Israel is abuzz with allegations of American bad faith in continuing to imprison
convicted spy Jonathan Pollard despite the fact that recent disclosures have
revealed that the US itself has snooped on many friendly countries for
A November 10 Jerusalem Post editorial described the situation as
“an egregious double standard and a stunning example of American
In Commentary Magazine, Jonathan S. Tobin charged that the
use of the Pollard case “to demonize Israel or to claim that the Jewish state
behaved in a manner unbecoming an ally is undermined by the revelations about
the United States’ own considerable efforts to snoop on its friends.”
Pollard’s wife Esther complained to the Post that US President Barack Obama
wouldn’t free Pollard even as he participated in the traditional presidential
ritual of pardoning turkeys on Thanksgiving. She found it objectionable that
Obama would show “compassion and mercy to two lowly barnyard birds again this
year, granting them a full pardon and sparing their lives” without showing her
husband the same benevolence.
For over 28 years, Jonathan Pollard has
been serving a life sentence in American prisons for passing classified
information to Israel. He is currently in poor health. Obama received a petition
for executive clemency in October 2010, and has not acted upon it.
suspect the US refusal to grant clemency to Pollard is evidence Obama holds
anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or even anti-Semitic sentiments.
The problem is something else entirely: Obama hardly pardons
So far, Obama has granted only 40 pardons and commutations,
mostly for minor offenses (and none relating to convictions of more than five
years). In fact, he offered exactly zero commutations for the first three years
after his election. In toto, no more than two percent of pardon applications are
treated favorably by his administration. (Ronald Reagan’s figure was 20%.) And
Obama’s only pardon in all of last year? Another Thanksgiving turkey.
contrast, George W. Bush extended clemency to 200 people, and Bill Clinton did
so for 459 people. No president in a century has been as stingy with mercy as
The president’s unlimited pardoning power, which is ensconced in
the American Constitution, exists to correct excessive sentences and show
compassion to repentant convicts. Pollard is hardly the only one deserving the
president’s compassionate treatment. Perhaps most egregiously, thousands of men
and women currently serve inhumanly long sentences for non-violent drug
With an African-American president, and an African-American
attorney general, the Obama administration should actually be extra sensitive to
the injustices of the American penal system. Nearly 40% of incarcerated
Americans are black.
Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe Obama doesn’t
want to be pigeonholed as a black liberal softie when it comes to crime. Do we
really have to wait for a Republican president who’s willing to have a
“Nixon-goes-to-China” moment to fix the insane reluctance to pardon deserving
convicts? My recommendation to those concerned with Pollard’s plight is as
follows: Make allies. Work together with African-American, prison reform, drug
policy and other groups that would like to see the pardon spigot
No amount of pleading from Netanyahu, linkage with
Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, hunger strikes, demonstrations, or petitions
from American congressmen is going to make a whit of difference with a president
who has never commuted a life sentence for anyone and doesn’t appear open to
changing his policy.
We’ve agitated, correctly, for a “pardon for
Pollard.” But we’ve been focusing on issues related to Pollard when we should
have been looking at the pardon power itself. It’s not too late to change
strategies.The author made aliyah in 2010. He teaches Hebrew at a
yeshiva in Jerusalem, and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle.
He can be reached at DavidBenkof@ gmail.com.
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