Prisoners Weigh Making Jewish Identity Public

Captives Ponder Whether It Will Help or Hurt Freedom Plea

Poignant Plea: After a year in Al Qaeda captivity, aid worker Warren Weinstein appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help win his freedom. He also asked his wife to enlist the support of Jewish organizations.
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Poignant Plea: After a year in Al Qaeda captivity, aid worker Warren Weinstein appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help win his freedom. He also asked his wife to enlist the support of Jewish organizations.

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 24, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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Other Jewish organizations would not speak on the issue. A representative for B’nai B’rith International said Weinstein’s case “is not something we’re involved with at this time.” The Conference of Presidents of Major Major American Organizations did not return calls on the issue, nor did the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, where Weinstein resides.

Jacob Ostreicher
Jacob Ostreicher

The reaction of the Jewish community to cases of Jewish Americans held hostage or imprisoned in foreign countries has followed, in all four cases, the lead of the families.

In the most visible case, Gross, the USAID contractor worker, was arrested in Cuba and sentenced in August 2011 to 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state after he passed prohibited communications equipment to Jewish communal institutions in Cuba. The family publicly sought the American Jewish community’s intervention only last year, after concluding that all other paths had yielded no results. The community, as well as many individual Jews, responded by signing petitions calling for Gross’s release on humanitarian grounds and attending protests on his behalf.

The Florida family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, in contrast, has not seen playing up his Jewish connection as a favorable route. Levinson disappeared in Iran in March 2007 while working on a private investigation. The first sign of life from Levinson was received nearly four years later, in a video message sent via email to his wife. Based on the message, the family and experts believe that Levinson was abducted in Iran by a group affiliated with Al Qaeda and is now being held in Afghanistan. The Levinson family, of Coral Springs, Fla., recently marked 2,000 days since his disappearance. The family did not seek help from the Jewish community; nor have the family members discussed his Jewish faith.

“The Levinson family never turned to us for help,” said Eric Stillman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County, in Florida, which has been active on behalf of Gross in Cuba. Since the Levinson family hasn’t sought similar help, the federation will take no action on his case.

Family and friends of New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher, who has been in prison in Bolivia since last June without trial, had a different experience. Shortly after his arrest, for what appears to be a business dispute, Ostreicher’s family and community asked for any help they could get from the Jewish community. Ostreicher’s supporters encountered an organized Jewish community reluctant to weigh in since there were no signs of anti-Semitic bias or animus in the case, nor aspects of it involving any Jewish institutions. The campaign for Ostreicher’s release has been backed almost exclusively by the Orthodox community, of which he is a member.

The families of all four Jewish Americans held overseas are preparing for a holiday season away from their loved ones. Judy Gross recently visited her husband in his Cuban prison, but a bitter exchange between the foreign ministry in Havana and the State Department in Washington after the visit made clear his release is not being negotiated. Supporters of Ostreicher led prayer services for his release September 1, following a decision by a Bolivian court a week earlier to deny him bail. The Levinson and Weinstein families will have only the scarce video messages from their husbands and fathers and the hope that the missing family members will not be forgotten by friends and by their communities.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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