I’ve been following the Alan Gross saga for the past two years now and have often felt alone. The story of the seemingly hapless technology expert who found himself jailed in Cuba for trying to help the miniscule Jewish community connect to the internet has never gotten much pickup among American Jews and has elicited only a handful of stories in the mainstream press.
I thought I wouldn’t hear more about Gross’s case until the day a deal was struck for his freedom — he was put on trial last March and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. And then an AP story came out this weekend providing more detail on what got Gross in hot water in the first place, based largely on his own reports of his five trips to Cuba in 2009.
The big revelation of the piece is the extent to which Gross knew he was engaged in, as he put it in one report, “very risky business.” He was bringing in a large number of sophisticated electronic devices like laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment in order to help set up uncensored wifi centers for Cuba’s Jews. And he was doing so in covert ways, including dividing up the equipment among his traveling companions, described in the article as unnamed “American Jewish humanitarian groups.”
In short, he was not the “trusting fool” he described himself to be in his trial, someone who was “duped” and “used.” The article strongly suggests that he was fully aware of the danger involved in what he was doing and took great risks to carry out his task, which still seems to have been the setting up of internet access for Cuban Jews — that part of the story has not changed.
How does this alter our understanding of the Gross case?
Usually when another blogger sufficiently channels my own anger about something that has me piqued, I tend to just try and let it go and give them the last word. And that was my first reaction this morning when I read, with increasing agitation, Jeffrey Goldberg’s post about a new Israeli ad campaign targeted at yordim, those ex-pat Israelis who have made their home in the States. He managed to capture the utter absurdity of its scare mongering approach. Even if you marry an American Jew, your children won’t know the difference between Chanukah and Christmas! They will never call you Aba! Goldberg also pointed out something that should have been apparent to the geniuses who came up with this idea: that these ads might just alienate American Jews a bit. And, also, if Israel is concerned about losing its citizens to the West — not an illegitimate concern — then maybe they could think of a more positive way of calling them back home than telling them they will be responsible for erasing the Jewish people.
I guess I’m not done.
You see, I am the child of yordim, the fearful spawn that the ads refer to, those “who will not remain Israeli.” And it’s more than a little offensive to see my entire Jewish (and, yes, Israeli) identity dismissed as irrelevant because of my parents’ decision to emigrate before I was born. Not only do I speak Hebrew fluently, know just a little bit about the Jewish holidays, and, yes, call my father “Aba” — but so does my two-year-old daughter!
Okay, I will come clean. In Daniel Gordis’s latest column for the Jerusalem Post, he writes about meeting “one of America’s leading Jewish journalists” whom he describes as “extraordinarily smart” and who cares a lot about Israel.
Imagine my surprise to read about myself. Not that I mind his characterization (thank you, Daniel!), but I mind having what I thought was a private conversation publicized without my knowledge or consent.
And it was a great conversation – for nearly two hours, Gordis spoke with me and Dan Friedman, the Forward’s arts and culture editor, about a range of topics, from his plans for expanding the Shalem Center, which he heads, to politics in Israel, to the challenge of raising children both here and there. He’s an interesting, articulate thinker, and while we don’t agree on certain key issues, he was a civil sparring partner.
The group released yesterday its own national survey of American Jews which reinforces the main findings of the Gallup poll — that Barack Obama still enjoys significant support among American Jews.
According to J Street’s poll, conducted by pollster Jim Gerstein, Obama has a 60% approval rating among Jews, a number consistent with previous polling done by the group. When faced off against potential Republican candidates Mitt Romney or Michelle Bachmann, Obama easily wins a large majority of Jewish votes.
The survey also dispelled claims that Jewish donors are turning away from Obama and the Democrats because of the president’s rocky relations with the Israeli government. A huge majority of those who made political contributions to Obama’s campaign in 2008 intend to do so again, just as a similar majority of Jews who gave money to John McCain in ’08 will contribute to the Republican candidate in this election cycle.
But not all is rosy for Obama with Jewish voters. The poll found that a majority of American Jews (56%) disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Arab–Israeli conflict. But despite this number, still a large majority of the American Jewish community, based on this poll, will vote Obama in 2012. According to Gerstein, this finding proves what Jewish Democrats have been saying all along — Israel is not a deciding factor for American Jewish voters.
A new Gallup Poll out today confirms that President Obama’s strong Jewish support has not evaporated following his May 19 speech on the Middle East. In fact, it hasn’t moved a bit. Sixty percent of Jews approved of Obama’s job in June, while 32 percent disapproved. In a poll of the general public, Obama gets a 46 percent approval in June. That fourteen percentage point spread between the general public and American Jews is, according to Gallup, “identical to the average gap seen over the past two and a half years.”
Now I say that this confirms what we already knew because our June 29 story, “Despite Tension, Obama Wooing Jewish Donors,” by Washington correspondent, Nathan Guttman, made it clear that there had been no exodus of Jewish voters and that whatever dust the speech kicked up had settled. Here’s the lead:
It may be early in the presidential election cycle, but President Obama’s newly established re-election campaign is moving quickly to address Jewish concerns following the president’s clash in May with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
So far, despite the fireworks between the two leaders, the Democrats are pleased with the results of their approach. Based on their own internal polling and on lessons from the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats believe that the issue of Israel will not play out significantly with Jewish voters. And pointing to a glitzy pro-Israel Washington donor event with Obama held on June 20 that raised more than $1.5 million, supporters of the president believe that the important constituency of Jewish donors is safe.
Oy, the perils of random telephone dialing, one of the tried and true methods of accurately measuring population trends. Sometimes, you hear the most unexpected replies.
“We have 50 women all married to the same Jew,” said the respondent who answered the phone in St. Petersburg, Fla., during a demographic survey. What?!
“We had called a convent,” explained Ira Sheskin, a national demographer who presented a comprehensive look at recent trends in the American Jewish community this morning at the American Jewish Press Association conference in Dallas. Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami, helped create the National Jewish Population Survey in 1990 and 2000, and has researched the makeup of dozens of Jewish communities across the nation.
Funny anecdotes aside, the absence of the NJPS since 2000 has meant demographers who try to paint a picture of the American Jewish community today have had to rely on multiple sets of data.
Sheskin says the research shows there are between 6 million and 6.4 million Jews living in America today, representing about 2.1 percent of the U.S. population. But no one knows the exact number.
He believes there has been relatively little change in the number since the 2000 NJPS, which found 5.2 million American Jews. Sheskin thinks this figure may have been too low, and that 6 million to 6.4 million Jews is most likely the correct number today, which is about the same over the last decade.