I never met Alan Gross. But on Monday night, when I gather with 700 other American Jews in Phoenix to celebrate the Passover Seder, his plight will be one of the hot-button issues, along with the post-mortem on Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast peace talks and Iran’s imminent nuclear breakout.
That’s because it is increasingly clear that Gross, an American, is caught in a no-man’s land between the U.S. and Havana, a hostage to the Cuban authorities’ desperate desire to free five of their freedom fighter/terrorists from U.S. custody.
Gross, 64, was not convicted of espionage, but of bringing computers and satellite phones paid for by a grant from a U.S. agency to a Jewish group serving the tiny Jewish community in the communist island nation 90 miles from Florida.
I learned of Gross’ plight in 2012 from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who used a very public meeting with 200 Jewish leaders at the State Department to denounce Havana for jailing him – while distancing the U.S. government from any responsibility to get him out!
“Try to help him,” Clinton told me.
My chance came two years ago, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Shoah Foundation were asked to prepare a permanent Holocaust exhibition for a synagogue in Havana.
From the moment I landed, I asked to see Gross. It never happened, but I did have a formal meeting with a government official who dealt with “religious” issues (including the visit of Pope Benedict XVI that took place a few weeks later).
I urged the Cubans to release Gross on humanitarian grounds. The official emphasized that Gross had “violated the law,” but he did not accuse him of being a spy or try to justify his draconian 15-year sentence.
Later, during an informal discussion with a well-informed Cuban, it became clear that one of the reasons they threw the book at Gross was because Alan Gross is a Jew. Not that he is being mistreated in jail because he is Jewish. To the contrary. But some Cubans were convinced that his value as a hostage went up because he was a Jew.
“Everyone knows that the Jews have a lot of clout in Washington,” this person told me somewhat sheepishly – so sentencing Gross to 15 years could be the key to win the freedom of their agents jailed in the U.S., the thinking went.
Well, I guess they never Googled Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew who, despite decades of protests from members of the Jewish community over the harshness of his sentence, is still in Federal Prison in North Carolina for spying for Israel 30 years later!
So, for now, Gross remains a prisoner of unfortunate circumstances and unrealistic expectations. I have no idea what it will take to win his release. He is reported to be on a hunger strike and has myriad medical issues. I can only hope the Obama administration will make his release a priority before further economic concessions are made to the Cuban regime.
Geopolitics aside, it is true that the mitzvah (good deed) of Pidyon Shvuim (ransoming Jewish hostages) is considered of great importance. Jewish law dictates that a community can sell its last holy Torah scroll to save the life of a fellow Jew.
So if Washington or Havana were to ask this rabbi (and they have not) how to solve the Gross quandary, here would be my simple game plan: Have President Castro release Gross on humanitarian grounds, and I am sure that an interfaith group of clergy, myself included, would undertake to bring much needed medicines to help Cubans in need .
In the meantime, I will be thinking of Alan Gross and his family while eating the bitter herbs at our Passover Seder, and saying a prayer he will soon be free.