In Plain Language: Who will save Jonathan Pollard?

"'The mass of men,' observed American poet and historian Henry David Thoreau, 'lead lives of quiet desperation.'"

Jonathan Pollard red, white and blue (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Pollard red, white and blue
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The mass of men,” observed American poet and historian Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Among the many thing which frustrate and depress me, as well as countless other decent Jews and non-Jews, is the continued incarceration of Jonathan Pollard. Arrested in 1985, after being refused asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government.
He agreed to a plea bargain, and though federal prosecutors asked for “only a substantial number of years” in prison, Judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr. – who was not legally obligated to follow the recommendation of the prosecutor – imposed a life sentence upon Pollard after a “damage assessment memorandum” from then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger.
For more than 28 years, Pollard has languished in prison, his sentence exceeding by far any punishment meted out to others convicted of the same offense. Some of the world’s best attorneys, including Alan Dershowitz, have failed in their attempt to free Jonathan.
Appeals to numerous presidents for an executive pardon have fallen on deaf ears. Parades of former and present American officials – including those who had a direct part in Pollard’s arrest and conviction – asking for clemency are met by stony silence.
No one who is in a position to know will say why it is that Pollard has been singled out for such cruel and unusual punishment; even Pollard himself is not privy to the memorandum that led to his stiff sentence. When Sen. Joe Lieberman shockingly said, “If you saw what I saw [in top-secret documents], you would agree with Pollard’s continued imprisonment,” fellow Sen. Charles Schumer asked to see the same documents. After reviewing them, he concluded, “Nothing I have seen justifies his staying in prison one more day.”
For its part, Israel’s protestations have proven equally impotent. Behind-the-scenes pleas and petitions have failed to move the Americans. In 1998, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had secured a promise from US president Bill Clinton to pardon Pollard as part of the Wye River peace talks; the agreement was signed, but Clinton reneged on his pledge. On January 4, 2011, Netanyahu formally submitted a letter to President Barack Obama requesting clemency. Though the White House issued a statement saying the letter would be reviewed, no official response has ever been given.
Now, revelations by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the NSA spied on Israeli leaders, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, have given new impetus to the “Free Pollard” campaign. But I fear that this new development will soon come and go, and Jonathan will still be sitting exactly where he has sat for almost three decades.
And so, I am making a personal appeal to the one person who I believe has a chance to move the mountain, the man who may be the most powerful moral voice alive in the world today. I am asking Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel to confront the powers that be, to use his enormous prestige and universally respected reputation to plead for Pollard’s release and bring to an end, once and for all, this sordid episode that has caused so much grief to so many.
In a world filled with cynicism and failed leadership, Wiesel remains one of our greatest heroes. Through his many writings, in particular his book Night, he has grabbed the world by the collar and made it confront the horrible truth of the Holocaust. He ignited the struggle for Soviet Jewry in his 1966 work, The Jews of Silence. He has spoken out against the tragedy in Darfur; he has criticized the Hungarian government for its whitewashing of Holocaust crimes. He stood up to US president Ronald Reagan at Bitburg in 1985; he has criticized the Vatican when he felt it was appropriate. And just this week he issued a public call to the Obama administration, urging the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program.
Now I am humbly asking him to come to the aid of justice and fairness, and to save the life of Jonathan Pollard.
There is a precedent in history for a great writer to place his personal career on the line and confront injustice. That, of course, is Emile Zola, who took on the military and political elite of France and courageously defended Capt. Alfred Dreyfus.
Zola was one of Paris’s most popular authors, a wealthy fixture among the literary bourgeoisie, whose broad appeal had spread throughout Europe.
But when Dreyfus was court-martialed as a spy for Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, Zola was outraged.
Convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he wrote his most famous piece, J’Accuse, published on the front page of the Paris daily L’Aurore in January 1898, accusing the highest levels of the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism for having wrongfully convicted the Jewish officer.
Zola was put on trial by France, and convicted of libel. His name was removed from the Legion of Honor, and he fled to England. But he brought enough attention to Dreyfus’s plight that the case was reopened and, eight years later, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the French Supreme Court.
Tragically, Zola did not live to see that moment; but his name is forever enshrined because of this single – and singular – act of valor.
The cases are remarkably similar. Both Dreyfus and Pollard worked in the military.
Both brought forth charges of anti-Semitism. Indeed, as the former president of Harvard University said last week, in response to the latest academic boycott of Israel, when one Jewish body alone, be it a citizen or a state, is singled out for condemnatory treatment beyond the norm, it can almost certainly be traced to anti-Semitism. And though Dreyfus was completely innocent while Pollard admitted guilt, both cases are a historic perversion of justice.
I have been in awe of Elie Wiesel for as long as I can remember. He is one of those rare individuals who, just by virtue of the life he lives, makes me proud to be a Jew. I faithfully attended his brilliant lectures on biblical personalities as a student in Chicago, and my wife’s family spent Passover with him for many years in Florida.
His ability to emerge from great tragedy and serve the Jewish nation has inspired me in my own struggles. In a strange twist of fate, the names of Wiesel’s immediate family murdered in the Holocaust – Shlomo, Tzipora and Sara – are the names of my own father, mother and wife.
Prof. Wiesel, in your 85 years of life – may you live until at least 120! – you have always sought opportunities to do good, to speak up for those who had no voice, to champion causes that were not always comfortable, conventional or politically correct. If this article somehow finds its way to you, I beseech you to step into the breach and bring Jonathan home. It may – at least among your own people – become the crowning achievement of your stellar career, and the most honored medal you will ever wear.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. Contact him at [email protected];