80 Minutes With Prisoner Number 09185-016

November 28,1997 - Yuli Edelstein (Minister of Immigrant Absorption)
Special to Ma'ariv

Monday, November 24, 1997, 10 a.m. We are driving along the road which leads from the airport in North Carolina in the southeastern United States, to the Federal Prison complex, FCI Butner. The trip takes about 45 minutes, at first on main highways and then on a narrow, winding country road through a wooded area. We pass a hospital for the mentally ill. Our drivers are two women from the small Jewish community who are excited about the honor which has befallen them, to accompany a minister of the State of Israel.

Suddenly a beautiful campus appears before our eyes, which would do no shame as a university campus: shrubbery, carpet-like green lawns, and parking lots with hundreds of vehicles. Only the razor-wire fences and the signs which surround this pastoral scene remind us that we have arrived in a place where hundreds of hardened criminals are serving long terms in prison.

At the entrance, Esther Pollard is already waiting for us, excited and impatient. We meet Ms. Robin Pitcairn, the Executive Assistant to the Warden, who tries to imbue the visit with the sense of an official State visit. The rules prohibit photographic equipment, but after we explain to the administration that we are interested in taking pictures, a compromise is offered - the photographer will remain outside, but his camera will be allowed in with one of the people accompanying me. In very short order the Assistant Warden reveals professional talent as a stage director and suggests where and how to take the best shots.

Every visitor is obliged to undergo a thorough security check, from head to toe, after which his hand is stamped with an ultraviolet ink. Then one must pass through four pairs of sliding iron doors, only one of which is permitted to be open at any given moment. To my surprise, I was exempted from all security checks.

The visit was set for a time which was not part of the regular visit day and this allowed us to sit comfortably in the visit room which is set up like a cafeteria. There were about 20 small round tables in the room, and four chairs around each table.

Only Esther and Jonathan Pollard were present at this meeting, as well as two of my aides who accompanied me, and the monitor from US Naval Intelligence (mustachioed, well-dressed, very careful not to be photographed) who politely listened to our conversation.

Jonathan Pollard, age 43, hefty in appearance (the result of illness and of the diet he is forced to subsist on in the absence of kosher food), his black and whitening hair reaching down to his shoulders, was wearing a knit kipa and a khaki prison uniform. On his shirt his name was printed along with his number - 09185-016.

He was excited and did not try to hide it. At the beginning of the visit he shook my hand firmly and at the end of the visit he embraced me warmly.

Jonathan was holding Esther's hand as I told him that I had come more to listen than to speak.

He then started to speak: "I am skeptical about anyone connected to the government. Governments can destroy people. I have lost all confidence in the political establishment. Nevertheless, following your visit, I would like to request that other ministers come to see me as well. When the Americans see that the political leaders of Israel regard my release as a matter of great importance, they will begin to take the issue seriously."

The whole thing started 12 years ago when as Pollard states, he was thrown out of the Embassy of the State of Israel which he served. He says the State betrayed him. Up to this day, 12 years later, he is still in the same situation. Nothing has changed.

I was surprised to meet a man who after 12 years in prison, 7 of them in solitary confinement, is so full of vitality, which just radiates from him in the most amazing way. For the next hour and twenty minutes that we spent together, I spent about an hour listening to his well-articulated thoughts.

"I am no longer a young man. I am realistic," said Pollard. "I want to realize very specific goals. First and foremost I want to come home to Israel. I want to have time to have a family of my own", (he shows me that he is not even allowed to wear a wedding band, something that hurts him very much) "and to give over to my children the richness of our tradition." And he punctuated words here by tightly squeezing the hand of his wife, Esther.

The conversation was in English, and Pollard salt-and-peppered his speech with Hebrew, including slang - he used the word "balagan" (big mess) at least half a dozen times.

"I hope to come to Israel soon, and to contribute to a nation, whose people have embraced me and sent me endless letters of encouragement and support - which stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the politicians. I want to contribute professionally in the areas of water and energy."

"I know that as an American citizen, I did wrong, and I have expressed my remorse a number of times." He does not forget to point out that he acted out of the desire to save Israel from harm.

"I ask that the State of Israel officially recognize me as an agent and that the State take responsibility for its actions. I ask that political differences be set aside and that a joint appeal by Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak go out to all of the Jewish communal leaders in the United States which will make it clear that the issue of my release is a matter of national consensus in Israel. They should ask the American Jewish community to make its voice heard on the matter in order to create momentum."

"Of course, I expect the Government of Israel to make a direct approach to the American Government and to make it clear that they see my release as a matter of national priority, and that I have already served a very harsh sentence."

I was surprised, of course I was surprised, that the prison authorities do not make it possible for Pollard to have kosher food. They also do not allow him to receive medical treatment from specialists (in particular, he needs to see an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist) and after 12 years in prison they do not allow him to have a radio in his cell. I promised that I would also do my best on these issues as well.

Pollard suggested a number of initiatives to me which he believes would promote his release. I promised him that I would look into his suggestions one by one, with the appropriate authorities upon my return to Israel.

80 minutes went by. Fifty steps later we were outside the prison breathing clean air, feeling warm sun and seeing blue sky, reminiscent of Israeli blue.

Jonathan Pollard returned to his cell.

I wondered to myself, if I would have the privilege during my term in office to personally hand Jonathan Pollard the Israeli immigration certificate he so badly wants and so richly deserves.