Pollard, and the Price of Poltroonery

Steven Pruzansky - Yediot Yeshurun - March 1998 Edition

How long will Jonathan Pollard remain behind bars, forlorn and abandoned?

Pollard is now in the thirteenth year of a life sentence for the crime of passing classified information to an American ally (Israel). But there is much more to this story than the bare legal facts. This is about the continuing betrayal of a Jew who risked his life, freedom and career to protect other Jews, and got caught in the web of overt and covert Jew-hatred and the maelstrom of American, Israeli and Jewish organizational politics, personalities and poltroonery.

In a nutshell: Pollard sits because he touched too many nerves in the wrong people, both Jews and non-Jews. His expressions of remorse and regret notwithstanding, Pollard's case spiraled out-of-control because of a combination of malice, timidity, selfishness, and an unfortunate series of errors. No one emerges from this sordid tale with clean hands: not Pollard himself, not the American and Israeli governments, not American Jews.

The tragedy of errors? Pollard provided classified information to Israel that Israel was entitled to receive from the United States pursuant to an intelligence-sharing agreement between the two governments, but which Israel was denied by American intelligence officials hostile to Israel. That information - on PLO activities, terror threats, chemical and biological weapons programs in Arab countries - saved Jewish lives, and endangered no Americans. Pollard - contrary to the myths propagated by so many - was never charged with treason or espionage. He pleaded guilty in exchange for the prosecution's commitment not to ask for a life sentence. They didn't, but didn't have to.

On the day of sentencing, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger (whom we all recall as no friend of Israel) filed a classified brief with the court (which Pollard's lawyers were then unable to see, or refute) which falsely labeled Pollard "the worst spy in American history", a person who had revealed the names of American agents throughout the world, and caused the death of several. This information was provided to Weinberger by none other than.....Aldrich Ames, who did so in order to divert attention from his espionage activities which, in fact, had cost American lives. Weinberger also flatly asserted that Pollard had jeopardized American interests in the Middle East, by strengthening Israel (!), and making it less amenable to American pressure. Weinberger fell for Ames' bait, but Pollard was the one who was swallowed whole - sentenced to life imprisonment despite the plea agreement.

A divided Court of Appeals upheld the agreement 2-1. The two Jewish judges (one of them, Ruth Bader Ginsburg) ruled against Pollard, and the sole dissenter (a non-Jew) termed this plea and sentence the greatest miscarriage of justice he had ever seen in his years on the bench.

Pollard's sentence and incarceration period dramatically exceeds the punishment meted out to all those who pleaded guilty to the identical crime of passing classified information to American allies. In the last 10 years, agents of Great Britain, Egypt and Taiwan have been convicted of same, and served between two and four years in prison.

Several years ago, a Saudi Arabian agent (a non-Jew named Michael Schwartz) was indicted for this same crime, but, under pressure from the Saudis, the indictment was dropped and Schwartz was simply allowed to drop out of sight.

So why is this case different?

From its inception, when the Israeli embassy in Washington turned Pollard away as he pleaded for asylum with the FBI in pursuit, the Israeli government acted shamefully. They first denied he was their agent, then claimed he was an unauthorized rogue unknown to the upper echelons of officialdom. This was patently untrue, and the Israeli's stubborn refusal to admit their complicity further incensed the Americans. This perfidy crossed party lines, and included Labor bigwigs Peres and Rabin and Likud honchos Shamir and Arens. The embassy officer who banished Pollard - after he was safely inside the embassy - is now Israel's Attorney-General, Elyakim Rubinstein. They and others each scrambled to protect their positions and posteriors, and abandoned Pollard in the field.

American Jews also hid, and many of our "leaders" have yet to surface. Afraid of the "dual loyalty" canard (which did not deter Chinese-Americans from rallying around their countryman), and perhaps afraid to lose out on White House photo ops and their prized invitations to elegant (but non-kosher) dinner parties, these "leaders" of the alphabet soup of American Jewish organizations competed with each other to see who could condemn Pollard the loudest and the longest.

To date, many of these organizations and their titular heads shun Pollard and his case, and, sad-to-say, many of them have actively (but behind-the-scenes) impeded efforts to secure his release - a despicable gesture which has led Pollard to consider suing them in a Din Torah. The so-called "defense" organizations, which are acutely sensitive to the slightest anti-Semitic acts, have been out-to-lunch for over a decade. As they failed the Jewish people during the Holocaust, they have again flinched at the moment of truth - to help free a fellow Jew who has been kept in prison beyond all proportion to his deed.

As usual, the Orthodox organizations (not all of them, to be sure) came around first to the Pollard cause. I played a small role. Through a contact, I had published on the front page of Maariv in 1989 a hand-written letter that Pollard had sent to me, detailing his activities and motivations, and his abandonment by the Jewish establishment, here and in Israel. It was the first time the Israeli public read about Pollard's activities on their behalf, in his own words. Slowly, but steadily, the grass roots have rallied to his defense. Pollard was finally granted Israeli citizenship, and a number of activities have kept his case in the public eye. Several prominent religious and secular Jewish spokesmen have adopted his cause, and the Knesset overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for his release.

The tide has turned. What always stood between Pollard and freedom's door was the antipathy of the American government to him, and the reluctance of the Israeli government to seriously pursue his cause. The latter has changed. A number of government ministers have visited him in prison in the last few months, and strong statements of support have emanated from the Israeli government at the highest levels. The request for a commutation of his sentence - or a pardon - has been raised with top officials of the American government, including the President and Vice-President.Sympathetic congressman have spoken out in favor of his release, and even Casper Weinberger has said Pollard has served long enough.

Only we have the ability to move our government, and now is the time to call in all our chips. Politicians whom we send to Washington - who grace our dinners and platforms with their toothy smiles, glad hands and smooth words, whom so many of us delight in calling our "friends", and who so often take our support for granted - should be approached, called, written to and harangued to take a strong, public position, and bring that simple position to the corridors of power: free Pollard now. To date, they have shied away from the case, behind the pretext of needing time to investigate, research, etc.

Those who have access to President Clinton should use it. Those who boast of their connections with influential politicians - now is the time to capitalize on them.

A Jew suffers, and languishes - a Jew who was tested as we hope none of us are ever tested. Pollard broke the law of the land by giving Israel information that helped it combat the terrorist threats of the 1980's and the Iraqi threat of the 1990's. He committed a crime, and has done the time. The longer he remains behind bars, the longer we will bear the stain and stigma of turning our backs on a brother in despair.

Now is the time. Call, write, persuade, pressure, pray and cajole. May we soon behold freedom for Jonathan Pollard and thereby preserve a smattering of Jewish honor.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey. He is a member of the executive of the Rabinical Council of America.