Pollard Seeks Beit Din Ruling Against Presidents' Conference
November 17, 1997 - Debra Nussbaum Cohen - JTA
Orthodox divorces and mundane business disputes are the bread and butter of Jewish religious courts. Now, however, one of the country's most prominent religious courts is being asked to rule on convicted spy Jonathan Pollard's contention that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has been derelict by not actively seeking his freedom.
Pollard's spiritual adviser, Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss, of Bronx, N.Y.,
submitted a formal petition to the Beit Din of America on Nov. 11,
asking them to hear Pollard's claim against the Conference of
Presidents, an umbrella organization that often represents American
Jewish public opinion to the U.S. administration, particularly on
matters relating to Israel.
Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who pleaded guilty in
1986 to spying for Israel, is serving a life sentence in federal prison in
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of
Presidents, said that he had not been officially informed of Pollard's
effort, which he called "frivolous." "I understand Pollard's frustration and that this is an expression of
it," Hoenlein said. "We'll see if any beit din would accept" this case.
The Beit Din of America is connected with the Rabbinical Council of
America, the main organization of centrist Orthodox clergy. The
court's senior judge, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, was not aware of
Pollard's request and the court's executive director, Rabbi Michael
Broyde, did not return phone calls. But even if the beit din agrees to
hear the case, its ruling would have little impact because the court has
no power of enforcement.
Pollard, through frequent mailings to journalists and Jewish leaders,
and phone calls placed by his second wife, Esther Pollard, has long
publicized his sense of victimization by the Israeli and U.S.
governments and by the organized Jewish community which, he says,
has neglected his plight.
Why is he taking the Conference of Presidents, rather than another
Jewish organization, to a beit din?
"The Conference is the address the American government goes to
because they represent themselves as the government of our people,"
said Pollard in a telephone interview Tuesday conducted through his
In a letter Jonathan Pollard faxed to Weiss on Nov. 4, he said, "This
group's unprincipled indifference toward me constitutes a refusal on its
part to honor two of our most important mitzvot," pidyon shevuyim,
or redeeming captives, and pikuach nefesh, which means saving a life
and takes precedence over all other commandments.
"I can only hope that this action will finally compel the organization
to act in a way that underscores our people's sense of compassion and
accountability for one another," Pollard wrote in the letter, a copy of
which was made available this week by his wife.
The Conference's Hoenlein says that his group has done what it can to
get Pollard paroled.
The Conference sent President Clinton a letter last year seeking his
freedom, and its representatives have raised Pollard's situation "every
time" that they have met with the president and other senior
administration officials, Hoenlein said.
"From different people we've gotten different answers," he said in an
interview from Indianapolis, where he was attending the Council of
Jewish Federations' General Assembly.
"We've heard security reasons why he has not been freed, political
reasons as to why, but five out of the five government agencies
involved recommended against his release," Hoenlein said.
Clinton has twice refused to commute Pollard's sentence, as did
President Bush once before him.
Not everyone agrees Pollard's case is the Jewish communal
"There's no corporate Jewish responsibility for the act he committed
or the sentence he received because his abhorrent act did not involve
us," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish
Congress and a member of the Conference of Presidents.
"We made a concerted effort to ascertain if there was any anti-
Semitism involved in his trial, sentencing or incarceration, and we
could find no evidence of it," said Baum. "Short of that, it's not
relevant to us."
See the Young Israel Response to Phil Baum