A plea for Pollard

The story of a life-saving letter that was spurned.

Jonathan and Esther Pollard outside the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jonathan and Esther Pollard outside the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York City
(photo credit: REUTERS)

It was April, 2015. Jonathan Pollard was set to face his 30-year-mark mandatory parole hearing in less than four months. After receiving a resounding refusal at his first voluntary parole hearing a year earlier – a refusal that was based entirely on what would later be described by senior government officials as lies and unsubstantiated allegations – it was clear to everyone on the Pollard team that it would take a miracle for Jonathan to be released on parole.
Pollard had already served nearly 30 years of a life sentence that had broadly been decried by knowledgeable American officials as “grossly disproportionate,” after he pleaded guilty to one count of passing classified information to an ally, Israel, without intent to harm the United States. His 30 years in prison were served in some of America’s harshest prisons and included seven years in solitary confinement.
The information Pollard gave the Israelis was not about America; it was vital information about Israel’s sworn enemies that America was legally required to share with Israel. But the United States chose instead to deny the information to the Jewish state as part of an undeclared intelligence embargo.
The information that was withheld from Israel included Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare capabilities – all being developed specifically for use against Israel. It also included information on ballistic missile development by these countries and information on planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets.
No one else in the history of the United States has ever received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally – only Jonathan Pollard. [The median sentence for this offense is two to four years.] Even agents who have committed far more serious offenses on behalf of enemy nations have not received such a harsh sentence.
His wife, Esther Pollard, led a decades-long indefatigable battle to try to gain his freedom. Joined by a small group of committed activists, including Pollard’s pro-bono attorneys Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, and noted askan Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the “Pollard Team” refused to give up.
With the passage of years, Mrs. Pollard and her activist team worked tirelessly at reaching out to and mobilizing an ever-growing list of prominent former American government officials with first-hand knowledge of the details of the case. These officials lent their voices to the demand for an end to what they described as a travesty of justice. On numerous occasions, hopes were raised that this heartwrenching saga – which includes blatantly broken promises by American officials and cruel, unprecedented betrayal by the Israeli government – would come to an end, only to be bitterly dashed.
In point of fact, legally Pollard had been eligible to request a parole hearing after 10 years in prison, but, upon the advice of leading post-conviction experts, he never requested one. The experts saw a parole request as a “poison pill” – not only did he not have any chance of gaining early release on parole, they pointed out, but the rejection would greatly weaken any chance of receiving a presidential commutation, which the experts saw as Pollard’s only realistic hope of freedom.
At the time of Pollard’s sentencing, federal law defined “life imprisonment” as 45 years, with a mandatory parole hearing after two-thirds, or 30 years, of the time served.
In December of 2013, during President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, Obama indicated that, while he was not ready to grant clemency, he promised publicly that if Pollard applied for parole, he would be treated fairly. Reading this public assurance by the president as a positive sign, and also desiring to “test the waters,” Pollard submitted a parole application, and a hearing was held in August 2014.
If the Pollard team had any illusions that the Department of Justice’s unprincipled, baseless and relentless animosity toward him had cooled over three decades, it was shattered at that 2014 hearing. In what would later be described by official observers as a “kangaroo court,” the DoJ attorneys strongly opposed his release and Pollard’s first-ever parole request was denied.
For many years, the Bureau of Prisons website had listed a projected release date for Pollard of November 21, 2015. Many took this to be a guaranteed release date.
It was not. It was simply a presumptive date for a mandatory parole hearing that year. This hearing is compulsory and not indicative of whether or not any release will occur.
In early 2015, with Pollard’s mandatory parole hearing just a few months away in July, his team was getting every indication that the government would once again strongly oppose his release before the Parole Commission.
Since the inception of the English-language Hamodia, the publication had been at the forefront of Jewish media efforts to disseminate Pollard’s plight. Hamodia publisher Ruth Lichtenstein had visited Pollard in prison, and had written and encouraged her staff to do all they could to be of help.
