Exclusive Interview with Jonathan Pollard
Charley J. Levine - Hadassah Magazine - March 2006
America's best-known Jewish prisoner has passed the 20-year mark of his unprecedented life term. Fervently supported by some, still vilified by others, but largely ignored by most American Jews, he prays for the day that will see his release. Charley Levine traveled to federal prison in Butner, North Carolina-which Pollard good humouredly refers to as his 'gated community'-to conduct this unprecedented, revealing interview.
Q. You pled guilty two decades ago to one count of passing classified information to a friendly country, Israel. and have expressed remorse. But who is guilty today that you are still in prison, serving more time for that act than any other American citizen in history?
A. Unfortunately, I have to say the state of Israel. The political leadership. The Mossad. Not the regular people. And the leadership of American Jewry and those US government officials who exploit this case to call into question both the loyalty of America's Jews and the value of Israel's strategic alliance with the US. To this long list, I must add a number of US Congressmen and Senators who do in fact understand the miscarriage of justice that has taken place in my case, yet have chosen to remain silent.
Q. There is more at stake here than 'just' Jonathan Pollard's imprisonment?
A. Yes. The essence of my case goes to the promise made by George Washington centuries ago, in the historic Touro Synagogue, that America's Jewish citizens will always be treated equally in this new society. My constitutional rights have been grossly violated, for political reasons, but principally because I am a Jew.
My main accuser was then Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger who has subsequently admitted that my case was "a very minor matter " but that it was blown up out of all proportion to serve other ends. President Clinton's Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross has also acknowledged in his book that my sentence was too harsh and that I deserve to be freed unconditionally.. Anyone interested can find the source materials and original quotes on our website at jonathanpollard.org. Despite these critical admissions by key American officials,, here I am, still sitting in prison. I have been reduced to a kind of political currency. In my case, the legal process has sadly been totally corrupted. This is not just me claiming this, it is Weinberger and Ross-two people who definitely know the inside story-saying it for all to hear. They have nothing to gain from their candor, yet they couldn't be any clearer. What more do people need to bring them to confront the demons of this case?
Q. Walk me through your typical day in Butner.
A. I wake up at 5 AM. I daven. I go to breakfast and come back to work as an orderly in my unit. That means I preoccupy my time with washing windows, waxing floors, cleaning toilets. I squeeze in radio time, mainly the BBC and NPR. I have some breaks and read voraciously: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Jerusalem Post, The Economist, Washington Post, MIT Technology Review and a full range of Jewish publications. I read books. Now I'm reading a biography of Orde Wingate, the Christian Zionist supporter of the Yishuv before the state was created. He was a remarkable man. I write every single day, in longhand, since we have no computer, much less Internet access, about projects I want to do, things I would like to build in the future. I call my wife Esther at least once a day, but only for a few minutes since I'm limited to 300 minutes maximum each month. I have lunch, and keep reading and writing once work finishes at 3:30 PM.
Q. Esther is very worried about your health.
A. Unfortunately there is cause for concern. My blood pressure is off the scale. I have high cholesterol, Type II diabetes, chronic rheumatic arthritis, symptoms of pre-glaucoma, severe gall bladder attacks, unbiopsied growths in my sinus cavities, in addition to severe chronic sinusitis which is often marked by bleeding, dizziness, nausea, and blinding headaches. Just to name a few.
Q. Is there any sense of Jewish community in this facility?
A. No.. Regrettably all kinds of weird people here say they are Jews for reasons that are spurious and self-serving. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two or three actual Jews in this prison. I try to keep to myself. I have learned that I cannot trust anyone, but I do have a very small number of "friends".
Q. What do you eat?
A. Real kosher food is virtually non-existent. I am able to buy some limited items such as rice crackers and canned tuna from the commissary out of my own pocket. If and when it is available on the prison menu, I try to eat tofu and soy products,-- no matter how badly they massacre it in the preparation.. Other than that I end up eating lots of rice and beans. I am grateful to Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel who, in spite of endlesss obstacles, tries valiantly tries to help me maintain my religious needs, ranging from financial assistance for buying kosher food to holiday and spiritual needs.
Q. Is any of the material that passed through your hands in the 1980s still relevant today, from an intelligence point of view?
A. Absolutely not. The very definition of intelligence must indicate that there is no longer one shred of relevance today, more than two decades later..
Q. Then why did the National Security Agency go to the trouble of sending down an agent from Maryland today to monitor our conversation, who is sitting here with us?
A. You'd have to ask him.
Q. What possible beef would the US intelligence community have with you other than the obvious violation of their trust?
A. They made a conscious decision to use me as a weapon against the Jewish community and especially against AIPAC [CL: the Israel lobby organization in Washington, DC, some of whose former officials are today under indictment for charges not unlike Pollard's]. These people oppose the 'special relationship' that historically bound America and Israel together. My treatment was a means to an end, a way to end the role of Israel as a natural ally to the US. Why would this happen? One must ask who would want to challenge the 'special relationship.' The answer could range from traditional anti-Semites who disdain both American Jews and Israel, to other interests that are players in the American foreign policy, be they Arab regimes or oil interests.
Q: Do you have any idea where the idea originated of parlaying your sentence from the usual 2 to 4 years, into a unprecedented life sentence? Who initiated the plan to use your life sentence as means to call into question Israel's reliability as an ally, and the loyalty of the American Jewish community?
A. That question was actually answered publicly in 1998, in an article by none other than JJ Goldberg, who is now the editor of the FORWARD. He wrote quoting high level sources in Washington who indicated that it was the joint Chiefs of Staff who engineered my sentence - working through Caspar Weinberger to communicate with the sentencing judge. These high ranking sources stated clearly that my sentence had nothing to do with my guilt or innocence, but was intended solely to send a message to American Jews.
