Too late for Netanyahu visit, Pollard letter finally arrives at White
February 11, 1998 - Walter Ruby - Special to the NJ Jewish News
More than three weeks after Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of
the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,
promised the membership of his umbrella body that a letter would be
dispatched to President Bill Clinton urging the release of Jonathan
Pollard on humanitarian grounds, a letter from conference chair Melvin
Salberg was finally received by the White House.
Pollard allies intended that the letter should arrive in time to augment
a plea for Pollard's release that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu was expected to deliver during his talks last month with
Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Conference officials say the group's
views were communicated to the White House in time for the Netanyahu
talks, a claim that is being disputed by Pollard. Meanwhile, the letter
has not been seen by conference members, and only arrived at the White
House after questions were raised as to whether it was sent at all.
The letter, which the White House Office of Records and Management
confirmed receiving from Salberg on Feb. 6, was the one that a consensus
of the 55-member conference had enjoined Salberg and Hoenlein to send to
Clinton after a Jan. 12 meeting.
The one-page undated letter, signed by Hoenlein and Salberg, was read to
the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The letter argued that Pollard had "paid
his debt", and "expressed remorse" for his crime.
"We respectfully request you to consider this humanitarian plea to allow
Mr. Pollard to start anew and rebuild his life," the letter reads. "As a
matter of compassion we believe immediate action to be warranted."
Following the Jan. 6 meeting, Hoenlein told the New York Jewish Week,
"Before the week is out, a letter will be sent to Clinton making the
strongest possible humanitarian plea on behalf of Jonathan Pollard," who
was convicted of spying for Israel in 1986, and has spent 12 years in
prison. Hoenlein did not respond on Feb. 6 to a call to his office in
which he was asked specifically when the letter on behalf of Pollard had
been dispatched. The White House confirmed that the Feb. 6 letter was
the first correspondence that it had received from Salberg during 1998.
On Feb. 5, Hoenlein told the Jewish News that the letter on behalf of
Pollard had been dispatched "immediately" after the Jan. 12 Presidents'
Conference meeting. Salberg explained that the letter had been sent to
the White House, but had not been distributed to members of the
Presidents' Conference, as is customarily done with such communications,
because "we wanted to allow the president time to respond."
He added, in a reference to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal now
consuming the White House, "In light of events since our [Jan. 12]
meeting, this issue doesn't have the same priority in Washington as some
"According to Salberg, there is "no set policy" as to when he and
Hoenlein will make the text of the letter available to members of the
Leading members of the conference, stretching across the political
spectrum from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the dovish former president of
the conference, to Morton Klein, the hawkish president of the Zionist
Organization of America, last week expressed anger and incredulity that
it had apparently taken Hoenlein and Salberg such a long time to
dispatch the letter on behalf of Pollard after having given assurances
to them and other members that the letter had already been sent.
Schindler, Klein and a number of other leaders of organizations
affiliated with the Presidents' Conference also expressed consternation
about Salberg and Hoenlein's refusal to release the letter publicly, or
even share the text of the letter with conference members.
In cutting language, Schindler issued a Feb. 8 statement, saying, "The
White House records must be flawed. I cannot believe that Mel Salberg
and Malcolm Hoenlein would be so disdainful of the near unanimous will
of our constituency clearly expressed so many weeks ago, or so callously
indifferent to the plight of a fellow Jew who has been languishing in
prison so many years beyond his just desserts. "
Several days earlier, Schindler had said he was "really angry" about
what he termed "stonewalling" by Salberg and Hoenlein over the letter on
behalf of Pollard. He noted that at a meeting on Dec. 21, the past
chairs of the Presidents' Conference, who form a kind of "inner cabinet"
of the body, had already enjoined Salberg and Hoenlein to send such a
letter on Pollard's behalf; and that he found it peculiar that Hoenlein
insisted that the entire 55-member conference needed to discuss the
issue again at its Jan. 12 meeting before acting.
Citing Hoenlein's public promise at that time that the letter would be
dispatched within a week, Schindler stated, "I had assumed if they said
they had sent it, that they had really sent it. I am puzzled why the
letter has not been released. This was decided weeks ago." Schindler
expressed concern that the tardy dispatch of the letter and the refusal
of Salberg and Hoenlein to make it public would send a message to
Clinton that the Pollard case is not an issue of vital interest to the
"At a time when several Israeli cabinet members have visited Pollard in
prison [at Camp Butner, NC], we need to keep this issue on the front
burner, "Schindler said.
Informed that the White House had confirmed that a letter from Salberg
had arrived only on Feb. 6, Klein responded simply; "Well now we know
the truth." Earlier Klein had said, "I assumed when we agreed to the
letter at the [Jan.12] meeting, that it would go out quickly. How long
does it take to send a letter?" he added. "Customarily when a letter is
sent by the conference, member organizations get a notification from
Malcolm either with the entire text or with excerpts. We have gotten
nothing on this letter, and I am outraged about it."