Over the years, Rabbi Avraham Y. Heschel, an editor at Hamodia and columnist for Inyan magazine, had written a number of editorials and op-eds regarding the Pollard case. He had become close with Rabbi Pesach Lerner, then Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, and currently President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, who had been the biggest public champion – other than Mrs. Pollard – of Pollard’s cause.
With the date of the parole hearing drawing closer, the sense of urgency increased exponentially.
Mrs. Pollard believed that Jonathan and all of Jonathan’s closest associates felt strongly that his best chance at freedom remained through a presidential commutation of his life sentence to the 30 years he had already served.
Enormous efforts had been made to try to convince Obama – as well as his predecessors – to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served, but to no avail.
One route that had not been sufficiently explored, Mrs. Pollard pointed out, and which Jonathan and his closest associates agreed upon, was a concerted effort to enlist Senator Charles Schumer [D-NY] in Jonathan’s fight for freedom.
Schumer was set to take over the Democratic Senate leadership position in the next Congress and had the ear of the president.
In 1993, then-Rep. Schumer had written a letter to President Bill Clinton, stating that “the lifetime sentence imposed on Mr. Pollard is unduly severe and inconsistent with the sentences awarded to other Americans convicted of similar offenses,” and asking that the president “consider commutation of Jonathan’s sentence to a term appropriate to the nature of the offense for which he was convicted and more accurately reflective of the consequences of his crime.”
Six years later, Schumer had written constituents who sent him letters about Pollard, that he believed the sentence was “harsher than sentences meted out to individuals convicted of spying for enemy nations” and that he was “heartened by President Clinton’s promise to review the Pollard case.”
But in the 16 years since that letter, as the 2015 hearing neared, nary a word was heard from Schumer about the Pollard case. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t been approached.
One member of the extended Pollard team, who asked not to be named, said that “Senator Schumer would make appointments but not keep them. Pollard advocates would come in the front door, and Schumer would duck out the back door.
“Even those to whom he owed a political debt of gratitude for funding tried, but he shunned them the minute he heard it was about Pollard. We knew that the only way he would be brought to heel was if there was a very strong public campaign impossible for him to ignore.”
Esther Pollard recommended that a public campaign should be launched to enlist Schumer to intervene with Obama – either that he grant a commutation, or at the very least, that the government should not oppose Pollard’s being granted parole.
It was then that Rabbi Heschel proposed the idea of getting dozens of New York Rabbis, Yeshivah heads and Rebbes to sign a letter to Schumer, asking him to make the request of Obama. Mrs. Pollard was intrigued with the idea, but said that the final decision was, as always, Jonathan’s. She relayed the idea to her husband, and he liked the idea very much and immediately gave his blessing to proceed with the initiative.
Mrs. Pollard felt it would be helpful to include in the entreaty to Schumer quotes from a letter written by eight former government officials in the intelligence and national security fields to Obama the previous November [2014], decrying the denial of parole to Pollard following the hearing in August [2015]. That letter had addressed, and strongly condemned, the Commission’s claim that Mr. Pollard’s espionage “was the greatest compromise of US security to that date.”
“Yet it was this fiction,” wrote the officials in their letter to Mr. Obama, “that the Parole Commission cited to deny parole.”
Mrs. Pollard, after consulting with her husband and his attorneys, wrote the letter for the rabbis to sign.
“Senator Schumer,” read the letter, “we… turn to you as the last avenue of hope in securing a modicum of justice for Mr. Pollard.... You are in the unique position of being able to do what no one else has or can, to bring this travesty of justice to an immediate end and ensure that Jonathan Pollard is set free and reunited with his wife.”
The letter asks Schumer “to do whatever is necessary via a bipartisan initiative to secure Pollard’s immediate release legislatively. We are aware that there are many forms that this critical initiative could take and any number of possible legislative solutions that you and your colleagues in the House may prefer. We leave the details to your discretion.”