Q. In some pre-interview research, I came across a lot of invective-filled articles in the press by Seymour Hersh. He is a well-known journalist. What got him crusading against your very cold case?
A. He is a guy who facilitates agendas of various parties in exchange for scoops. He writes diatribes in the guise of journalism. Hersh is a very dangerous person: a liar whose reportage is devoid of an ounce of truth. He turns leaks, lies and fables into alleged 'journalism'. And yet, ironically, even HE quoted former CIA chief George Tenet confirming that no information I ever gave Israel compromised the safety of any US agent or was released to any third party beyond Israel. Even he did not distort this critically important fact.
Q: Another thing that caught my attention during my research phase is the sheer volume of letters of support from Jewish Organizations over the years calling for your release. Can you comment?
A: These letters to the President and resolutions calling for my release from every major Jewish Organization are quite a phenomenon. Not because so many were written, but because of the consistent failure of the Jewish leadership to follow up on what they had written. They issued these statements to relieve pressure from their membership, pressure from the grassroots, and then just walked away from them.
Lest there be any doubt, let me add: every year Jewish leaders are invited to the White House to meet with the President to discuss issues of concern to the Jewish Community. In the 20 years that I have been in prison, my name has never once been on the official agenda of the Jewish leaders going into the White House. The operative word here is "official". Successive administrations have noted the Jewish leaders' lack of concern for me, have drawn the appropriate conclusions and acted accordingly.
Q. What has been your lowest point in prison? Has there been any similar high point that you can point to, also?
A. My low points were clear: the day my mom died. The day my mother-in-law died. And the day that my wife Esther was diagnosed with breast cancer. The high point was definitely my unauthorized marriage to Esther which has sustained me ever since.
Q. Speaking of family, I understand there is a strong Hadassah connection?
A. For sure! My grandmother Yetta Klein, of blessed memory, was a big regional founder and leader in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in her day. The women on both sides of the family were heavily into Hadassah and most, including my own mom, were life members. Both parents in fact were always Hadassah boosters.
Q. You've had a long time to envision your first day of freedom. What does that look like?
A. I want to be alone with Esther and talk to her. Without time constraints, without constant supervision. I want to embrace Esther and kiss her the way a man should when he is holding his reason for living in his arms. I want to take her by the hand and walk towards our future together, under an incredibly blue Jewish sky. I hope to create a Jewish home and family in Israel.
Q. And your longer-range goals?
A. I want to be a productive Israeli. I would love to pursue projects involving effective utilization of water and energy, and I study these issues in depth in prison to prepare for that day. I very much want to create a work environment for me in our home in Israel, as a means of enabling me to be close to Esther. In this way and through these efforts, I intend to leave a better legacy for the name Jonathan Pollard than I have done until now.
Q. Back to the Middle East. What concerns you most in the region to which you hope to move?
A. I am especially troubled by Iran's march to nuclear weaponry. I realize that this is a function of its quest to secure domestic energy needs, but the dark side is definitely the destructive powers they covet acquiring. In the 30's Hitler told everyone who would listen what he wanted to do to both the world's democracies and to the Jewish people. The world paid no attention to his threats. Today the world has a second chance to prevent the kind of death and insanity represented by Iran's current leadership before they have a chance to carry out their wild threats. But the world needs the will to enforce effective economic embargoes and sanctions and the willingness to act immediately to prevent the Iranian nuclear option. This is an American challenge more than any other.
Q. You see no Israel initiative looming, such as Begin's strike against Iraqi atomic work at Osirak?
A. I have little faith in Israel's political or military leadership to act unilaterally, and this in and of itself is a great failing, a tragedy. But our hopes must lie in this case with the international community's will to take action. I am also not insensitive to the regular people in Iran, many of whom favor democracy. The US must reach out and strengthen them. But this must be divorced from the more muscular strategies required to contain and prevent Iran's going nuclear, strategies which only America is capable of leading. There is also an extremely important and related need to develop alternative energy capabilities in places like China and India which would go a long way toward lessening Iran's influence amongst other countries. To the extent that practical, abundant alternatives to Iranian natural gas are created, it will be increasingly easier to deny Iran political as well as practical support.
Q. What's your take on the war in Iraq?
A. I think it is incredible that this is the very first American President since John F. Kennedy who has made building democracies around the world a national US priority. People may disagree over the tactics, but I don't see how anyone can deny that this is one of the noblest goals that America can possibly have.
Q. Do I detect a positive reading for President George Bush?
A. I have no doubt that the President means well. He is trying to do his best in the face of very difficult challenges. I think we should cut him a little slack as he does his utmost to strategically defend the United States both domestically and internationally.
Q. I don't usually offer the microphone to our interviewees, but in light of the circumstances, what message would you like to tell the people reading this?
A. I am asking every single person to become actively involved and to help in whatever way they can to secure a measure of justice in my case. Doing so will bring honor to both the United States and the American Jewish community. I also urge every reader to communicate their concerns about the injustice of this case to their Congressman and Senators. As well, I implore everyone who is in a position to do so, to support the heroic efforts of my pro bono attorneys, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, in their valiant struggle to secure my constitutional rights as an American citizen. May we, as a People, merit to see justice speedily and finally done, and the open wound which has festered for 20 years be healed, for the good of both America and Israel. .Thank you!
Charley J. Levine, a veteran media relations consultant based in Jerusalem, serves as CEO of Ruder Finn Israel. He writes for a number of publications, including the Jerusalem Post and Hadassah Magazine.