Jonathan Pollard Is Taking American-Jewish Leadership to a Beit Din

December 15, 1997 - Susan L. Rosenbluth, Editor - N. J. Jewish Voice and Opinion

Jonathan Pollard, who just entered his 13th year of a life sentence in an American jail for having passed classified documents to Israel in the 1980s, picked up some major support in the Orthodox-Jewish community and the Israeli government last month. His court case in Israel in which he is suing to be recognized as an agent of the Jewish state and not part of a rogue operation is proceeding, and he has just let it known that he will seek to take the Conference of Presidents of Major American-Jewish Organizations to a Beit Din.

Thirteen rabbis from the Eighth Congressional District of New Jersey signed a letter to President Bill Clinton asking for Mr. Pollard's release, and former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu sent a letter instructing all the nation of Israel to work with all their strength and means to free the former Naval intelligence analyst.

In addition, Mr. Pollard, who is now 42, was visited in his Butner, North Carolina, prison by Israeli Minister of Absorption Yuli Edelstein. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), who represents the eighth district, is scheduled to meet with him on December 11. According to reports, Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein asked his US counterpart, Janet Reno, to free Mr. Pollard, but it is unclear if Mr. Rubinstein actually filed a formal request for Mr. Pollard's release with US officials.

Unprincipled Indifference

On Tuesday, November 11, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who has long been identified as Mr. Pollard's spiritual advisor, submitted a formal request to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America to summon the Conference of Presidents to a Beit Din, or religious Jewish court. In a letter dated Nov. 4, 1997, Mr. Pollard authorized Rabbi Weiss to represent him in such a Beit Din.

"It is my contention, Rabbi Weiss, that [the Conference of Presidents] unprincipled indifference towards me constitutes a refusal on its part to honor two of our most important mitzvoth, namely pidyom shvuyim [redemption of the captive] and pikuach nefesh [saving a life]. Since the Conference has been unwilling to address this matter, I have decided to sue the organization for the harm it has caused me. I can only hope this action will finally compel the organization to act in a way that underscores our peoples sense of compassion and accountability for each other," wrote Mr. Pollard.

While a Beit Din ruling is not binding according to American secular law, a ruling against the Conference of Presidents could not easily be ignored. It would probably be honored by all Orthodox members of the Conference, including Mr. Hoenlein, and would curtail the organizations standing and fund-raising abilities in the Orthodox community.

According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents, as of the beginning of December, no summons to a Beit Din had been issued. Mr. Hoenlein, who said his organization would respond to the summons if and when it arrives, called the action a frivolous use of a Beit Din.

All Their Strength

Rabbi Eliahu would probably beg to differ. In a letter to Mr. Pollard's Israeli attorney, Larry Dub, Rabbi Eliahu expressed surprise at the thought that anyone would doubt that the mitzvah of pidyom shvuyim applied to the rescue of Mr. Pollard. "It is the obligation of all the nation of Israel, no matter where they may be, to do everything they can to assist and aid with all their strength and means to work to extricate and free the Honorable Gentleman Jonathan Pollard, may G-d watch over him and protect him, who sacrificed himself for the good of, and in order to save, all the nation of Israel," wrote the rabbi.

In July 1996, during a meeting with the Conference of Presidents, President Clinton was asked by Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement, about Mr. Pollard's fate. According to several participants at that meeting, the President responded with silence and a contemptuous smile. While the meeting with the Conference of Presidents was taking place, the President's spokesman, Michael McCurry, was announcing that Mr. Clinton had, once again, rejected an appeal for clemency for Mr. Pollard on humanitarian grounds.

The incident was a clear indication that the American Jewish community is not taken seriously at the White House, said Edward Alexander, a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle and a frequent commentator on Jewish matters. Clinton and his advisors 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.

Mr. Alexander endorsed the idea of bringing the Conference to a Beit Din. For better of worse, these are the only Jewish leaders with access to the President, 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 Weinbergers 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, said Mr. Alexander.

Lack of Israeli Involvement

While Mr. Alexander was criticizing American-Jewish leaders, Mr. Edelstein, a member of the Yisrael BAliyah Party, was no kinder to Israeli officials. The Minister of Absorption denounced the lack of Israeli involvement in seeking to obtain Mr. Pollard's release. Mr. Edelstein called on Israeli officials to become actively involved in pressuring the US in this regard.