By the time the effort actually got underway, it was less than three months until the parole hearing. Obtaining the dozens of signatures they were hoping for would not be easy. The rabbis had very busy schedules, and getting appointments could take some time. Many, for various reasons, did not sign letters at all. But Heschel and Lerner set out, at the frenetic pace this task would require, to acquire the necessary signatures.
The goal was to have as many New York Jewish communities as possible involved in this letter. Lerner had built close connections with many rabbis while at the National Council of Young Israel; in addition, his late father-in-law, Reb. Sidney Greenwald, had forged close relationships with many congregations. Heschel, as the son and grandson of Kopyczynitzer Rebbes, had close connections with many of the rabbis as well.
Lichtenstein also expressed her strong support for the idea, and was of great assistance throughout the effort, making connections and giving important advice.
One of the earliest meetings Rabbis Lerner and Heschel had was with Rabbi Mayer Yosef Rubin, the Rachmastrivka Dayan, with whom Heschel has a close relationship. Lerner, in turn, is close with Rabbi Rubin’s father,the Sulitza Rebbe, and is an integral part of the Sulizta Beis Medrash.
“That meeting was an extremely constructive one, and really gave our project the impetus we needed,” Heschel recalls. “The Dayan was extremely supportive, and immediately offered his assistance.”
While some rabbis had a policy of never signing letters, it was hoped they’d allow designated representatives to do so in specific instances. The goal was to have the rabbi, or authorized representative, of as many well-known communities as possible sign the letter.
Rabbi Rubin and Rabbi Heschel arranged a meeting with a son of the elderly Skulener Rebbe, who promptly agreed to ask his father to sign the letter.
Within days, the Rebbe signed the letter and offered a warm blessing, and asked for Pollard’s Hebrew name, so that he could pray for his freedom.
Rabbi Heschel reached out to Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel for help in obtaining signatures of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah [Council of Torah Sages].
Years earlier, Rabbi Zwiebel had written an article in the Middle East Quarterly about the Pollard case, and he had been one of the lawyers on an amicus brief submitted in support of Pollard’s 1991 appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In his current role as Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, Zwiebel, at the direction of the Council, had encouraged everyone to write letters and call the White House on Pollard’s behalf.
Now, when Heschel reached out to him, Zwiebel contacted all six Council members who lived in New York. They all agreed to participate, Rabbis Heschel and Lerner soon made the rounds to their respective houses, and each of them affixed his signature to the letter.
Lerner and Heschel then traveled to Monsey to visit the then-Vizhnitzer Rav [current Vizhnitzer Rebbe], Rabbi Yisrael Hager. The Rav graciously welcomed them and expressed much interest in the Pollard case. He was also delighted to meet Lerner because of his friendship with Reb. Greenwald, his father-in-law. The two left a copy of the letter for the Rav to read.
Soon afterward, the Rav’s older brother, Rabbi Pinchus Shulem Hager [the Rav of Vizhnitz Boro Park] died. Rabbis Lerner and Heschel went to visit the Rav during the shiva, the weeklong period of Jewish mourning. The Rav himself brought up the topic of the Pollard letter. And right after shiva, he signed it, and personally called Rabbi Heschel to inform him that it was ready to be picked up.
“I was impressed with the care and concern that all these rabbis and yeshiva heads showed for the Jonathan Pollard cause,” said Lerner. “Some knew more, some knew less; some asked more questions, some asked less, but everybody was concerned for this Yid. That came out very strongly throughout this process. Everybody found time in their busy schedules. Whether we went to beit midrash, homes and yeshivot, everyone found the time to meet with us. The importance that they gave to the issue, and the brachot and the prayers were impressive and memorable.”
