Thankfully – finally – the effort to secure Jonathan Pollard’s freedom is heating up, a full quarter-century after he was put in prison. The government is poised to officially petition the US president for Pollard’s release. American dignitaries, from congressmen to former CIA directors to Justice Department officials, are speaking out and saying that Pollard’s punishment no longer fits his crime. And Jewish organizations are sending the message that any further incarceration is beyond all reason, and could only smack of anti-Semitism. The word on the Jewish street is “Let Jonathan go – now!”
But it wasn’t always this way.
On June 4, 1986, Jonathan Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. The classified documents which Pollard transferred to Israel included details of Arab nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities being developed along with information on their ballistic missile development.
Pollard agreed to a plea-bargain with the US government, and prosecutors asked only for a “substantial number of years in prison.”
However, Judge Aubrey Robinson – who was not legally bound by the plea agreement – imposed a life sentence, rather than the median term of four years given to those spying for friendly countries. The judge was apparently swayed by a classified 46-page memorandum handed to him shortly before sentencing by secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. The details of that memorandum have never been made public, but after the last-ditch pitch by Weinberger, Pollard didn’t stand a ghost of a chance.
With the specter of “dual-loyalty” charges hanging heavily in the air, the Jewish world recoiled in fear and trepidation. Positive that any outcry on Pollard’s behalf would call into question their allegiance to America, Jews backed off and suppressed their usual activism. The Israeli government, too, was scared stiff of losing US funding and support, and reacted in kind. It proclaimed that the Pollard affair was a “rogue, unauthorized” operation, downplaying the importance of the information it had requested and received from Pollard. It would be 10 years before the country would finally take responsibility, first by granting Pollard citizenship, and then by admitting, in 1998, that he was a bona fide Israeli agent.
SHORTLY AFTER Pollard began his life sentence, I wrote an article in a Dallas paper questioning both the fairness of his maximum sentence, and the wall of silence that had been erected around it by the Jewish community. The next day I received a phone call from Jonathan’s father, Morris Pollard, a professor of biological sciences at Indiana’s Notre Dame University. He had seen the article, and asked if I would be willing to host him at my synagogue so that he might speak to the community at large about his son’s situation. He felt totally abandoned by both his government – which he felt had reneged on the pre-trial agreement and was now keeping Jonathan in solitary confinement – and his people, who were totally unwilling to hear his side of the story. I immediately agreed to his request, and he and his late wife, Molly, flew to Texas from Indiana and joined us at our home for three days.
Almost immediately, as word spread that Dr. Pollard would be speaking, I began to receive threats, vociferous as well as veiled, that I would be “punished and ostracized” if I gave him a platform. I even received a death threat in the mail, which I turned over to the Dallas police. My synagogue was put under tremendous pressure to cancel the event but, to its eternal credit, refused to buckle under. Several hundred people turned out for the talk – held under heavy security – as Dr. Pollard painfully but eloquently presented his case.
The next day, I tried mightily to schedule a meeting between him and the leaders of the Jewish community, who had been quite noticeable in their absence at the previous evening’s gathering, but got nowhere. The Jewish federation, apparently on orders from the national leadership, would not hear of it. A colleague of mine, who headed the federation’s Israel committee and was in favor of such a meeting, was told in no uncertain language that any meeting with Dr. Pollard would be his last as committee chairman.
Frustrated, I paid a visit to the rabbi of Dallas’s Reform temple, the second-largest Reform congregation in the US – and one that included numerous “heavy hitters” whose support kept the federation solvent. I asked him if it was not true that the Reform movement prided itself on freedom of speech and the tolerance of opinions that sometimes differed from the Jewish establishment. With no small amount of courage, he placed calls to his entire board of directors and informed them that a special meeting of the membership would be held the next night, with Dr. Pollard as the guest speaker, and that he expected them to attend. He also called the federation director – in my presence – and advised him that his attendance – or lack thereof – would be duly noted.
And so Dr. Pollard was able to plead his cause before at least one Jewish community.
It took years before other American Jewish organizations followed suit
and opened up to the Pollard case. With few exceptions – the Young
Israel movement and Rabbi Pesach Lerner chief among them – no one wanted
to go near this issue. It was only as Pollard’s sentence dragged on –
his appeals failing, his prison conditions worsening, his health
deteriorating – that the call to commute his sentence to time already
served gained momentum.
Statements by celebrated attorney Alan Dershowitz that a travesty of
justice was now at work, and by New York Sen. Charles Schumer that
nothing in Pollard’s file justified denying him clemency, helped to
arouse the public and lend legitimacy to assisting him in his plight.
But I suggest that this whole sordid saga says volumes not just about
justice – or the lack of it – but about the overall state of Diaspora
With all of our myriad accomplishments and contributions to Western
society, for all of our Herculean advances in the economic, social and
political arenas of America, we still are meek as a puppy and timid as a
toddler when it comes to bucking the system and speaking up for what we
believe – when it conflicts with the opinion of Big Daddy.
We still, deep down, fear that we are a foreign entity, a fifth column, a
tolerated guest rather than a full-fledged citizen, and that any
sectarian sentiment voiced too loud will result in a backlash of
anti-Semitism and our being charged with treason, right along with
Jonathan Pollard. Maybe it is the fear that we will discover that the
American experiment has not succeeded as well as we hoped it would, and
that Israel remains, after all, the only authentic home for the Jewish
THE POLITICIAN who arguably has fought the hardest for Pollard is Binyamin Netanyahu.
Years ago, at that same Dallas synagogue where Dr. Pollard spoke, we
hosted Bibi. After a rousing speech, in the question-and-answer period,
my wife asked him what he was doing to help Jonathan. He deftly
side-stepped the question and merely said that he was working behind the
Later, at the reception, I formally introduced him to Susie. “You asked a
good question back there,” he told her. “Then why didn’t you give a
good answer?” she shot back. “Because I am a good politician!” he
It’s time for all of us to stop being just good politicians. It’s time
to also be good Jews, and remove a blight not only on the American
justice system, but on our own sense of Jewish pride. It’s time to bring
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. firstname.lastname@example.org