"During the past 18 months that I have served in the Cabinet, there have not been any efforts on Mr. Pollard's behalf not to mention the previous government, which was not, lets say, sacrificing themselves for this," he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained that he has worked diligently for Mr. Pollard's release.

Second Official Visit

Taking his own advice, Mr. Edelstein made plans to visit Mr. Pollard, who was granted Israeli citizenship in 1996, a move he hoped would facilitate his release. Mr. Edelstein's visit was coordinated with the Foreign Ministry and Mr. Rubinstein, who was simultaneously meeting with Ms. Reno.

Mr. Edelstein's visit marked the second to Mr. Pollard by an Israeli government official in 13 years. In September 1996, three Knesset Members Gideon Ezra (Likud), Ofer Pines (Labor), and Yehudah Harel (Third Way) visited Mr. Pollard.

Before meeting with Mr. Pollard, Mr. Edelstein told Israeli Radio his major message would be that the convicted spy has not been forgotten. "I am not saying he has not done anything wrong. It was a crime under American law, and I think 13 years in prison in enough. Its high time for us to debate the issue publicly," he said.

Self-Serving Sham

While Mr. Pollard's organization, Justice for Jonathan Pollard, greeted the news that Mr. Edelstein would be visiting with pleasure, they were much more cynical about Mr. Rubinstein's involvement. Mr. Pollard's wife, Esther, called the Israeli Attorney General's visit to Ms. Reno a self-serving sham.

"The Attorney General of Israel may be successful at deceiving the public he is supposed to be serving, but his vain and empty gesture did not fool the Americans or any other knowledgeable person," said Mrs. Pollard.

The Pollard organization has long cited Mr. Rubinstein as instrumental in Mr. Pollard's original arrest, a charge Mr. Rubinstein has denied. Mrs. Pollard said Mr. Rubinstein's chief reason for meeting with Ms. Reno was to discuss the matter of Samuel Sheinbein, a 17-year accused of murder in Maryland, whom the US is seeking to extradite from Israel.

"The fact that Pollard was a secondary issue on Rubinstein's agenda underscored even more forcefully that there was no serious intent on the part of the Israeli government to do anything for Pollard," said Mrs. Pollard. "By raising the issue of Jonathan Pollard in a very public manner, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with an American official who has neither the authority nor the possibility to effect any change in Jonathans' sentence, Rubinstein signaled to the Americans a very clear lack of serious intent."

Bibi's Promise

According to Mr. Edelstein, Mr. Pollard used their hour-long visit to ask Mr. Netanyahu to request his immediate release, calling on the government and the Labor opposition party to unify on his behalf. Mr. Edelstein gave Mr. Pollard a letter from Mr. Netanyahu in which he promised to do just that. "I will not spare any effort to bring about your release from jail," wrote Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Edelstein said he would ask prison authorities to allow Mr. Pollard to receive kosher food, to have a radio, and to be permitted to make more telephone calls. He noted that Mr. Pollard's mood was quite positive, although he does have some health problems, such as migraine headaches, for which he is not receiving adequate medical attention. On Israel television, Mr. Edelstein said Mr. Pollard was warm and intelligent, and that he asked the Absorption Minister to encourage ministers and other public figures to visit him. Mr. Edelstein said Mr. Pollard was very knowledgeable about Israeli affairs, and although he was not bitter, he was cynical as to how ready Israel was to make efforts on his behalf.

In fact, the Israeli government has not yet officially acknowledged that Mr. Pollard was an Israeli agent, a point Mr. Edelstein said he would raise with the Prime Minister, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, and others. On November 30, he brought up the subject at the beginning of the government meeting, including Mr. Pollard's request for visits by other government ministers. Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his promise that the government would do all it could to attain Mr. Pollard's release.

Regarding the American claim that Mr. Pollard still knows secrets that could be dangerous to American security, Mr. Edelstein, a Russian émigré who knows all about such governmental claims, said, "it is impossible that someone who has been in prison for 12 years could know information that could still be dangerous."