While Heschel and Lerner were going around obtaining signatures in those frantic days of Spring 2015, Esther Pollard – who was based in Israel – spent her time, as always, running the day-to-day business of the case on her husband’s behalf, and also praying daily at the Western Wall and at the graves of the Tzadikim [Righteous], while also orchestrating worldwide efforts to free Pollard.
Among her other duties, she kept close track of the efforts, giving content updates to her husband in prison.
Heschel and Lerner continued making the rounds. They visited the Skverer Rebbe, who gave his blessing and instructed that Rabbi Yosef Yisrael Eisenberger, the Dayan of New Square, sign the letter. With the assistance of Rabbi Baruch Rubin, another son of the Sulitza Rebbe, the two obtained an appointment with the Pupa Rebbe, who personally signed the letter.
He and the Vizhnitzer Rav added a personal message to Schumer near their signatures. When Heschel visited Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Belsky, Rosh Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, Belsky began reading the letter and stopped halfway through.
“Of course I will sign,” he said. “I am with this 100 percent.... This Yid saved many Yidden.”
Late one night, Lerner and Heschel managed to obtain a meeting with the Klausenburger Rebbe. They had been warned by Klausenburger Hasidim that the Rebbe would not sign such a letter – but perhaps they could ask that he have a representative sign it.
The Rebbe was happy to meet Lerner, as Greenwald had been very close with his father, the previous Rebbe. Greenwald had been a member of Vaad Hapoel of Agudath Israel of America, and he had helped the Rebbe build Laniado Hospital in Netanya, serving as chairman of the hospital’s international board. The Klausenburger Rebbe also sent Greenwald to get yeshiva heads and rabbis on board.
In addition, the Rebbe had fond memories of the time Rabbi Heschel’s father, the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai, had visited his father, the Klausenburger Rebbe.
When they showed the Rebbe the letter and said that they were trying to get Rabbanim from different communities to sign, the Rebbe replied, “Of course I am signing it!” He took out a pen and signed it on the spot.
“His gabba’im [synagogue officials] were flabbergasted!” recalled Heschel. “It was clear that for the Gedolei Yisrael [the great rabbis of Israel], the case of Jonathan Pollard was something so unique that they were ready to do something unprecedented.”
“The fact that I was there and a witness of Reb. Sidney Greenwald made an impact, and could have been a factor in the Rebbe’s decision,” said Lerner. “But I think that when we shared with him some of the stories about Jonathan, and his dedication to do good deeds in prison, that was a major factor as well.”
Though the letter was signed mostly by New York rabbis, the Boyaner Rebbe, who resides in Israel, had for years expressed an interest in the Pollard case, and though he, too, generally does not sign public letters, he enthusiastically signed this one.
In the course of their efforts, Lerner and Heschel realized that having a Yiddish translation of the letter would be very helpful. They reached out to Rabbi Yosef Rappaport and asked him to translate it. He eagerly did so, refusing to accept any payment.
The Boro Park businessman, Rabbi Yitzchak Fleischer, assisted the team, making connections for them to different congregations. One afternoon, just a few hours before he was to host a blessing ceremony for a grandchild, he went around personally getting signatures from rabbis. He was helpful in obtaining signatures from Bobov and Satmar, among others.
When Rabbi Heschel went to see Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, the spiritual leader of Torah Vodaas and rabbi of Emunas Yisrael, Rabbi Wolfson modestly replied, “These are big names, I don’t belong here,” referring to the rabbis who signed the letter. He quickly added, “But I will sign wherever you tell me....”
And the signatures kept coming. In addition to members of the Moetzes, the Rebbes and rabbis of Boyan, Vizhnitz, Pupa, Skver, Bobov, Satmar, Klausenburg and Emunas Yisrael, they soon also had representatives of Lubavitch, Ger, Bobov-45, Stolin, Belz, Rachmastrivka, and Kossov.
