute, “But we do not see there anti-Semitism of the kind we’ve seen in Venezuela.”
Salberg said that in order for the Jewish community to take on a case such as the Ostreicher arrest, it should have either been motivated by anti-Semitism or have had a direct impact on the local Jewish community. Ostreicher was not in touch with the Bolivian Jewish community, which is mainly Reform and Conservative, during the time he did business in the country, and local leaders did not express concern that his arrest will affect their community.
Another Jewish official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, warned of making Ostreicher into a diplomatic issue in relations between the United States and Bolivia. “The U.S. has very difficult relations with Bolivia, and we don’t need another issue on the table,” the official said.
Several officials distinguished the Ostreicher case from that of Alan Gross, another prominent Jewish prisoner in Latin America. The Jewish community has, in the past year, thrown its weight behind efforts to release Gross, a Jewish contractor for the U.S. government serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba.
Salberg said Gross’s case was very different, since Gross’s stated mission was to assist the Cuban Jewish community. Ostreicher, on the other hand, was in Bolivia on his own private business and had nothing to do with the community there. Another activist warned against making Ostreicher “a second Alan Gross,” fearing that an organized campaign would prompt the Bolivian government to raise the price for his release.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org