Jews Held Abroad Win Very Different Reactions at Home

Freedom for Ostreicher — Others Jailed With Little Sign of Hope


By Nathan Guttman

Published December 26, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

Kidnapped Jewish Aid Worker Warren Weinstein Pleads on Video for Help

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.