The Baltimore Jewish Council’s annual meeting was packed with political stars from the Jewish community including Sen. Ben Cardin and Alan Gross, the government contractor who spent five years in a Cuban prison before being released in December.
Gross, who lives in Rockville, opened his remarks by telling the crowd that he had lived in Baltimore between 1959 and 1967 and had several family members who were married at Beth El Congregation, where the council’s June 4 meeting took place.
“Since I’ve been home, so many people have come up to me,” he said.
His tone became humble as he thanked a number of people who were instrumental to his release: President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Sen. Cardin, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Gross’s wife, Judith.
“They stood up for me, supported me, and I will always stand up for them,” he said.
Gross didn’t discuss the details of his time in prison but said when he boarded Air Force One on Dec. 17, he was asked what he would like his first meal to be as a free man, to which he replied, “a corned beef sandwich and latkes.”
Ultimately, Gross said, he believes it was a grassroots movement that led to his release.
“I had to ask myself what ultimately tipped the scales in the right direction,” Gross said. “What ultimately enabled the president to make such a historic decision? The answer: Everyone.”
Cardin took the floor and discussed a variety of topics that included foreign and domestic policy toward Israel as well as the pending Iran nuclear deal.
He expressed concern over the decade-old boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which has made its way on to 300 college campuses in the United States.
“They are trying to bring Israel down,” he said. “That’s what BDS does.”
Cardin said he believes the Palestinians have tried to take a course that involves getting the support of several third parties, and he cautioned against relying on the United Nations to broker a deal between the two groups.
“We know the two-state solution is the only way we can go forward,” said Cardin.
He said that the relationship between the United States and Israel is “much stronger” than many have made it out to be lately. He said he found statements between Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “regrettable.”
Cardin believes the United States is the only country that will stand with Israel on these issues. He noted that he and Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman introduced the United States-Israel Trade Enhancement Act of 2015, which requires trade negotiators to include anti-BDS trade provisions with Europe.
Cardin, a Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then turned his focus to the recent negotiations over framework for an Iran nuclear deal, which he helped craft in April with Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the committee.
“The circumstances are at a crisis level,” Cardin said of the Middle East. “We have countries that are no longer countries.”
Cardin noted several principles that he hopes will be implemented to help bring order to the region, the first of which, he said, is U.S. leadership.
“No other country but the United States can bring any sense of order to the Middle East,” Cardin said. “The Sunnis and Shias can’t talk with each other.”
Cardin also discussed the lead-up to the Iran nuclear deal framework that began April 2 and lasted about two weeks. Though he was concerned about a potential stalemate between the administration and Congress, Cardin lauded Obama for putting pressure on Congress by laying down a veto threat to the bill.
Details for the agreement should be finalized by the end of the month, he said. However, he said he remains concerned because Iran has not complied with the terms of the interim Joint Plan of Action that was signed in November 2013.
“It’s absolutely essential to have an effective agreement,” he said, “[and] we must be able to inspect in Iran anywhere we think they’re cheating.”
Added Cardin, “Let’s never make the support of Israel a partisan wedge issue in American politics. There are enough issues that American Jews can disagree on, but Israel should be off limits.”