A Declaration of Conscience

Jewish dignity demands speaking out for Pollard

Rabbi Sholom Stern - The Jewish World - January 19, 1995

There is a conspiracy on the part of the U.S. government to keep convicted spy Jonathan Jay Pollard locked behind bars, asserted Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement at a rally held on behalf of Pollard at Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst last month.

The rally, which I helped organize together with the Five Towns Jewish Council and which was sponsored by local synagogues with the support of Conservative, Orthodox and Reform rabbis, also featured addresses by representative Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Carol Pollard, Jonathan's sister; and noted Jewish activist Rabbi Avi Weiss.

In my introductory remarks, I reminded those present that despite what appears to be adamant opposition to the commutation of Pollard's sentence by President Clinton, the State Department and the Intelligence Community, we dare not abandon Pollard. What is at stake is our own spiritual integrity.

Challenging the audience to become involved in the Pollard case, I said, "Do we want future generations to spit on our graves and say, 'Here lies a community living in comfort and prosperity that kept silent and abandoned a fellow Jew who languished in prison for a longer period of time than anyone ever convicted in this country for a comparable offense'? Our sense of outrage and moral indignation over his extensive sentence will one day pierce the armor of callousness and reach the heart and conscience of President Clinton and the intelligence community."

Rabbi Weiss, who has visited Pollard in prison 40 times during the past nine years, spoke of the disgrace of some American-Jewish leaders who still have not raised their voices in protest of Pollard's treatment. Weiss told the audience of President Clinton's spring meeting with representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a day after the President had turned down Pollard's request of commutation. The meeting had been scheduled in advance of Clinton's decision to deny Pollard clemency.

Despite their disappointment with the President's decision, not one of the leaders raised the issue during their meeting. Weiss continued: "The moral test of a community is determined [by] how it speaks truth to power. When Jewish dignity was at stake, these Jewish leaders failed the test."

My involvement in the Pollard case confirms Rabbi Weiss's observation. A letter written by United Synagogue president Allan Ades to President Clinton on March 17, 1994, reflects the timidity that grips Jewish organizations when they address the President. Writing on behalf of United Synagogue and claiming to represent two million Jews, Ades indicated that many in the Jewish community have raised questions about Pollard's sentence. But he wrote, "We recognize that only someone in authority, who has access to the entire record of the case, can make such a determination."

In response to Ades's letter, I wrote a letter that was adopted unanimously by the Nassau- Suffolk Region of the Rabbinical Assembly. I stated, "We are dismayed by the subservient tone of your letter 'We recognize that only someone in authority, who has access to the entire record of the case, can make such a determination.' In the aforementioned words, the United Synagogue surrendered itself totally to the will of the President.

"Such a response to a miscarriage of justice provides absolutely no incentive for the President to grant Pollard clemency. The greatness of our democratic society is that its citizens are not afraid to express their thoughts to the President, even if those thoughts are different than his. Your letter suggests that we cannot challenge the decision of a President because our knowledge is only fragmentary. This seems to reflect the mindset of those who live under tyranny and oppression.

"Furthermore, you state that you are writing on behalf of the United Synagogue, which has a membership of two million Jews, implying that the majority of our members rely exclusively on the President's judgment to seal Jonathan Pollard's fate. This is simply not true! Our experience suggests that the majority of United Synagogue members favor a presidential commutation."

Another colleague suggested that Ades's letter to the President reminded him of the attitude of "never criticize the Poritz (Czar)," the traditional Eastern European Jewish formulation.

At the rally for her brother, Carol Pollard tried to strike an upbeat note, reminding participants of the many prominent Americans from all walks of life and the hundreds of organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that favor Presidential commutation. She also cited the support Jonathan Pollard has received from many Hollywood movies stars who are enthusiastic about producing a motion picture film sympathetic to his plight.

Yet brutal candor must lead us to conclude that Pollard will only earn his freedom if the Jewish community makes it clear to the President and our elected officials its sense of outrage over the continued haunting injustice of Pollard's sentence. Thus far American-Jewish leadership has demonstrated its ability to adjust graciously to the suffering of a fellow Jew, who begins his tenth year of incarceration.

Unless a dormant Jewish community awakens from its deep slumber and is prepared to uphold Jewish dignity, Jonathan Pollard will remain in prison. He deserves a better fate and the American-Jewish community deserves a less timid leadership.

Rabbi Sholom Stern is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst.