The Jewish Press - February 18, 1994
Rabbi Sholom Stern, Beth El, Cedarhurst, N.Y.
The Jewish Press is to be commended for having taken a lead role in trying to mount public support for a presidential commutation of the excessively harsh sentence meted out to Jonathan Pollard, a former Intelligence researcher and analyst for the United States who was arrested in 1985 and later convicted of passing classified information to Israel.
While some are familiar with many of the arguments favoring a presidential commutation, I want to present a glimpse into the kind of person Jonathan Jay Pollard is.
A number of months ago, together with Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Beth Sholomin Lawrence, and Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz of B'nai Shalom in Rockville Centre, I visited with Jonathan who was then imprisoned in Marion, Illinois.
We have already made arrangements for a second visit with him this month at a federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina where he is currently incarcerated.
For five hours, in a small cell enclosed by heavy bars, we had an earnest discussion on the searing issues facing the Jewish world today, as well as his own case. His love of Zion, his deep knowledge of the history of Zionism and his understanding of contemporary challenges besetting Israel and the American Jewish community were reflected in the many trenchant and incisive observations which he made. What stood out the most and moved us deeply was the analogy he drew between himself and the Biblical Pinchas ben Elazar as he appears in BaMidbar and Yehoshua.
Many are familiar with Pinchas in the Book of BaMidbar who took the law into his own hands, in modern parlance, when he slew Zimri and a Midianite princess for flagrantly desecrating the moral code of the Jewish people in public.
What is less known is that the same Pinchas ben Elazar appears in the book of Yehoshua There we read of the episode when members of the tribe of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe built an altar by the Jordan River. The report reached the other tribes who were ready to launch a war against them. The Israelites interpreted the building of the altar as an open rebellion against Hashem. But first the Israelites sent a delegation headed by Pinchas ben Elazar to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Menashe. Pinchas and the other members of the delegation reprimanded them for what appeared to be a violation of the Torah.
After the levelling of charges against them, the representatives of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Menashe defended themselves by explaining that their act did not represent a violation of Hashem's law; on the contrary, their act was motivated by a love of Hashem and a desire to give expression to it.
They were concerned that since their children would live on the other side of the Jordan, separated geographically from klal Yisrael coming generations might view themselves as not being part of the Jewish people and therefore the altar was intended to strengthen their connection with the rest of klal Yisrael.. Pinchas and the other leaders who accompanied him were perfectly satisfied with the explanation of the leaders of the three tribes. They relayed it to the other tribes and thus a potential civil war was averted.
Movingly, Pollard personalized these two episodes in the following way: "When I first saw all the information like the poison gas capabilities of Israel's sworn enemies which was being withheld from Israel, I went to my superiors and asked them why this information was withheld from Israel." They responded, "Jews are too sensitive about gas." "However, I did not consider it a joking matter. Many of the members of my own family died in the concentration camps of Europe. I was shocked by the withholding of intelligence from Israel. I then decided that there was no choice in the matter, and that if I didn't act, Israel's existence would be imperilled. So, like Pinchas in the book of HaMidbar, I decided to act unilaterally.
However, after spending years in solitary confinement, I have had the opportunity to review over and over again that painful decision. I now realize that the Pinchas in the book of Joshua represents a better model for me to emulate. For in the book of Joshua, Pinchas consults and speaks with others before acting, thereby averting a civil war. The impulsive Pinchas gave way to a Pinchas who was now deliberate and exercised restraint. Although I didn't have too many options, I should have spoken to my father, or someone else. Life and death decisions never should be made without consulting with others."
Prior to going to Marion, Rabbis Schwartz, Hain and I were debating whether or not to bring our tefillin into the room where we would be visiting Jonathan, and encourage him to put on tefillin and daven with us. We finally decided to daven in our hotel rooms that morning and not to bring tefillin into the prison, for we were not certain where Jonathan was in terms of his spiritual development. We knew of his deep love for Eretz Yisrael and his upbringing in a home committed to Zionist ideals. We had heard that he was in the process of formulating a serious religious orientation. But we did not want to project as the ones who were foisting religion on him. We decided that bringing tefillin might be seen as heavy-handed and might strain the relationship.
During the first hour of our visit the four of us engaged in an animated conversation, with Jonathan doing most of the talking. Once a warm and friendly rapport was established between him and us, I opened up and told him that we were considering bringing our tefillin with us and asking him to join with us in davening Shacharit. I asked him how he would have felt about it.
He answered, "I'm glad that you did not bring tefillin with you, but not for the reason that you probably assume. You might be thinking that I would interpret bringing tefillin into Marion as a means of coercing me to put them on. I very much want to put them on. But recently, when I put on tefillin in my cell the guards pried them loose from me and opened up one of the Batim to the Shel Yad. This was done despite the fact that metal detectors don't permit anything to enter which could be used as a weapon. So, obviously, the guards knew in advance that they were not going to find anything that would place either them or me in danger. They just don't appreciate any demonstrative expression of Judaism. Had we all put on tefillin," Pollard continued, "the guards would have conducted themselves in a civil manner while you were here, but immediately after your leaving I would have been subjected to taunting and perhaps a few physical blows. What I do now from time to time, is draw a curtain in my shower to hide myself for a few moments and then put on my "Shel Rosh."
Immediately I thought how similar his courage was to Natan Sharansky who was sustained during nine years of his incarceration in Soviet prisons and endured his bitter fate by holding on to and praying from the pages of a slender volume of TEHILLIM. It was the same TEHILLIM that Sharansky brought with him to Jerusalem and the KOTEL upon being freed. The Talmud in Shabbos l30a speaks of the mitzva of tefillin as a mitzvah whose observance was not widespread and was weak during the time of an evil decree, a possible reference to the Hadrianic persecutions in the second century. But here was Jonathan Jay Pollard, a Jew, who was willing to assert his love of Judaism and put on tefillin even in the most trying of circumstances.
In Pirke Avot we are reminded that whoever forgets even one fragment of the Torah commits a grave sin How much more guilty is a person if he remains callous to the agony of another human being. It is extremely easy to adjust to other people's suffering.
Regrettably, there are still some Jewish organizations that remain indifferent to the plight of Jonathan Pollard. Elie Wiesel reminded us that neutrality in the face of injustice only helps the oppressor and never helps the oppressed.
Jonathan Pollard broke the law of this country and therefore had to be punished. But when the punishment is excessive we should not greet it with a silent sigh of despair. Rather, we should recognize that the American system of law grants us the right to raise our voices on behalf of those who are victims of an unjust verdict.
The test of our humanity is the degree to which we are sensitive to other people's suffering. Since the only recourse at the present time for Pollard's release is a presidential pardon, I urge everyone to flood President Clinton with letters requesting that he commute Pollard's sentence to time already served. Let not coming generations spit on our graves and say, "Here lies an American Jewish community which, living in comfort and prosperity, kept silent while Jonathan Pollard languished behind prison bars." For the real crime of Jonathan Pollard is that he was not able to harness and control his love of Eretz Yisrael. For that he deserves something better than continued incarceration in a federal prison. Our response to his plight can still make a difference.