When Forgiveness Becomes a Political Question
September 14, 1999 - Jonathan S. Tobin, Editor - The Jewish Exponent
The 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is traditionally the
time when Jews ask each other for forgiveness. But Jews looking to start
5760 with a fresh slate aren't the only ones asking for a free pass for
past transgressions these days. Pardons have been much in the news lately,
with forgiveness being extended to some very unsavory characters.
In the Middle East, negotiations on the so-called Wye II peace accord
eventually signed at Sharm El-Sheik by representatives of Israel and the
Palestinian Authority hinged on Israel's release of 350 Palestinian Arabs,
most of whom have been held on security charges.
A good week for terrorists
Though the P.A. had wanted Israel to release more prisoners, they settled
for the promise of 350; 199 of them were released last week, just before
Rosh Hashanah. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced that none of
those let go had directly participated in the murder of Israelis, although
many had killed Arabs who had collaborated with the Israeli government.
The expression used was that none had "blood on his hands," although the
prisoner release did not exclude those terrorists who had merely wounded
their Jewish victims - as opposed to killing them.
Nor did it leave out those who had played a supporting role in the terrorist infrastructure, as
opposed to pulling the trigger or exploding the bomb themselves.
All those released allegedly promised to support the peace process. Let's
hope they keep their word. After being sprung from Israeli prisons, the
ex-prisoners were reportedly each handed weapons as part of the gala
ceremonies celebrating their freedom upon their arrival in Gaza.
As painful as the prisoner releases were in Israel - where protests by
families of terrorism victims created a difficult situation for Barak - the
controversy was matched in the United States by the clemency extended by
President Clinton to 14 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group.
The Puerto Rican terrorists were members of a group called the Armed Forces
of National Liberation (in Spanish, the acronym for this group is FALN),
which had committed terrorist acts in the United States in the 1970s and
1980s. In particular, six Americans were killed and 130 were wounded in
FALN bombings of civilian targets, such as the attack on the historic
tavern in New York City where George Washington said farewell to the
As with the Palestinians, none of those released had been convicted of
direct participation in murder.
Despite their formal agreement to the strict conditions of their release,
the FALN members who were let out of jail were as defiant and unrepentant
as the released Palestinian terrorists who were greeted with jubilant
gunfire in Gaza. Like the standard Palestinian replies when similarly
confronted, the FALN members refused to even apologize to the families of
their victims when asked to do so on the NBC news show "Meet the Press."
Instead, they replied that it was the United States that was the real
One particular politician who ran into trouble on this issue was none other
than the wife of the president who offered the terrorists clemency: Hillary
Mrs. Clinton initially supported the offer of clemency, but then as public
opinion swelled against it, she reversed her position, claiming that her
husband had never consulted her!
What about Pollard?
Meanwhile, lurking at the margins of these controversies remains the issue
of one prisoner who still has not been offered clemency, let alone a
complimentary assault weapon or an appearance on "Meet the Press": Jonathan
It was only a matter of time before the Pollard issue would creep into
these discussions, so it was no surprise when supporters of clemency for
the U.S. Navy Department analyst who spied for Israel said that they were
going to ask Mrs. Clinton to intervene on his behalf with the president.
Pollard's plight is the American Jewish nightmare that won't go away.
Many are wondering why Pollard's release is still considered out of the
question, while terrorists are getting out of jail.
And when you consider that opponents of clemency for Pollard have made an
issue out of whether or not he has expressed remorse for his crime (in
fact, he has), the brazen statements of the released FALN members are a
little hard to take.
Despite all the rumors floating about the alleged cost of Pollard's
treachery to the United States, there still is no evidence on the record
that he damaged American security. Pollard violated his oath and committed
an egregious crime in a misguided effort to aid Israel. But he did not
murder or maim anyone.
Pollard was viciously manipulated by his Israeli handlers, and then
abandoned by them.
It was no accident that the first Israeli government to make a genuine
effort to free Pollard was that of Benjamin Netanyahu. Up until his
election, Israel had been led by the three men who were in power at the
time of Pollard's espionage: Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and the late
Yitzhak Rabin. All three were in a position to know what he was doing, and
their lack of enthusiasm for taking responsibility for him can be traced to
the fact that they were the ones who stood to be embarrassed by any further
disclosures from the spy.
The man who cannot be forgiven
Netanyahu's efforts to release Pollard at the time of the original Wye
agreement last fall were shot down by an absolute refusal of the American
security services. Their all-out campaign against Pollard reportedly forced
President Clinton to go back on promises to Netanyahu that he could obtain
Pollard's release in exchange for further Israeli concessions to the
Palestinians (on territory as well as prisoners).
That public setback has probably made it even harder for Clinton to let
Pollard go, even were he willing to do so.
Why is forgiveness refused Pollard when those who committed political
crimes against the United States are so easily forgiven? The CIA supposedly
thinks that there is still a pro-Israel mole in the U.S. government who
aided Pollard. Others theorize that the reason is a basic prejudice against
Israel by the security apparatus or a desire to make an example of Pollard
so as to deter future treachery by friends of Israel.
Whatever the real reason, I think it is clear that after 14 years in
prison, Pollard has suffered enough - especially when you consider that his
sentence was disproportionate to the sentences of those who committed
similar crimes. It is particularly distasteful that an American government
that is so quick to pressure Israel to release terrorists and so willing to
free those who committed terrorism on our own soil is so hardhearted when
it comes to Pollard.
During these Days of Awe, when teshuvah is so much a part of our lives, it
is particularly poignant to think that his sin alone - and not those
committed by terrorists - is something that cannot ever be pardoned.