Neither Hoenlein or Salberg returned calls to this reporter after the
White House acknowledged receipt of a letter from Salberg on Feb. 6, but
a day earlier both had defended their behavior concerning Pollard. Both
men emphasized that it was necessary to withhold the text of the letter
from conference members so as to prevent it from becoming public and
embarrassing the president at a moment when he was distracted by the
Asked on Feb. 5 how the White House had been made aware of the
conference's stand on the Pollard matter, Hoenlein insisted that "it was
raised directly with them and in written form."
Had it been raised directly with Clinton? "No," Hoenlein responded.
"We raised it in the White House and we sent him the letter. We were in
the White House ourselves; we spoke to them about it; we raised the
issue and made clear our position in writing as well."
Insisting that he had sent out four letters in the past month
including letters to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat
(following up on Presidents' Conference resolutions on such issues as
anti-Semitism in the official Palestinian media and the killing of U.S.
citizens by Palestinian terror, as well as the letter on Pollard)
Hoenlein said that he and Salberg had sent out the Pollard letter
"immediately" after its adoption. He added, "We have done all the
things that were mandated in a very timely fashion much more than
anybody could have believed all the things that were asked of us."
Why was the letter not sent to conference members in a timely fashion?
He responded, "It will be done in a timely fashion and the chair will
determine when it is timely. We aren't going to send out [the text of
the Pollard] letter until the White House has had a chance to answer.
"Hoenlein argued that if the letter is sent out to member agencies of
the conference, "It will be published. There is no confidentiality with
a letter like that. We feel that as a matter of courtesy and given all
the tensions happening now, that we give the White House a chance to
respond. Our purpose is getting [Pollard] released, not getting
Hoenlein expressed surprise at Schindler's expression of anger at the
delay in providing the letter to conference members, stating, "I
explained it to Alex,and he seemed in full agreement. I explained that
we did it two ways; that we raised it in the White House and that we've
done it in writing." He added, "We are giving the White House a
reasonable amount of time. We aren't going to hold the letter forever."
So when will they release it? "When the chairman [Salberg] has
determined we have given them enough time."
Hoenlein argued that it is tactically important to wait before going
public with the Pollard letter, because "Our purpose is to get it to the
president" rather than White House surrogates, and "to get the
president's attention. Obviously, the president has been preoccupied.
We want to get a response from him. We've been successful in the past in
doing it this way. Our interest is in serving Jonathan Pollard's
purposes, not the purposes of PR or of getting exposure."
Hoenlein denied that he was concerned about a backlash against the
Jewish community by an irate Clinton if the conference appeared to be
challenging him while he was down. "No," Hoenlein said. "It's not a
question of any backlash. It's a question of what you want to come out
of it. If you want effectiveness, you've got to do it in a way that is
maximally effective, which means you need the president's attention to
it." He denied there had been any pressure from the Netanyahu government
on the conference not to press Clinton concerning Pollard, remarking,
"We didn't ask them, and they didn't say. On the contrary, [Israeli
cabinet ministers] have been visiting Pollard. Why would they say 'Cool
Salberg defended the delay in releasing the Pollard letter to conference
members, stating, "We have full faith in the members of the conference,
but there have been instances where statements have been made [by
conference members] that suit a particular point of view that may not be
the point of view of others." He added that no decision has yet been
made on when to release the letter to conference members, adding that
the conference has "no set policy" about making such letters available
to the member agencies. He said, "We were given the sense of the
conference in its meeting and we followed through on it."
In the meantime, Schindler's and Klein's criticisms are widely shared
among their colleagues. Many Jewish leaders interviewed for this article
assert that the issue was one of accountability the conference had
decided the letters should be sent, and it should have been sent in a
timely way. Moreover, they said, it should have been available to
conference members, and to the wider Jewish audience.
Seymour Reich, another former conference chair and a longtime staunch
backer of freedom for Pollard, responded sardonically to the news that
the White House had confirmed receipt of the letter on Feb. 6, quipping;
"Gee whiz, slow mails." He added that he "would have preferred that the
letter had gone out earlier," but added, "I'm sure Mel and Malcolm
thought the timing of the letter was appropriate." Several days earlier
Reich had said he accepts that Salberg and Hoenlein have the prerogative
of withholding the letter from the membership for a time after it has
been sent to Clinton, but said he believes it should be released within
two weeks of time of dispatch. He noted, "Of course, it depends when the
letter was sent. If it went out today, that would take some time. If it
went out a week or two ago, that would be a different story."
David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee,
remarked on Feb. 5, "I'm sure there would be great curiosity here to
know what is in the letter, as the issue of Jonathan Pollard has been a
hotly debated question [in the AJCommittee]. So we would be eager to
know what is being said in our name." Harris added, "I don't personally
recall in recent memory" another case where the Presidents' Conference
leadership refused to allow its member agencies the right to see copies
of an official letter sent to the White House.
