Why Pollard is Suing the American Jewish Leadership

November 13, 1997 - Edward Alexander - Special to the NJ Jewish News

Now that the United States is once again approaching a violent clash with Iraq, the American military build-up of that country during the Reagan administration affords a dramatic illustration of the old Jewish saying: hagolem kam al yotzro (the monster rises against its creator).

But it also affords the occasion to reflect upon one of the many tragic offshoots of that ill-conceived policy (presided over mainly by then secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger): namely, the plight of Jonathan Pollard. Now entering his 13th year in prison, Pollard received a life sentence for supplying Israel with satellite photos of Iraqi weapons sites and with information about the transfer to Iraq (approved by Weinberger) of U.S.-manufactured weapons, subsequently used to kill or poison American soldiers and Israeli civilians in the Persian Gulf war.

Little can be expected from the Israeli government. Responsibility for aggressively pursuing commutation of Pollard's sentence or a presidential pardon rests with Americans and, most specifically, with our officially (if not always democratically) designated Jewish leaders -- not so much with our religious leaders, who have often and publicly called for Pollard's release, but with the spokespeople for public policy groups, such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Yet this leadership has done little. That's why Pollard is now suing the American Jewish leadership.

On Tuesday, November 11, Rabbi Avi Weiss submitted a formal request to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America to summon the Conference of Presidents to a beit din, or religious court. The former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, recently reiterated his view that freeing Pollard is a matter of pidyon shvuyim and, therefore, a moral and religious duty. While an Orthodox beit din has no formal or legal binding power, a ruling against the Presidents Conference would be a stinging blow.

It is common knowledge that, although Pollard was indeed guilty of espionage, his sentence was outrageously out of proportion to his crime, grossly in excess of penalties meted out to other Americans convicted (both before and after him) of spying for "friendly" countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Korea) and handed down in blatant violation of the U.S. government's plea-bargain agreement. That agreement stipulated that if he acknowledged his guilt, surrendered his right to trial and cooperated with investigators, the government would not seek a life sentence against him. Instead, egged on by Weinberger, the official who had most to gain by preventing a public trial and thereby concealing his own incompetence and skullduggery, the United States sentence Pollard to life for treason, even though that charge never appeared in the indictment against him.

All this is, by this late date, so much blood under the bridge. But what is to be done for Pollard now? American Jewish leaders have occasionally brought up Pollard's case in their periodic meetings with President Bill Clinton, but always, as the Forward delicately remarked in 1996, "with great judiciousness."

In late July of that year, meeting with the Conference of Presidents, Clinton responded with silence and a contemptuous smile to Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, when Reich raised the question of Pollard. It later emerged that at the very time Clinton was airily snubbing the Jewish Presidents' concern, his spokesperson, Michael McCurry, was announcing that Clinton had once again rejected an appeal for clemency made on humanitarian grounds.

This incident was a clear indication that the American Jewish community is not taken seriously in the White House. Clinton and his advisers know only too well just what issues are dear to the hearts of most American Jewish leaders. They are keen to show their support for the "peace process" and for "better cooperation" between Israel and its "peace partner."

For better or worse, however, these leaders are the only Jewish leaders with access to the president -- and not only to the president, but to the vice president who may very well succeed him and to congressional leaders from both parties contending for the presidential nomination. Now -- when the latest fallout from Weinberger's pro-Iraq policy threatens yet another catastrophe -- would seem the suitable time for Jewish leaders to show leadership in the case of Jonathan Pollard and to indicate, clearly, unambiguously and aggressively that American Jews consider the issue one of the greatest importance to them -- not only as a matter of fairness to Pollard, but as a matter involving their own status as full citizens of this country and as an issue that will decisively influence their votes in the next election.

Our leaders would do well to reflect upon their dereliction of duty in the Pollard affair and ponder the text from Song of Songs (1:6) which says: "They made me a keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not kept!"

Edward Alexander is professor of English at University of Washington in Seattle. His most recent book is "The Jewish Wars: Reflections By One of the Belligerents".

See also:
  • Jonathan Authorizes Suit Against Conference of Presidents
  • Response to Levitin Article in Yated Ne'eman