Pollard Seeking His Day In Beit Din

Debra Nussbaum Cohen - Jewish Telegraphic Agency - November 20, 1997

NEW YORK - Orthodox divorces and mundane business disputes are the bread and butter of Jewish religious courts. Now, however, one of the country's most prominent batei din is being asked to rule on convicted spy Jonathan Jay Pollard's contention that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has been derelict by not actively seeking his freedom.

Pollard's Orthodox spiritual adviser, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, NY, submitted a formal petition for a hearing to the Beit Din of America on November 11. Specifically, he asked the panel 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 civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, pleaded guilty in 1986 to spying for Israel and is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Butner, NC.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents, said that he had not been officially informed of Pollard's effort, which he called "frivolous."

"I understand Pollards' 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 rabbinical organization of centrist Orthodox clergy. It is closely allied to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The court's senior judge, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, said he was not aware of Pollard's request. The court's executive director, Rabbi Michael Broyde, did not return phone calls. Even if the beit din agrees to hear the case, however, its ruling would have little impact, other than a moral one, because religious courts have no power of enforcement in the United States.

Pollard, through frequent mailings to journalists and Jewish leaders and telephone 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 Presidents' Conference, 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 on Nov. 11 conducted through his wife, Esther.

In a letter 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 mitzvoth."

The religious obligations Pollard was referring to are pidyon shevuyim, or the redeeming of captives, and pikuach nefesh, which means saving a life. The latter takes precedence over nearly all other commandments, including Shabbat observance and the prohibition against eating non-kosher food. As to the former, Maimonides explains that the obligation to ransom captives takes precedence over the duty of giving charity to the poor. "A person who delays the fulfillment of this duty and causes an undue prolongation of his fellow Jew's imprisonment is regarded as if he has spilled his blood." Maimonides states in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.

"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.

Hoenlein says that his group has done what it can to get Pollard paroled. The Conference sent President Bill Clinton a letter last year seeking his freedom, and its representatives have raised Pollard's situation "every time" that thy 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, out 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 George Bush once before him.

Not everyone agrees Pollard's case is the Jewish communal establishment's concern. "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.

In a related development, Yuli Edelstein, Israel's minister of absorption, will visit Pollard on Nov. 24. If the visit occurs, he will be the first cabinet minister to visit Pollard in prison.