NEW YORK - A full-page ad in Friday's New York Times, signed by a broad-based coalition of hundreds of American rabbis, called on US President George Bush to commute the life sentence of Jonathan Pollard.
Presidential clemency is now the only option open to Pollard, a naval intelligence official who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for passing US military secrets to Israel. Last week, the US Supreme Court refused to hear his petition to retract his guilty plea and stand trial.
The Pollard case has badly split the American Jewish community, with grass-roots coalitions deploring the reticence of major Jewish organizations to come forward on his behalf.
The Times' ad, representing a cross-section of more than 560 rabbis from all four movements, is the first major public statement of support for clemency for Pollard. Signators include the heads of the seminaries and national rabbinic organizations of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
"This coalition is an extraordinary statement of consensus," said Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of Amcha, which organized the ad, and a long-time Pollard supporter. "I don't believe this happened, even for [Natan] Sharansky."
The ad reads, in part, "We in no way condone acts of espionage. We nonetheless call upon you, Mr. President, to recognize that the lifetime sentence imposed upon Jonathan Pollard is unduly harsh and grossly inconsistent with the punishment given to other Americans convicted of similar and even worse crimes."
Major Jewish community relations organizations have not come out in support of clemency for Pollard. "This is not a Jewish issue, and this ad does not make it one," said Philip Baum, a leader of the AJC and chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council's committee on Pollard. "I don't know of anything in this case that demands a response from the Jewish community."
That position, Weiss said, shows how out of touch the leadership of US Jewish organizations is with the grass roots. "There is a tremendous chasm between these elite organizations and the people. This ad proves that Pollard's case, and the commutation of his sentence to time served, is a priority issue on the American Jewish scene. This has nothing to do with dual loyalty. He was tried as an American, but convicted as a Jew."
Weiss said Bush has seen the ad, but he did not know his reaction. He also said the rabbinic coalition plans to bring its appeal directly to the president and to Gov. Bill Clinton, via a personal delegation before the presidential election.
The group hopes to raise enough money to place the same ad in The Washington Post.
Pollard supporters are to hold a rally in New York today.