Even as the signatures were being gathered, the team had already reached out to Sen. Schumer’s office in June to request a brief meeting, to personally deliver the letter. But his office wouldn’t commit to a date for the meeting; they’d make tentative dates, then postpone. Numerous efforts to reach the senator were rebuffed as soon as it became clear that the reason for the meeting had to do with Pollard.
On June 15, the Parole Commission confirmed that Pollard’s parole hearing would be held on July 7 – and that the same envoy of the Department of Justice who had represented the government a year earlier, and had so harshly opposed Pollard’s release, would represent the government this time as well. The Commission also denied Pollard’s request to have both his attorneys present at the hearing; only one would be allowed.
The vibes were entirely negative, adding to the pressure and sense of urgency.
“We had a letter, with lots of signatures, but nobody to meet with,” recalled Heschel. “It was very frustrating. We were being stonewalled by Schumer’s office and we were running out of time. We had gone to all these rabbis and they had exerted themselves to sign and help, and it seemed to be for naught.
“It was Jonathan via Mrs. Pollard who was actually giving us strength, telling us not to feel that our efforts were wasted,” he recalled.
“Mrs. Pollard kept on reminding us that we were doing our hishtadlus [personal effort] on this temporal realm, but ultimately, it would be Hashem Who would free her husband.”
And then, four days before the parole hearing, the tide suddenly turned.
When Rabbis Lerner and Heschel opened their email inboxes on July 3, they saw the following message from Mrs. Pollard: “In what can only be described as an utter miracle ‘min hashamayim’ [from Heaven], there is a totally unexpected new development!
“In response to our prayers, our activities, the signatures of the rabbis, the unprecedented unity on the issue [which was felt in Heaven, even if no one on earth knows about it] and their blessings, and the superb, sublime, miraculous memorandum which the attorneys submitted to the Parole Commission, a great wall has fallen.
“The attorneys just received word that the government will not pursue the claim that [Jonathan] is likely to commit further crimes if released on parole.
This is a great concession! Miraculous, actually!”
She stressed, however, that any celebration was premature, pending the actual decision by the Parole Commission.
The hearing, which took place four days later, went amazingly well. A letter was presented at the hearing which the government had issued. It indicated that there was no probability that Pollard would ever offend again. This turned the whole hearing on its head. The same government official who just a year earlier had vehemently assured Pollard and his attorney that hell would freeze over before he would ever recommend Pollard’s release, was suddenly subdued and civil. Unlike the previous year, the parole examiner informed Pollard at the end of the hearing that she was going to recommend parole, but it was up to the Parole Commission to make the final decision.
Three weeks later, Pollard was officially informed that he would be granted parole. He was freed from prison less than four months later – albeit under very harsh restrictions which include wearing a GPS monitoring system that consists of a bulky non-removable transmitter installed on his wrist, and two box receivers that are plugged into outlets in his tiny Manhattan studio apartment, which he shares with his wife. Whenever he moves outside the range of the receiver, the transmitter – which is three inches long and two inches wide – acts as a GPS tracker and monitors his location. Were Pollard to step out of his apartment to pray with a minyan or get some fresh air on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday, the battery would quickly drain, forcing him to choose between violating Shabbos or facing rearrest.
The parole restrictions also include a “curfew” that puts him under house arrest between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. During the daytime, he is only permitted to be in specific parts of South Manhattan, and is even prohibited from visiting nearby Brooklyn. The restrictions also include the unfettered monitoring and inspection of any computer he touches, including those of any employer who might choose to hire him, which has prevented him from being able to gain employment.
Notwithstanding intensive efforts to deliver the “Schumer letter,” it was never received by the senator. Nor was it ever publicly released, until now.
Nevertheless, according to the Pollards, it definitely had a significant impact.
