The First Word: A miscarriage of justice

The biblical commandment to pursue justice demands that American Jews snap out of their stupor on the Pollard case and recapture the spirit they had in the early 1990s.

pollard passport 248.88 (photo credit: Brian Hendler)
pollard passport 248.88
(photo credit: Brian Hendler)
Jonathan Pollard will soon be starting his third decade of a life sentence for passing to Israel classified US information warning of existential dangers posed to the Jewish state by its Arab enemies. The information was of the type previously shared by the United States with Israel, but which had then been cut off in a display of anger over Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981. Of the tens of Americans caught spying for friendly or neutral countries both before and after Jonathan's arrest, none received a sentence even remotely close to life in prison. In fact, Jonathan's sentence was comparable only to the punishments meted out to the most notorious spies for the former Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries. Even among the over 100 Americans caught spying for adversaries of the United States in the past 50 years, less than 10% have been sentenced to life. Twenty years after Jonathan's arrest, no evidence has been presented of any concrete damage caused to the US by his actions, or any consequence that would even begin to justify a life sentence. Nevertheless, many of Jonathan's opponents remain vengefully obsessed with keeping him locked up so that, in the words of the prosecuting attorney in the case, he will "never see the light of day." The longer Jonathan has remained in prison, the easier it should have been for Israel to push for his freedom. Moreover, the latter years of Jonathan's second decade in prison coincided with the release by Israel of thousands of Arab terrorists as part of a diplomatic process championed by the US, thereby giving the government of Israel a tailor-made vehicle for insisting on Jonathan's release. Yet, for the past six years, neither Ehud Barak nor Ariel Sharon has demonstrated any real interest in obtaining Jonathan's freedom. Their indifference and callousness stand in sharp contrast to the actions of their predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and, even more so, Binyamin Netanyahu. Rabin regularly raised Jonathan's plight with Bill Clinton starting in 1993, and Netanyahu went to battle for Jonathan at the Wye talks in 1998, exacting a promise from Clinton that Jonathan would be released as part of the Wye withdrawals. Clinton ultimately reneged on that undertaking, in large measure because he knew he would pay no political price with the American Jewish community for violating his promise. Indeed, for the past 10 years, the Pollard affair has fallen off the radar screen of the American Jewish community. This inaction reflects a distressing backsliding from the prominent position the Pollard case had on the community's agenda during the first half of the 1990s. FOLLOWING THE announcement of Jonathan's arrest in November 1985, and in the first few years thereafter, there was much embarrassment in the American Jewish community, tremendous concern as to the effect Jonathan's actions might have on the standing and image of the American Jew, and even some official support for his draconian sentence. While at the grassroots level, many American Jews were troubled and perplexed by the harshness of the sentence, there was no serious activity on his behalf. The first Gulf War, accompanied by Saddam Hussein's threats to incinerate the Jewish state and Iraq's 39 missile attacks on Israel, brought a rethinking of the Pollard affair, even though most of the major national Jewish organizations still refused to adopt the case as a "Jewish issue." The Jewish community began to recover from its initial shock and, at the grassroots level, American Jews began to publicly question why the US government violated its written plea bargain with Jonathan and singled him out as the only person to be given a life sentence for spying for an American ally. Virtually every significant Jewish community in the US had Pollard activists in the rabbinate and at the grassroots level. Rallies and protest meetings drawing thousands of people were held in communities around the country, at which members of Congress joined with other public figures and local leaders in calling for Jonathan's release. Indeed, the Pollard case eventually became one of those rare issues on which there was near unanimity of opinion within the American Jewish community. In October 1992, a full-page ad signed by 600 rabbis from around the country and representing the entire Jewish religious spectrum ran in The New York Times calling on president George Bush to commute Jonathan's sentence to the seven years then served. A year later, in November 1993, another full-page ad ran in the Times, this one signed by 1,000 rabbis and the overwhelming majority of Jewish federations and rabbinical councils across the US, urging Clinton to commute Jonathan's sentence. That call was supported by tens of members of the Congress, state legislatures and city councils, leading newspapers throughout the US, members of the Hollywood community, world-renowned civil rights activists and prominent Christian religious leaders. Thus, by the end of 1993, the American Jewish community recognized the serious injustice in Jonathan's continued incarceration, expended great efforts in trying to obtain his freedom, and had much success in explaining the malfeasance of the US government's treatment of Jonathan. However, by 1995, American Jewry's efforts began to fizzle out, eventually grinding to a virtual halt. Various explanations can be offered, but none are satisfactory. If the American Jewish community was able to galvanize on Jonathan's behalf at a time when he had spent "only" eight years in prison, there can be no justification for its sheepish acquiescence as he begins his 21st year in prison. The biblical commandment to pursue justice demands that American Jews snap out of their stupor on the Pollard case and recapture the spirit they had in the early 1990s. As the 20th anniversary of Jonathan Pollard's November 21 arrest approaches, such a renewal, coupled with long-delayed action by the government of Israel, can overcome those still obsessed with exacting pounds of flesh from Israel and the American Jewish community, and at long last bring about Jonathan's freedom. Morris Pollard, a professor emeritus at Notre Dame University, is Jonathan Pollard's father. David Kirshenbaum is an attorney who has visited Pollard 14 times in prison.