Walking the Path with Jonathan Pollard

Rabbi Avi Weiss - Palm Beach Jewish Journal South - January 4, 1994

When Jonathan Pollard first asked me to serve as his personal rabbi in may of 1987 I did so with a sense of rabbinic responsibility. I knew little about the Pollard case. But, I have always felt that a rabbi's sacred task is to reach out to every Jew - to be there in their time of need, to lend support, and when necessary, to help in a process of growth - even rehabilitation.

Once I learned more about the details of the case, however, I was moved to become one of his political advocates. A rabbi is there for someone right or wrong; an advocate only supports someone he/she agrees with. I have become a Jonathan Pollard advocate because I believe a grave injustice has been done.

During these past six years I have come to know Jonathan Pollard the man. Since August of 1988, when I was first given clearance to see Jonathan I have visited him in the Marion Federal Penitentiary 29 times, once every two months. Each time we spend six intense hours talking to each other, I feel as if we have become "brothers."

Our relationship is something like that of the Biblical David and Jonathan; of Jonathan, David lamented, "I feel distress for you my brother Jonathan."

I have learned much from Jonathan, "my brother." He has taught me much about Jewish pride, about admitting wrong in the most difficult of circumstances, about inner strength in the face of unbearable prison conditions, about going on and believing in our people even as certain segments of the American Jewish leadership and, in earlier years the Israel government, abandoned him.

Over the course of the years I've often tried to step back to reflect on Jonathan's human conditions. What follows is an attempt to connect with Jonathan's soul, to understand his inner feelings and to articulate what I believe to be Jonathan's sentiments on some of the key issues and conflicts he faces. For those in government who may read this piece, let it be said clearly; none of the thoughts here are Jonathan's unless otherwise indicated.

One can only truly understand the moral dilemma Jonathan Pollard faced as a U.S. naval Intelligence officer when one takes into account the background of his early years.

Jonathan Pollard was raised in a family where loyalties as a Jew and as an American were one. Jonathan was interested in fully becoming part of his country.

At an early age Jonathan became aware of the horrific toll the Holocaust had taken on his immediate family - 75 of whom were murdered by the Nazis. When he was about to become bar mitzvah he asked his parents to take him to visit the death camps. He made the trip shortly after the Six Day War and the confluence of those two events made a tremendous impact on Jonathan's life and his way of thinking.

Years later, Jonathan's work with Naval Intelligence brought him face to face with information which pointed to a growing deadly threat to the very existence of Israel and therefore to the Jewish people. To his horror, he discovered that material was being withheld. This was in violation of an Executive Agreement between the U.S. and Israel not to mention in violation of the human obligation to save innocent victims from a catastrophe if not genocide. Even Jonathan's critics should understand that the magnitude of the moral dilemma he faced was in no way mitigated by the fact that these innocents, like Jonathan Pollard, happened to be Jewish. Like Moses in the Bible, "he looked here and there and he saw there was no person" who would bear responsibility.

Jonathan felt he could not simply acquiesce to a policy which itself could result in the death of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent people. He was fully aware that his decision to transfer intelligence to Israel was legally wrong, but Jonathan Pollard is someone who understands the imperatives of zechira - remembrance and the critical importance to Jewish survival, a survival which is inextricably bound with a strong Jewish state. As he wrote from prison one year before the Persian Gulf war; "The same gas which the Nazis used to murder our European brethren could just as easily be used today by the Arabs to exterminate the Jewish population of Israel. Was I really expected to just let history repeat itself without doing anything to protect our people from such a calamity? Granted, I broke the law. But, to tell you the truth, I'd rather be rotting prison than sitting shiva for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who could have died because of my cowardice. Have the fires of the concentration camps grown so cold that people have forgotten that 6 million Jews were butchered while the whole world looked on in silence? You see, I just could not walk away from the intelligence embargo and pretend that it didn't exist. I had to act."

So Jonathan passed on to Israel classified information concerning the weapons systems and war-making capabilities of various Arab states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya including evidence of Iraqi efforts to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and deliver those weapons of mass destruction to Israel's population centers.

