Letter From Prison/Passed Over

Avi Weiss - The Forward [NY]- April 8, 1994

Jonathan Pollard was understandably angry when I saw him in the Butner Correctional Facility in Butner, N.C., the day after president Clinton refused to commute his life sentence to time served. So was I.

Whatever Mr. Clinton's politics, I had come to believe that he was a "connector"; that is, one who feels the pain of others. Finally, I thought, we have a president who cares.

The president's denial has given me pause to wonder whether my assessment of him as a caring person - one who is more concerned with justice than politics - is correct.

First, Mr. Clinton broke a commitment conveyed to Jonathan's many supporters by White House officials that before any final decision was made, they would be given an opportunity to present their case directly to the president.

Additionally, the president made the point of publicly declaring that he "does not have to follow the recommendation of the Justice Department," and that he would "review it [the recommendation] and make a decision." Mr. Clinton broke this promise as well. The record shows that he issued his rejection within moments of receiving the papers from Attorney General Reno.

It's no secret that Pollard advocates have for years maintained that the Justice and Defense Departments acted inappropriately in the Pollard affair. Indeed, after hearing the case, Stephen Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals called it "a fundamental miscarriage of justice." Fairness dictated that the president hear out Jonathan's side of the story. He did not. My request as Jonathan's rabbi and the request of other key Pollard players to meet with the president was denied.

The president's refusal to listen to any of Jonathan's key supporters mirrors my encounter with Attorney General Reno several weeks ago, just prior to her talk in a New York synagogue. I was part of a group that met with her privately. Three times I made a direct plea to her on Jonathan's behalf. Not once did she respond with even a word.

Exasperated, I caught up with Ms. Reno after her talk as she was leaving the synagogue. "Ms. Reno, " I said, "I'm a person, talk to me Words from you are in order. Jonathan's life is on the line." Her smile turned into a smirk. She said "Thank you" and walked on.

Second, in the president's statement he justified the rejection by claiming that Pollard had caused "considerable damage" to America. This is untrue. We are a country of laws. The truth is Jonathan was never indicted for harming American security or American security agents. In fact, the government did not even allege that from an objective stand point, someone in Jonathan's position with all the information he had at his disposal, would have had any reason to believe that any of the data transmitted by Pollard to Israel would or could cause injury to America. I challenge the president to open Pollard's record and point to even one piece of real evidence of the supposed injury which Jonathan caused America.

Third, and perhaps most egregious, is that the president's words went beyond saying "no." His false statement that Jonathan caused "considerable damage" to America seriously undermines Jonathan's chances for parole as the president's words becomes part of Jonathan's official parole record.

Fourth, the president stated that Pollard should remain incarcerated "to deter every person who might even consider such actions." Consider the overwhelming suffering he has endured over the years. A year in Springfield, Miss., in a hospital for the criminally insane; although the government has admitted that he never should have been treated as a psychiatric patient. Over 6 years in isolation at Marion, the toughest prison in the country.

Now in Butner, Jonathan is constantly surrounded by noise. He rarely has a quiet moment to read, write or think. Even in the visitors' room we often must raise our voices to be heard although we are inches from each other. Clearly, the president has never visited Springfield, Marion or Butner. Were he to do so he would understand the extent of Jonathan's suffering - unprecedented, given the nature of his offense. Jonathan Pollard's nine years in a hell on earth - already twice the average sentence for such an offense - is more than plenty deterrence, Mr. President.

As I sat there in Butner holding Jonathan's hand, I thought of the irony that the denial came just days before the holiday of Passover, the holiday of liberation. The timing and the manner in which the president said no, was a calculated slap in the face of Prime Minister Rabin who publicly made the request for clemency and the American Jewish community that had rallied behind Jonathan. The thrust of the president's happy Passover message to us was "you're not needed."

My mind wandered right there in Butner to the well publicized commitment made by Mr. Clinton to his pastor, never to harm Israel. The president has broken that promise.

By denying Jonathan's commutation and leaving the life sentence intact, the president has in effect redefined Israel as an enemy of America. What the president is saying is that an agent of Israel should be treated as those of the former Soviet Union. Surely, Mr. Clinton must be aware that no one, with the exception of Jonathan Pollard, convicted for passing classified information to an ally received a sentence even remotely close to life.

Amid the deep disappointment, Jonathan was full of resolve. He knew that The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was meeting Mr. Clinton even as we spoke. No doubt they would criticize the president's decision. Fearful of a letdown, I warned Jonathan that there was always a possibility the issue would not be raised. In the end, Jonathan Pollard's name was not mentioned.

The hours wore on. Jonathan became more reflective. "A key element of the Passover holiday," Jonathan said, "is zachor, remembrance. But it's not in a distant, static, past sense. Rather, it has a dynamic, current quality to remind us as the Haggadah says, that the danger to our physical and spiritual existence is prevalent in every generation and must be combated accordingly"

Such words coming from Jonathan do not surprise me. I have come to know Jonathan's deeply spiritual side. He is a religious man whose soul is suffused with love of his people, love of humankind and love of America. I could see the pain in Jonathan's eyes: pain that once again he would not be at a seder with his parents and family; pain that at Butner, his Passover would not be Passover, as prison officials refused to provide him with Passover food.

As I got up to leave Jonathan we embraced. I could sense his tremendous suffering. Even in his darkest moment, he looked at me and said, "Avi, who knows, maybe next week we'll still meet in Israel." I marveled at Jonathan's strength. Perhaps Jonathan recognized, like our forbears in Egypt, the redemption would come just when it appeared the situation could not get any worse.

The tragic irony of the president's Passover eve rejection of Jonathan's freedom plea could not be more obvious. Let me remind the president of one simple fact. Pharaoh had an opportunity to do the right thing, but his heart was hardened. The president ought heed the lessons of history.