Where Is Our Compassion for Fellow Jews?

Friday, December 12, 1997 - Pesach Lerner & Chaim Kaminestsky - The Jewish Press

Last month, as reported by JTA, Phil Baum, Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, expressed an outrageously callous attitude towards Jewish suffering when he refused to join appeals by concerned Jewish leaders around the world for the release of Jonathan Pollard, who has already served twelve years of a life sentence in maximum security federal prisons. Baum seeks to justify his mean-spirited attitude towards Pollard by denying a "corporate Jewish responsibility for the act he committed or the sentence he received because his abhorrent act did not involve us."

Yet Baum and the agency that he heads have regularly spoken out in support of a variety of contemporary humanitarian causes which have no direct involvement to the Jewish people. Baum chooses to ignore that those calling for Pollard's release, in the name of justice, include many who condemned Pollard's original crime, of giving classified American intelligence information to Israel. They protest, however, the harsh treatment to which Pollard has been subjected.

It is disproportionately severe, even when compared to the punishment meted out to other Americans who have been convicted of spying for hostile countries, let alone the leniency typically given to captured agents of other friendly nations. And they also point to deeply disturbing indications that those within the government who have blocked previous attempts to secure Pollard's release have been acting out of anti-Israeli, if not openly anti-Semitic motives.

Furthermore, this is not the first time that Mr. Baum and his organization have broken ranks in the attempt to establish a united Jewish front to plead for clemency on Pollard's behalf. Baum distributed a mean-spirited memo on Pollard's case in 1992 to member agencies of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council opposing the placing of clemency for Pollard on the Jewish community's official agenda.

However, the most relevant facts in the Pollard case are not in dispute:

  1. Pollard has been held in prison far longer, and under far more severe conditions, than any other person convicted of spying for a friendly country.
  2. Pollard's life imprisonment sentence was imposed after the government unilaterally canceled a far more lenient plea bargain agreement, under highly irregular circumstances.
  3. The State of Israel has admitted that Pollard was working as an agent on its behalf, and its government leaders have repeatedly requested that the American government release him.
  4. Those within the American government who have opposed his release have never publicly revealed the nature of the national security grounds upon which their argument is based.
  5. There have been many allegations that Pollard has been wrongfully blamed for some security leaks that were in fact due to other spies who have since been exposed, such as Aldrich Ames.
  6. Jonathan Pollard has clearly and repeatedly expressed remorse for his crime, and has re-affirmed his allegiance to the State of Israel by becoming a citizen.
  7. It has also been credibly alleged that the continued opposition to clemency for Pollard of former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, and others within the American security establishment is attributable, at least in part, to anti-Semitic or anti-Israel motivations.
In justification of his rejection of Pollard's cause, Baum said, "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. Short of that, it's not relevant to us."

By that statement, does Baum mean to introduce a new double standard; that only those Jews who can present irrefutable evidence of their victimization are worthy of Jewish compassion?

Why does Baum choose to ignore accusations from within the US government that those raising objections to Pollard's release are acting out of Anti-Semitic motives? Or is Baum concerned that Jews who put too high a priority on the security of the State of Israel are, in fact, an embarrassment to the American Jewish community?

We think that it is high time for Phil Baum and his organization to do a reality check on the selectivity of their public conscience. Why isn't it as clear to Phil Baum as it is to the rest of the Jewish world, as well as the Israeli government, that Jonathan Pollard is no longer being punished for his act of espionage against the United States, but for being a Jew acting on behalf of the Jewish State?

Why is it that his continued imprisonment outraged former Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Conscience Yuli Edelstein, Israel's Minister of Absorption, so much that he recently made a special trip from Israel to visit Pollard in his North Carolina jail; why has Communications Minister Limor Livnat been inspired to follow suit with her own visit to Pollard; yet Baum's conscience remains insensitive to Pollard's plight.

We suggest that it is long past time for Phil Baum to honestly search his soul and ask himself why he cannot feel Jonathan Pollard's pain. Compassion for the downtrodden and the condemned has long been a treasured and even a defining trait of the Jewish people. How much more of that trait should we demand of those who purport to be its leaders?

Chaim Kaminetzky, National President
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Vice President

  • See Pollard Seeks Beit Din Ruling Against Presidents' Conference for the for full text of Baum's comments.