Mark Seal, associate executive director of HIAS, noted that the flap
about the letter to Clinton came only months after Hoenlein was widely
castigated in the Jewish media and from some conference member agencies
for often operating on his own without informing the members of
important decisions and sometimes putting his own political spin on
conference positions. Seal praised Salberg, who became conference chair
last summer, for "making a superhuman effort" to bring Hoenlein into
greater compliance with the will of member agencies, but said, "I would
be curious to see this letter myself. We have been outspoken in asking
for accountability when there is a decision [by the conference] to take
an action. Salberg has encouraged people to demand it."
Kenneth Bialkin, another former conference chair, expressed incredulity
over the Pollard letter flap. "I believe someone is misinformed here,
because I can't imagine that a letter being sent on behalf of the
conference would not be made available to the members of the
conference," he said. "If a letter is sent, it becomes a matter of
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew
Congregations, was puzzled as to "why such a letter would have to be
confidential." He said that the leadership of the Reform movement
recently met with Salberg and Hoenlein "to discuss with them issues of
the governance of the Presidents' Conference," and to express the
opinion that the conference "can do better in a variety of ways. We
wanted clarity as to how policy decisions are made, and stressed the
need for total and complete openness on budget issues." Yoffie said it
is "too early to tell whether an appropriate response has been made."
Pollard himself, who had been asserting for more than two weeks that the
letter on his behalf was never sent to the White House, reacted
furiously to the news that a letter from Salberg had been received by
the White House as late as Feb. 6. Interviewed by phone from the Butner
prison, Pollard told the Jewish News, "It is only thanks to the members
of the press and people like Alex Schindler that the letter was sent at
all. I find it interesting that it still has not been publicly
Pollard said he knew as early as two days after Netanyahu's Jan. 20-21
visit to Washington that it was a "cold-blooded lie" that the
Presidents' Conference letter had already been dispatched, affirming
that "Netanyahu's people told us it hadn't been received [by the White
Pollard said he had been informed by Israeli sources that when Netanyahu
met Gore on Jan. 21, the Israeli prime minister appealed for the United
States to free Pollard on humanitarian grounds, and cited the
Presidents' Conference letter as evidence that the American Jewish
community supported that step. According to Pollard, Gore responded that
he knew of no such letter from the Presidents' Conference to Clinton.
When asked by this reporter why Gore had not heard of the letter,
Hoenlein responded, "The letter was sent to Clinton, not Gore. There is
no reason why Gore should necessarily know about it."
Pollard said that a person close to him had been informed by Hoenlein
personally that he and Salberg had not been able to raise the Pollard
case during a meeting they held with Clinton at the White House on Jan.
20, hours before Netanyahu's meetings with Clinton, because they had
literally been given "30 seconds" by the president and then were
dismissed with a promise to reschedule the meeting.
Informed that reliable sources had contradicted that account asserting
that Hoenlein and Salberg had actually met for about 30 minutes with
Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security
Council chief Sandy Berger and their top aides, holding a broad-ranging
discussion on United States-Israel relations Pollard responded
angrily. "If that account is true and they had 30 minutes with the
president and didn't raise my case, then the damage they did is
incalculable," he said. "By not mentioning my name, they sent a very
clear message to the president that my case is not to be taken
seriously, and that consequently, any letter that they sent to the
president subsequent to that meeting is doomed to fail."
Hoenlein told this reporter that he and Salberg had indeed raised the
Pollard issue during their meeting in the White House, though not
directly with the president.
According to Pollard, "The White House closely follows what goes on in
the Jewish community, and they understand that this letter was coerced
[from Hoenlein and Salberg]. When it arrives, Clinton's [negative]
response is a given. He knows what he can do with impunity. This is a
sham, a beau geste, a flourish designed to protect them against future
charges of indifference. The way that [Hoenlein and Salberg] handled
this will do more damage to me than if they just hadn't done anything at
Pollard, who has often accused the American Jewish establishment of
indifference to his fate, concluded, "This would be disheartening if I
had expected more from them, but this is business as usual." Earlier
Pollard had said he is considering going forward with a beit din against
the Presidents' Conference on charges that it has been derelict by not
actively seeking his freedom. Pollard had put preparations for the
religious court proceeding into abeyance last month after the
conference's promise to send a letter on his behalf to Clinton.
Asked about Pollard's threat of a beit din against the Presidents'
Conference, Salberg responded, "I have no comment on Jonathan's
statements. They threatened a beit din. What does one say? We feel we
have been supportive of Jonathan's position in the past. I feel I have
been personally supportive of his position in the past, and I feel that
we have acted properly." Salberg affirmed Hoenlein's account that the
Pollard matter had been "raised with the White House" the day he and
Hoenlein met Clinton, but declined to say with whom they had raised it.
Walter Ruby is on the Editorial Board of "The Long Island Jewish World".
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