On a short but interesting trip to Los Angeles last week, I read the latest issue of the Jewish Journal, the city’s estimable community newspaper. The in-depth investigative cover story, “The forgotten man” by Jared Sichel, focused on a subject of my daily prayers: Alan Gross, and the hope he will be freed.
Gross is an American Jew from Maryland who has been in a Cuban prison for five years. He was dispatched to Cuba by Development Alternatives, on assignment as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to set up high-powered Internet connections for Cuba’s Jewish community.
Such a sophisticated system bypasses Cuba’s strict censorship, and is therefore illegal. The island may be close to the US, but it remains a political entity left over from the Cold War, one of those dark places where citizens live without free Internet access – certainly a hallmark of freedom in 2014.
Gross, 65, was convicted of espionage.
He is breaking from the strain. He publicly vowed to leave the prison this year, if not alive, then dead. According to reports, he has lost 100 pounds, is going blind in one eye and has trouble walking.
Since his incarceration, his mother died of cancer and one of his daughters was diagnosed with cancer. He has recently been refusing visitors.
Sichel’s evaluation of Gross’s chances leaves me discouraged. He implies that the muscular lobby of former Cubans in the US who oppose American negotiation with the island state will block compromise on the part of the US. The Cuban government is unlikely to make a humanitarian gesture, and is waiting for the US to offer to free one or more of the three convicted Cuban spies arrested in Florida in 1998.
Impressive campaigns to free Gross haven’t worked. A letter from 66 US senators and a letter with 11,000 signatures to the White House, and a weekly vigil by Washington-area Jewish activists, haven’t yielded results. Two weeks ago Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Bethesda, Maryland, returned from a two-day trip to Cuba as part of a three-member joint delegation of American religious leaders that participated in meetings with high-level Cuban officials to free Gross, hoping to bring him back home to Maryland with them. It didn’t happen.
Jonathan Pollard must be Gross’s nightmare. Pollard has just entered the 30th year of an unprecedented life sentence for passing classified material to a neutral or friendly country. Despite the expression of top American security and political officials that Pollard has more than paid for his crime and the international support for his release, Pollard is deteriorating in prison in the United States of America with the most politically active Jewish community in the Diaspora.
Nothing has been able to convince the government that Pollard should be freed.
Sichel writes most poignantly: “Gross was not an obvious choice for the mission: He was a late-middle-aged technology expert, a humanitarian and a family man doing a risky job in a hostile country that ought to have required someone fluent in Spanish, which Gross was not, and experienced in covert – or at least discreet – fieldwork, which he also was not. In fact, it appears Gross received little, if any, training from USAID before traveling to Cuba carrying specialized mobile phone chips, SIM cards, satellite phones, wireless access points and large qualities of other modern information devices that, as Gross said in a May 2012 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, could be bought in any Best Buy in America but are seen as a threat to state security in Cuba.”
Nonetheless, if you read comprehensively in other Jewish media coverage, there is a less sympathetic theme which suggests that Gross understood the risks and willingly took them – and hence, is a less sympathetic focus of protest, particularly for the Jewish community that didn’t send him.
Just the opposite is true. Recognizing a potential risk and still being willing to take it in the cause of freedom seems to be a laudable act, particularly when his focus was the Jewish community. Just think back to the good people with no special training – many of them among you, dear readers – who brought contraband Jewish texts in Hebrew and in Russian translation into the Soviet Union when exploring Judaism was a crime.
Maybe Soviet leadership understood where this was going, that the demands of Jews for education and aliya permits would play an important part in toppling the Soviet Union.
The small Jewish community in Cuba today receives dozens of visits every year from Jewish groups, bearing vitamins and letters from friends abroad. Like their fellow Cubans, they live in a poor country. Religious activity isn’t prohibited.
Yet like the others, they live with repression and censorship.
The gloomy article about Gross resonated for me, not only because of my daily prayers for him, but because my husband (scientist/writer Gerald Schroeder) and I were in California as the guests of Christian educators who work covertly in much of the world. Who would have thought the world would become so difficult for Christians? Our hosts are dedicated educators who train teachers and export curricula to beleaguered Christian communities around the world. I can’t mention their names because they have to stay beneath the radar, particularly because they are strong supporters of Israel. As they describe their schools in far-flung communities and the risks they take vis-à-vis governments and other hostile groups who want to repress their religious beliefs, I am stunned by their courage. They have millions of followers underground in China, in Vietnam and behind the “Burka Curtain.”
If you meet our hosts, they’ll seem like an average middle-aged couple juggling family and career, getting ready for Thanksgiving. You’d never guess they have escaped al-Qaida in Nigeria, or hidden in Saudi Arabia. Our hostess keeps an earthquake preparation kit in the trunk of her car because she lives in California, and a burka in her travel bag because she’s bringing educational materials and teaching to lands where exposing your neck is dangerous in every sense of the word.
They travel constantly – our host had to leave us to attend a graduation ceremony in Samoa – to bring faith, literacy, health care and sustainability to remote communities. A major component of their curriculum is videotaped, and the Internet is an invaluable tool in reaching the most isolated or repressive areas.
They see their support for Israel as part of a fight for freedom, and assure me their constituents around the world feel exactly the same.
Frankly, it’s humbling to be in their company – as I’m sure it would be with Alan Gross.
If we’re not brave enough to take these risks, we should at the very least offer those who are – particularly those in captivity – our prayers and support, through our governments and political associations.
Despots will always fear those who offer freedom through education and free press – and they should. The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.