In an email sent by Mrs. Pollard to Rabbis Lerner and Heschel after Jonathan was released, she expressed how she and her husband viewed this effort: “The letter was never read by Senator Schumer, but it was read in shamayim [heaven],” the message said. “Unprecedented in its nature, the letter was a miracle in itself, reflecting the unity of all of the major Jewish leaders of the American frum [religiously observant] world on the issue of Jonathan Pollard. The letter with its unprecedented illustrious signees was a capstone of sorts, crowning the tefillos [prayers], tears, hishtadlus, and mesirus nefesh [dedication] of world Jewry for three decades. This description is the tip of the iceberg of the endless hishtadlus and tefillah which the Pollard case generated in Israel and in countries round the world, as far as our efforts were able to reach. All kinds of prayer initiatives continue in Israel to this very day! The Schumer letter came late in the day, but seems to have crowned all of these efforts, and very soon after, the miracle occurred. Against all odds and in spite of all of the opposition, Jonathan was released!
“We experienced tremendous Siyata Dishmaya ['divine assistance’] When we set out on this unprecedented journey, we didn’t dream that we would get so many prominent names,” Heschel says. “Baruch Hashem, he is now reunited with his wife, and is out of prison, but he still is far from free. The efforts on his behalf must continue until all the terrible restrictions are removed and he is allowed to leave for the Land of Israel.”
Why now?
By Rabbi Pesach Lerner
After numerous failed efforts to reach out to Senator Schumer via reliable, well-connected third parties, some of whom were key to Schumer’s campaigns and career, the Pollards gave up on trying to deliver this letter to him. Without the Senator’s assistance, Jonathan was nevertheless miraculously granted parole in November of 2015.
Much to the dismay of the Pollards, immediately after Jonathan’s release, they discovered that after 30 years in prison as a “model inmate” (including seven years in solitary confinement), Jonathan’s life sentence — which knowledgeable US officials have termed “grossly disproportionate” – had been replaced by an unjust parole plan, tantamount to a form of house arrest for the balance of his life sentence – another 15 years.
As long as Pollard’s original 45-year life sentence remains intact and is not commuted (even though he is no longer in prison) he remains subject to arbitrary restrictions and even to politically motivated re-arrest for the duration.
Worse still, the numerous, redundant restrictions that Pollard is currently subject to as part of this parole plan prevent him from being gainfully employed, prohibit him from the free exercise of his religious rights as an observant Jew, and severely limit any possibility of his reintegrating into mainstream American society as a productive citizen.
On March 5, 2018, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Donald Trump and requested that the Pollard case be resolved once and for all, for the good of both nations. The prime minister proposed a bureaucratic solution to the problem via the US Department of Justice, known as “Treaty Transfer,” whereby Pollard would be granted permission to return to Israel, to live there and to finish his parole there.
The President and virtually all of his cabinet agreed.
The bureaucratic solution should have been quick and simple, but the DoJ is still populated by Obama holdovers who dragged out the process for months, and then turned down Pollard’s application for Treaty Transfer on the basis of spurious and false assertions, which were not based on any evidence whatsoever.
Now that Treaty Transfer has been turned down, it falls to President Trump to make good on his tacit agreement with the Prime Minister via commutation of both Pollard’s sentence and his parole.
It would strengthen the President’s hand greatly, especially at this time, to have bipartisan support on this issue.
In allowing this letter to be published, the Pollards are once again turning to Senator Schumer in the only way left to them, through the pages of Hamodia and now The Jerusalem Report. They hope that through the grace of G-d, this letter and the story behind it will reach Senator Schumer’s eyes and touch his heart. Perhaps now, after serving 30 years of an unjust sentence and three years of a very harsh parole plan, Jonathan Pollard’s appeal to Senator Schumer through these pages will be heard and help will be forthcoming in the form of bipartisan support.
The illustrious signees of this letter believed in the cause with such passion that each of them broke lifelong habits of refraining from political involvement to sign the letter urging the Senator to become involved. Perhaps, now, at this critical time, the Senator’s heart will heed their words, and he will do right by Jonathan, Israel and the Jewish People.
A longer version of this article was originally published in Hamodia on December 26, 2018