Jonathan deeply regrets the tremendous cost of his actions. The cost to the health of his ex-wife Anne; the cost to this marriage; the cost of his incarceration, the agony of isolation and the mental torture he has been forced to endure.

Moreover, on more than one occasion Jonathan acknowledged that he broke the law and has expressed regret that he did not find a legal manner through which he could pass life-saving information to Israel. But, when confronted with the possibility that his failure to act could result in a physical catastrophe of potentially devastating proportions, Jonathan acted instinctively in defense of the Jewish people. In a letter from Marion to his parents (June 6, 1991) Jonathan wrote, "I have always accepted the fact that I am not above the law, and deserve to be punished for my actions, however well motivated I have believed them to be. At the time, I was faced with a cruel dilemma in which I thought I had to choose between the law and my conscience. The danger that I perceived to Israel's existence was so acute that I instinctively chose action over reflection. I now know that that was wrong. I should have made the effort to discover a legal solution to the predicament I faced. For this error in judgment I am profoundly sorry."

This is why many people now say that Jonathan was legally wrong but morally right in what he did. While Jonathan has not commented on this directly, what he has said is that the motives behind his actions and, perhaps more importantly, the consequences of those actions should be taken into account in terms of mitigating his sentence.

I saw Jonathan Pollard a few days before the large Pollard demonstration at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun in New York in June 1992. Just before leaving, Jonathan said: "Tell the people, God bless America." Jonathan has often described himself as an unabashedly loyal American. There is little doubt in my mind that at no time did Jonathan Pollard feel that he was damaging American interests.

The American government agrees. Indeed, we must never forget that the American government did not charge Pollard with intent to injure the United States. Moreover, the government did not even allege that, from an objective standpoint, someone in Pollard's position with all the information that he had at his disposal would have had any reason to believe that any of the material transmitted by Pollard to Israel would or could cause injure to the United States.

Yet, unlike other cases of espionage on behalf of countries allied with the United States which when prosecuted have typically ended with prison terms in the range of 2-5 years, Pollard was sentenced to life in prison. The government promised it would not ask for life but it did. Judge Stephen Williams of the D.C. Court of Appeals called the Pollard case "a fundamental miscarriage of justice."

If Jonathan Pollard writes or speaks sometimes with a sense of betrayal it is only because he is deeply grieved by the dual standard of justice meted out to him and the government's violation of both the letter and spirit of a written plea agreement.

But more painful to Jonathan is his deep anguish that leaders of certain American Jewish defense organizations still have their eyes shut and their ears stopped up to his senseless suffering, despite expressions of support for commutation of Jonathan's sentence from the overwhelming majority of grass-roots Jewry virtually the entire U.S. rabbinate.

On my last visit to Jonathan before Passover this year I memorized some words he shared with me. "Just as Biblical Jews had to achieve spiritual salvation before entering the land of Israel, I had to go through this process of incarceration for these eight years. My love of am Yisrael is not accidental. After eight years I've grown to be the person I always should have been. My days of wandering in the desert are coming to a close, there had to be a right time and a right place for me to go home, I'm ready now."

And all of us should be ready to speak out on behalf of Jonathan. Yes, Jonathan Pollard made a decision to transfer intelligence to Israel. Yes, whatever the moral considerations Jonathan was legally guilty. But now that Jonathan Pollard is in his eighth year of prison we need not agree whether, or under what circumstances, someone may be justified in violating a particular law. In fact, Jonathan is the first to admit that he deserves to be punished.

And we need not all agree that, Jonathan although clearly legally wrong, may have been morally right. All that we need to agree upon is that vengeance in the Pollard case must finally be replaced with justice. Because it is the issue of justice which is at the heart of the Jonathan Pollard case. The excessiveness of Jonathan's sentence - life - is a perversion of American justice. Thus, it is not exoneration that Jonathan Pollard seeks, but rather the application of fair and equal justice. And it is this issue that should of us that we not ablandon Jonathan to the grasp of vengeful injustice.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and national president of The Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha. This column originally appeared in Sh'ma magazine in April 1993.