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.
The United States government reached the conclusion that he had been arrested by Iranian intelligence forces, but Tehran has repeatedly denied that it was holding him or had any knowledge of his location.
The Associated Press’s December 12 revelation that Levinson was, in fact, working for the CIA, shed startling new light on the case.
He was on a mission, the AP reported, to investigate financial issues relating to the Iranian regime and was sent there by a CIA analyst who was unauthorized to deploy agents on overseas spying missions.
In Kish, Levinson met with Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for the 1980 killing of an Iranian diplomat in the United States. Levinson disappeared shortly after the meeting. He is now the longest-held American whose capture appears to be connected to work he was doing for the United States government. According to the report, the Levinson family received $2.5 million from the CIA to avoid a lawsuit.
The family, however, still points to the government as being responsible for “abandoning” Levinson in Iran. A spokesman for the Levinson family did not respond to questions from the Forward regarding the case.
Even after it was revealed that Levinson was working for the U.S government in its efforts to curtail the Iranian regime, the Jewish community maintained its distance from the case. An official from a large Jewish organization, who was not authorized to speak on record, said it was “widely understood that our involvement will not help” in advancing Levinson’s release.
In Gross’s case, the mobilization, at least of the local Washington community, was full and continues to provide a significant advocacy voice and support network for the family. It makes a difference, no doubt, that the communist government in Havana, whatever its shortcomings, has no history of anti-Semitism. It has, indeed, maintained quiet, if unofficial relations with Israel for several decades. Jewish groups have not voiced any fear that public knowledge of Gross’s Jewishness could put him in any greater jeopardy.
In addition to all this, Gross was imprisoned by Cuba on charges that he sought to undermine the government by illegally providing the organized Jewish community in Cuba with banned or restricted electronic equipment under a federally funded program that aims to undermine the regime. The equipment would purportedly have enabled community members to evade pervasive government monitoring when accessing the Internet.
For Ostreicher, a Brooklyn entrepreneur, it was mainly the New York Orthodox community that took on his case, while the broader Jewish community remained on the sidelines. Many have seen it as a purely private tragedy that involved unscrupulous local business partners in a local rice-growing enterprise in which Ostreicher had invested. His partners allegedly engaged in fraud and bribery to rob Ostreicher of his investment and get him arrested. But Ostreicher himself has stated that the case does not appear to have involved anti-Semitism — a factor that often trips off communal involvement.
One famous figure who did get involved was Hollywood film actor Sean Penn. A personal friend of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Penn lobbied Morales on Ostreicher’s behalf in October 2012. Penn’s lobbying persuaded Bolivian authorities to release Ostreicher from prison, where he’d been kept since June 2011, and place him under house arrest, from which he reportedly escaped on December 13 to make his way home.
Warren Weinstein is another Jewish American in captivity. An aid worker operating in Pakistan, Weinstein was abducted by Al Qaeda terrorists in 2011 and is believed to be held in Afghanistan. His case was largely ignored by the Jewish community until he made a public appeal in September 2012 to his wife to engage the Jewish community in his struggle for freedom.
“Please make as many contacts as you can with Jewish communities in the United States in order to put pressure on the American government, on President Obama, to work with and accept the demands of the mujahedeen,” he said in a video message sent by his captors.
Jewish organizations would not respond to questions about Weinstein’s request, but several officials in leading groups said that there has been no change in policy regarding Weinstein after his appeal, and that Jewish organizations still believe there is no room for a public campaign. One official, however, noted that it could be possible that Jewish leaders have raised the issue of Weinstein’s fate in private meetings with American and international leaders.
The usefulness of organized Jewish involvement, or the community’s apparent decision to avoid such involvement, has yet to be determined in each of these cases. Communal mobilization on behalf of Gross has not led thus far to any results. More recently, the absence of any visible action on behalf of Weinstein and Levinson has done little to help their situations.
As for Ostreicher, communal support, albeit limited largely to Orthdox circles, assisted in raising awareness of his case, as did the involvement of members of Congress and of Penn. But ultimately it was an internal Bolivian investigation that led to the weakening of the legal case against Ostreicher, allowing his move to house arrest and eventual escape back to the United States.
Jews Held Abroad Win Very Different Reactions at Home
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.