Déjà vu in Denver

Pollard’s plight should send a shudder of conscience to those meeting once again in Denver.

Pollard protest 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Pollard protest 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
A few weeks before the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations held in Denver in 1994, Jonathan Pollard wrote to Council of Federations president Maynard Wishner and executive vice president Martin Kraar: “I was shocked to learn that on the eve of the 10th anniversary of my incarceration, my case is not on the agenda of the General Assembly. Given the importance of the General Assembly, such an omission will be interpreted by the government as a signal that the Jewish community is unconcerned with my fate. I cannot overstate the effect this will have on my chances for commutation. I therefore formally ask the General Assembly to raise my case in a plenum with an eye toward asking that my sentence be commuted.”
The request was turned down by the Federation leaders.
A few days from now, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America will convene again in Denver, and once again, the issue of a Jew serving a life sentence for passing classified information to America’s closest ally will not be raised in any formal session. As the GA gets under way this week, Pollard, in deteriorating health, is about to enter his 27th year in prison, and the American Jewish community still hasn’t figured out how to use its much-vaunted political prowess to end his suffering and speak out against the inequitable sentence.
Back in 1994, I was national director of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, a grassroots group headed by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Pollard’s rabbi at the time) that was made up of bands of dedicated activists scattered in communities all over North America.
The previous year, we had put an enormous amount of energy into gathering signatures from 1,000 rabbis of every denomination as well as dozens of rabbinic organizations, national and international Jewish groups, seven city councils, dozens of Jewish Community Relations Councils and more than 50 local Jewish Federations. The signatures were appended to a letter to president Bill Clinton that was published as a full-page ad in The New York Times on November 19, 1993, urging commutation of Pollard’s sentence to time served.
Pollard had then served eight years of a life sentence.
Following this powerful and public expression of communal sentiment, we concurred with Pollard’s belief that a strong statement of concern raised by the organized Jewish community at the upcoming General Assembly would put the administration on notice that the Pollard issue was a major concern.
Stung by the decision that such an event would not occur, we held a vocal but peaceful demonstration together with a group of concerned Denver Jews, carrying signs and handing out information about Pollard outside the Convention Center an hour before then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was scheduled to address the GA plenum.
Rabbi Weiss took a seat in the auditorium to hear whether the prime minister would mention Pollard in his widely publicized address. But before the session got under way, burly security guards alerted by GA organizers barged in, forcefully removing Rabbi Weiss from his seat and escorting him out of the hall, as if this leader of a large New York Orthodox congregation was an unwanted interloper.
A similar incident took place less than two years later when a few CJC-Amcha people passed out literature inviting delegates of the 1996 AIPAC Washington Policy Conference to a vigil for Pollard. I was threatened with arrest by Washington, DC, police officers, who told me “AIPAC doesn’t want you here.”
Police prevented Rabbi Weiss from entering the hotel, saying they had orders from AIPAC not to let him in.
It’s hard to fathom the paranoia of some Jewish organizations and the patronizing attitude that deems that their members won’t know how to deal with divergent views and therefore should not be exposed to them.
No doubt Jewish leaders will claim with regard to Pollard, as they did during the Soviet Jewry movement era, that they are negotiating at the highest levels behind the scenes and that public outcry only endangers those efforts. They have still to learn that the synergy of quiet diplomacy with impassioned protest is a combination has always achieved results.
The list of prominent figures that have now publicly expressed their support for commuting Pollard’s sentence continues to grow – former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former CIA director James Woolsey, 39 members of Congress, and several ex-attorneys-general. Despite that, and after all these years some in the mainstream Jewish establishment continue to be reluctant to mount the kind of full-court press that would send the right message to the administration.
Pollard’s poignant words to the Jewish establishment in 1994 are tragically just as relevant today, and should send a shudder of conscience to those meeting once again in Denver.

The writer is an award-winning Jerusalem writer. She blogs at jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com.