Fasting for Jonathan

August 2, 1996- The Jerusalem Post - In Jerusalem Section

Esther Pollard began an open-ended hunger strike this week, to demand the release of her husband from his isolation cell in a US Federal Prison. Steven Leibowitz reports

A large black umbrella shades Esther Pollard's head and friends coax her to drink bottled water as 90 degree midday heat tortures the woman who has vowed not to eat until death or until her husband - convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, is freed.

During this reporter's visit on Monday, people had come from as far away as Tel Aviv and Haifa, kibbutzim and moshavim, constantly surrounding Esther and her one-woman vigil for Jonathan in front of the Mashbir department store on King George Street. As we went to press, 30,000 people had signed the petition demanding Jonathan's release.

The decision to begin the hunger strike came last Friday, when Esther heard the announcement from the White House that President Bill Clinton had decided to deny clemency to Jonathan, who has already served 10 years of a life sentence for spying for Israel. It was the second rejection by Clinton and followed a similar denial by President Bush in 1993. Citing Pollard's "lack of remorse," Clinton issued a statement saying that based on the "enormity of the crime," shortening Pollard's sentence would not serve the goal of deterrence.

Esther attacked the Clinton decision telling In Jerusalem, "They speak about the enormity of his crime. But others committing far more serious crimes received much shorter sentences." She then points out a chart to prove her point. She goes on, "They say he damaged US security, but this was never brought out in his trial and never proven by anyone. They claim he lacks remorse. But he's written dozens of letters of remorse including one a few months ago which I gave to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres which was passed on to Clinton."

Announcing her vigil, Esther lashed out at President Clinton and also Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whom she accuses of not having raised the issue of Pollard's release when he met recently with Clinton in the White House. She charges that Netanyahu ignored personal pleas from Jonathan to meet with him in the US, and did not even give an indication to the Jewish community in the US that the Pollard case is a priority of the Israeli government. The Prime Minister's office immediately denied the charge, and issued a statement that it "regrets" Clinton's decision and vowed to "continue to work for the freeing of Pollard."

Meanwhile, American Jewish leaders feel betrayed by Clinton. "We consider this a slap in the face" said Seymour Reich, President of the Zionist Organization of America. He and other leaders were angry because 80 members of the Conference of the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were meeting Clinton at the exact moment his spokesman was making the announcement about Pollard.

"He did not tell us about his decision," said one Jewish leader who added "What chutzpah. We heard about it from the press as we were leaving the building."

Sending a message to Jerusalem from Butner Prison in North Carolina, Jonathan wrote to supporters, "I am saddened and disgusted that my wife must now endanger her life to save my own. I am heartbroken that it has to come to this."

Esther, a three year immigrant from Toronto, Canada, has never spent a night with her husband since meeting and falling in love with him during a visit to the prison. But she produces a picture of their prison wedding. She proudly wears a gold wedding band and a locket carrying her husband's wedding ring around her neck. Next to her, a hand-made sign displays the word from Samuel 14:45, "And the people redeemed Jonathan and he did not die.

By Tuesday afternoon, Esther had been taken to Bikur Holim hospital after collapsing from dehydration. However, from her hospital bed she vowed to continue her hunger strike until her husband is freed.

Said Esther, "It's time for our government to understand that my husband has no more strength. He's been in isolation with nothing but empty promises for too long. He can't take it anymore."