Back To The Barricades

The Atlanta rabbis' letter to President Clinton was a timely reminder for Pollard backsliders.

David Holzel, Assistant Editor - Atlanta Jewish Times - October 7, 1994

I began the piece with a set-up/punchline format. It was the only way I could put a little zip into what has become a woefully predictable story:

Atlanta's rabbis last week received a letter from President Bill Clinton, responding to their request that he commute Jonathan Pollard's sentence to time served.

The President's answer: No.

Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew serving a life sentence for passing U.S. military secrets to Israel, has become un-news. He has traveled the judicial appeals ladder to no avail and been given thumbs down by the President from hope. How many ways can a journalist write "No"?

Even if the response was expected, the Atlanta rabbis' statement was important. I see dozens of letters like it every month. They are written by Jewish federations synagogue boards, Zionist groups, city councils and members of Congress. Mr. Pollard, 40, mails me copies of them from the medium-security Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina where he is finishing his ninth year behind bars. There must be hundreds of these statements by now. They will make wonderful ticker tape when he is released.

Mr. Pollard is eligible for parole next year. And writing that story last week about the Atlanta rabbis' hapless letter to the president has renewed my resolve to see him released. It's time to get back to the barricades.

Being a supporter of Mr. Pollard has always been like serving as a member of the opposition in a country where the leader of the ruling party is known as president for life. Eight years ago, when I began covering the case, no one in the Jewish community wanted to talk about Jonathan Pollard, whose blatant and reckless choice of Israel over the United States embarrassed American Jews into frozen silence.

That know-nothingism has largely given way. But because Mr. Pollard is no angel; and because his actions hit the dual loyalty button, the free-Pollard movement didn't send out deep enough roots for it to get the attention of presidents Bush or Clinton. When Mr. Clinton denied Mr. Pollard clemency in March, all the wind seemed to go out of his supporters' sails. Including mine.

"We picked the wrong guy," joked a friend of mine who is an ardent Pollard supporter. It was the kind of gallows humor that accompanies lost causes.

But it is a just cause: Mr. Pollard was convicted of passing classified information to a friendly country. And a life sentence for that crime is excessive. The average sentence is about as long as a college career. It is unjust and Mr. Pollard should be freed. The rabbis' letter was a timely reminder for us Pollard backsliders.

So was an open letter faxed to our office by his sister, Carol. "I have been given the last nine years for reflection," he wrote, "and I realize and deeply regret that I did not find legal means to transmit, what I thought to be, life-saving information to Israel."

Jews are masters of fighting for impossible causes. I'll name one: Soviet Jewry. When the gates finally opened to emigration, it was because the geo-political reality changed détente in the 1970s and the end of the Cold War in the 1980s. But the free emigration of Soviet Jews was a litmus test of that changed reality, and it was American Jewish activism that gave the symbol its potency.

The Cold War, the recklessness of the go-go '80s, the Arab-Israeli stalemate - the atmosphere Mr. Pollard moved in before his arrest - have evaporated. The Pollard affair is an anachronism. And politicians here and in Israel will be glad to put it behind them if they can get political mileage out of it.

That's where we come in. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Rabin need to know that Mr. Pollard's release is one of U.S. Jewry's top issues. How do we send that message?

Let's start with reaffirming the message to ourselves - the Jonathan Pollard Shabbat, held on the same day in every American synagogue. Rabbis would make his case to their congregants as an empty chair on the bimah silently testifies to Mr. Pollard's unjust incarceration. Outside the synagogue, Jewish organizations could begin each meeting by lighting a candle for Mr. Pollard.

Letters and phone calls and lobbying are all part of the mix. But these communal rituals will raise our consciousness and unify our community. Light is a symbol of hope, Shabbat of freedom. Mr. Pollard deserves both.