The Time Has Come to Speak out for Jonathan Pollard

Harold Kushner (Author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People")
May-June 1998 Issue - B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly

When the Torah summons us to "hold fast to God" (Deuteronomy 13:5), the Sages protest "How can a human being hold on to God? God is incorporeal! God is pictured as a raging fire!" Their answer: "We hold onto God by imitating God and God's ways" (Sotah 14a). Just as God visits the sick and comforts the mourners, so are we obliged to visit the sick and comfort the mourners. Just as God sustains the poor and loves the stranger, so should we. Just as God heard the cry of our ancestors in Egypt and freed them from slavery, so should we hear the cry of the oppressed and wrongly imprisoned and work for their freedom.

I believe the time has come for the American Jewish community to act in imitation of God and work for the freedom of Jonathan Pollard. I travel around this country a great deal. I speak in many synagogues and Jewish community centers. In my travels, I have never met a single Jew who defends what Pollard did. No matter how much we love Israel, no matter how strongly we may believe that our government was withholding critical information from Israel, there seems to be a universal consensus that it is wrong for an American Jew, working for the government of the United States, to violate confidentiality and break military security laws.

I am not afraid of accusations of dual loyalty. I believe any decent person has multiple loyalties-to family, to faith, to teachers, as well as to one's country-and sometimes those loyalties come into conflict. But this country has treated us too well for us even to contemplate violating its laws of military secrecy.

At the same time, I have never in my travels met a single Jew who believes that Jonathan Pollard deserves the life sentence he received. One has to wonder what drove former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to such extremes of vindictiveness to use words like "treason" about Pollard's activities. Surely someone in Weinberger's position knows that "treason" applies only to helping an enemy in time of war, not to illegally helping an ally in peacetime.

One wonders what the motivations of government officials were in arranging a plea bargain and then unilaterally departing from it. One wonders what drove the government to demand a harsher sentence for Pollard than for someone like Aldrich Ames, who shared more information of a more damaging nature not with an ally but with a hostile foreign power.

Emerson once wrote "the more he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons." We in our time have learned that, the more a government official says "the evidence is too sensitive for me to discuss publicly; you'll have to trust me," the more likely it is that he or she has something to hide, and the less likely it is a matter of national security.

Whatever else Israel has done for American Jews and whatever we have done for Israel, Israel has strengthened Jewish pride. Fifty-five years ago, American Jewish leaders went timorously to the White House to express concern about the fate of European Jewry and were happy to be listened to and dismissed with the promise, "the President will give the matter serious consideration."

In 1998, we are a more confident, more outspoken community, ready to demand what we think is best for us and for America. While the two issues are hardly comparable, the requirement of leadership not only to speak out, but also to insist upon a substantive answer, remains.

A century ago, a French Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was sentenced to life in prison for treason because admitting his innocence would have made the French military and the French government look bad. The resulting scandal only made them look worse.

Jonathan Pollard is no Dreyfus. He is not an innocent man. But he is being made a scapegoat for reasons unrelated to what he did, punished far in excess of his wrongdoing.

The time has come for the American Jewish community to speak out-as Americans even more than as Jews, as citizens who cherish what America at its best stands for-and demand freedom for Jonathan Pollard.

Harold Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel of Natick, Mass., and the author of several best-selling books on spiritual matters.