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Ending the injustice that outlasted a father

Morris Pollard fought to free his son from prison until his death last June.

Morris Pollard
Photo by: University of Notre Dame
One of the most extraordinary people I ever met was Dr. Morris Pollard, who died last June at the age of 95. Morris was the father of Jonathan Pollard and it was through that connection that I had the privilege of knowing Morris for more than 20 years.

Over the past year, I have recited kaddish for Pollard. The prayer is said during synagogue services in merit of the departed, and under normal circumstances, it is done so by a son or other family member. 

As is often noted, the Kaddish prayer does not make even a single reference to death. In fact, the penultimate sentence of the prayer expresses the hope that God will bless us with life. Pollard, an internationally recognized scientist and cancer researcher, never took life's blessings for granted and gave meaning to it every day.

In World War II, while working under the commission of US Gen.George Marshall, Pollard investigated and tested vaccines for exotic viruses that were afflicting American soldiers in the Pacific. Working with these vaccines and viruses was fraught with potentially fatal health risks. Pollard was honored for his work with three presidential citations and an Army Commendation Medal.

For nearly 50 years, Pollard oversaw the University of Notre Dame's longest running medical research program that resulted in major discoveries in the battle against cancer. Pollard continued to work in his laboratory every day until a few weeks before his death. He was trying to spread the gift of life to countless beneficiaries, few of whom even knew his name. 

Pollard's life took a dramatic turn when Jonathan, a civilian analyst in naval intelligence, was arrested for passing classified information concerning third party Arab states to Israel. The information was of the type previously shared with Israel, but then cut off, ironically, in response to Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear facility. After the US government violated a written plea agreement with Jonathan, leading to  his receiving an unprecedented life sentence for spying on behalf of an American ally, the elder Pollard crisscrossed the country speaking in synagogues, community centers, editors’ offices and the halls of the US Congress. The Pollard case eventually became one of those rare issues on which there was near unanimity of opinion within the American Jewish community.

Indeed, the flagrant injustice in Pollard's life sentence was recognized and condemned by prominent Americans of all political leanings. For example in 1992, Pat Robertson, a conservative leader of the Christian Evangelical community and Robert Drinan, a Roman Catholic priest and former Democratic member of Congress, joined Pollard and Elie Wiesel on the podium at a Father's Day rally in New York, calling for Jonathan's freedom. Robertson referred to the Pollard case as the kind of "miscarriage of justice" that "will eat like a cancer at the credibility of the system of justice we love in this country."

A year later, Benjamin Hooks, a former judge and head of the NAACP, one of the oldest and most respected civil rights organizations in the United States, wrote about the Pollard affair in a letter to then-US president Bill Clinton, stating that he had "rarely encountered a case in which government arbitrariness was so clear cut and inexcusable.” And for a quarter of a century, continuing until just a few weeks prior to his death, Pollard was constantly focused on finding a remedy for the terrible injustice.

My regular phone conversations with Pollard were, to a certain extent, schizophrenic affairs.  Jonathan's presence in prison hung over every call. It was rare that we did not talk about the case. Pollard's pain, far from diminishing with the passage of time, only increased as the sense of injustice in Jonathan's imprisonment grew with each passing year. Notwithstanding the frequency of our conversations, I never dialed Pollard's number without feeling an extra weight. On the other hand, as the years wore on, the inspiration I received from Pollard also kept growing. He was getting older — 85, 90, 95 — and still, he continued researching, writing and lecturing at a world class level.  I would often ask Pollard how the rats in his lab were doing. And he would typically answer with the excitement and enthusiasm of a young researcher, "Oh, they're thriving!"

I remember well every time I was able to get together with Pollard: the strategy sessions and large rallies for Jonathan, when hope was in the air, and a wonderful visit, together with my whole family, one summer in Philadelphia.  And there was a most poignant visit with Jonathan at his prison cell in North Carolina together with his parents. The faces and expressions of Jonathan's mother and father during that visit, exhibiting tremendous burden coupled with amazing strength, will always be etched in my memory.

The last time I saw Pollard was when he came to Israel in November 2008 to advocate for Jonathan and attend a cancer conference in Jerusalem. He came by himself and was the last person off the plane. He was then 92 and while he didn't look his age, he seemed exhausted. I wondered how he would hold up. But the morning after his night-time arrival, he was already at the Knesset for a special session on the Pollard affair. The second day he met with Israel's chief rabbis and later with the country's ombudsman. The trip was very difficult for him, but typified his resoluteness. Whether in the eighth, ninth or tenth decade of his life, Pollard kept pushing himself and fought for Jonathan with all the strength and vigor he could muster.

My last collaborative effort with Pollard was an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post on the 25th anniversary of Jonathan's arrest, titled "Why Obama should commute this life sentence." Pollard was excited about the piece and hoped its acceptance signaled a recognition in Washington that it was time to bring the affair to a long, overdue end. Indeed, in the months following, many prominent public officials, including former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Henry Kissinger, George Shulz, Dan Quayle and John McCain, called on US President Barack Obama to commute Jonathan's sentence to the more than 25  years he had already served.

Last October, a bipartisan group of 18 former US senators — including four who served as Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and had access to all the classified documents in the Pollard case — jointly wrote to Obama urging him to commute Pollard's sentence to the 26 years served. They argued that this was "a matter of basic compassion and American justice." The abandonment of these values in his son’s case distressed Pollard till the day of his death.

Inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is the Biblical command that has inspired Americans for centuries: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof"  (Leviticus 25:10). When the Liberty Bell and other bells throughout the United States ring 13 times this coming July Fourth, their sound will be more genuine if Jonathan Pollard is also given liberty after more than 26 years in prison.

The writer is an attorney in Israel and New York and a member of the Likud’s central committee.
 



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