Treif and Hot

Meir Solomon, Managing Editor
Viewpoint Magazine, Fall 1998 - National Council of Young Israel

Answering someone else's phone is generally a simple matter of taking messages. It is neither interesting nor rewarding. It can, however, on the rarest of occasions offer access to someone you may have wanted to speak with but would not otherwise have had the opportunity. And that's exactly what happened when in early August I was answering the phones for Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the Executive Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel.

Because the National Council tackles a surprising number of controversial issues, we get calls from a surprising number of controversial people. As the new managing editor of Viewpoint Magazine, I am familiar with the issues that the office confronts and can state that this is not done for the notoriety, but simply because it's the right thing to do. This desire to be involved in "doing the right thing," led me, after graduating from college, to my first job as Assistant Regional Director in New England for the Anti-Defamation League.

Ostensibly, the ADL's mission is to champion and to protect the rights of any Jew facing anti-Semitism and persecution, and to fight every battle indifferent to its popularity or to its political ramifications. Inspired and inspiring sentiments! Unfortunately these words contrast starkly with my recollection of events in my first (and only) year working for them.

The year was 1986 and two headline issues were demanding responses from the major Jewish organizations. These issues caused heated staff meetings at the ADL New England Regional office. Though separate issues occurring on different continents, they shared one basic concept: the treatment of Jews. They also culminated in two of the most memorable phonecalls of my life.

Each year our ADL office focused particular attention on one legal project, in addition to our usual caseload. I urged that we should continue to champion the issue of Soviet Jews, pressuring Premier Gorbachev, to fulfill his promises that the new Glasnost would permit free emigration for the millions of Jews desperate to flee the Soviet Union. The region's legal director countered, arguing that we had already addressed this issue and that apartheid was the new "hot" topic. My argument, with the eventual support of the regional director, prevailed. We subsequently had a phone hookup to the office of the mayor of Moscow--a man named Boris Yeltsin.

In the second case, my arguments not only were rejected but were met with sharp criticism bordering on contempt. This issue, a political timebomb, raised the issue all good American Jews fear--the question of "dual loyalty." This case was a strong visceral test of how a Jewish citizen of the United States relates to himself as an American and as a Jew. It proved, moreover, to be most telling as a litmus test for American Jewish organizations.

It was easy for the ADL and the other "major" American Jewish organizations to scream their indignation at the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. What did it cost them politically? Didn't everybody criticize Russia on human rights? But to criticize the US government and possibly suffer exile to the political "gulag" of unanswered calls to the corridors of power-- that price was too high for a spy, regardless of his motivation. The issue is still hot, still treif to many and as anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Kashruth is aware, treif and "hot" make for a uniquely contaminating combination and should be avoided and discarded. And this was exactly the view taken by the ADL ( and most of the other major Jewish organizations), not on an issue, but on an individual: Jonathan Pollard.

Shortly after Shavuos I started working for the National Council of Young Israel where I became aware Mr. Jonathan Pollard called our office several times a week. For years I, like many of you readers, signed petitions demanding his release and heard his words only in the prepared notes and statements read by his wife or a spokesperson. This created a curious, one-sided relationship of some 13 years. I had hoped to someday speak with him, but realized the odds were small because Rabbi Lerner would automatically put everything else on hold to take his calls.

Given the chance, I knew what I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him of my frustration working with the ADL and its shrinking posture on the "Pollard Affair." I wanted to tell him the outrage not only I, but countless others, felt at the vulgar and deceitful treatment he suffered at the hands of our government, epitomized by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. I wanted to tell him that despite the self-serving claims of the many Jewish organizations that treated him like treif, they were not in fact the "voice" of American Jewry. I wanted to tell him to remain strong.

One day, Rabbi Lerner was out of town and I answered his phones, perfunctorily, simply taking messages from strangers. The phone rang. I answered it. My "second" call. It was Jonathan Pollard. We spoke at length. It was an honor. As far as my plan to give him support, let's set the record straight: after speaking with him I was the one who was strengthened and inspired. I now understand and appreciate Rabbi Lerner's directive, "That's Jonathan ? Put him right through!"