Washington — In Brooklyn, on December 16, a Jewish family celebrated the return of its loved one from an overseas prison. Jacob Ostreicher, an ultra-Orthodox businessman imprisoned in Bolivia for two and a half years, managed to escape his house arrest there and returned to the United States.
In Florida, another family of a Jewish man in captivity abroad had little to celebrate. Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared in Iran in 2007, where he is believed to still be held. Reports published in recent weeks revealed that Levinson, a private contractor, was in fact working on an unauthorized CIA mission in the Islamic Republic, but there is still no clue about his whereabouts.
The news about Levinson’s CIA mission, which has surfaced after years of government denials that Levinson was operating on its behalf, puts him in the same position as yet another Jewish prisoner abroad — Alan Gross, who has been serving a 15-year term in Cuba for work he was doing for the United States Agency for International Development.
While families and friends of both contractors share the view that their loved ones have been abandoned by the government that sent them on risky overseas missions, they differ in their approach to seeking help from the Jewish community. Meanwhile, the cases of Levinson, Gross, and Ostreicher have demonstrated the spectrum of difficult choices the organized Jewish community faces when trying to decide whether and how to intervene — or not.
Jewish activists and communal leaders have been the driving force behind vigils and protests demanding government action to help secure Gross’s return. But Levinson’s case, though similar in many aspects, did not become part of the Jewish communal agenda.
“There has not been any conversation with the family on a role for us in trying to win Mr. Levinson’s release,” said Eric Stillman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County in Florida, where the Levinsons reside. The family also did not reach out to local synagogues for help in bringing about Levinson’s release. Levinson’s wife and children are not Jewish and the family was not affiliated with Jewish communal institutions.
National Jewish organizations have avoided wading into the Levinson case. Several Jewish leaders contacted by the Forward refused to speak about the issue. And activists with a major organization explained that the Levinson family made clear it was not interested in highlighting his Jewish identity, for fear that it would complicate his situation in Iran, whose government is fiercely anti-Zionist and whose former president routinely expressed anti-Semitic views.
Levinson’s case was initially viewed as that of a contractor disregarding potential dangers in pursuit of a private criminal investigation. Levinson, 65, served for more than three decades at the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and later as an FBI agent, specializing in organized crime investigations and money laundering. After retiring from government service, Levinson worked as a private investigator. He disappeared on March 9, 2007 after visiting the island of Kish in Iran, supposedly for a cigarette smuggling investigation he’d been conducting.