The Case For Setting Jonathan Pollard Free

November 21, 1996 - Elie Wiesel
The Jewish Week (New York)

Jonathan Pollard is still in jail. He has been there for more than 10 years. Isn't it time for compassion to prevail?

His case is well known and needs not to be explained in detail. As a Navy analyst, he illegally communicated Arab-related American military secrets to Israel. In spite of leniency pledges by the Justice Department in exchange for his cooperation with the FBI, he received life imprisonment, an extremely harsh punishment for spying on behalf of a friendly nation. In sentencing him, the judge allegedly was influenced by a confidential and still not revealed letter from former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

In the beginning, Pollard had few friends even in the American Jewish community. Many Jews resented his action. He had no business spying on a country that has been so good to Jews. All his statements that he meant no harm to America's security but felt compelled to help Israel left many people unconvinced.

Jewish and general public opinion change only when, after long years, all pleas for parole, compassion and pardon were rejected first by the courts, then by the administration. Clearly, Pollard is still being considered in Washington as unworthy of clemency.

Now there is a movement in his favor. Most commentaries are pertinent, some are less so. Those who paint him as a hero and compare him to Alfred Dreyfus seem erroneous: the French Jewish captain, falsely accused of espionage, was innocent; Pollard is not. The question is: is he a victim? The answer is: yes. A victim first of his own immature and surely misplaced idealism, then of various intelligence agencies who are determined to see him die in his prison cell.

The strongest argument given against reducing his life term is twofold: the first insists on his still being a security risk - which is absurd. What was confidential then has surely been changed since 1986. The second is linked to his apparent lack of remorse. This was often officially invoked as an answer to those who interceded on his behalf.

Well, that argument is unfounded. I have read some of his letters written during the early years of his imprisonment. He clearly admits his mistake and expresses regret for having committed it. Better yet: I have met him twice. First in his maximum security prison (in Marion, Ill.), then in his medium-security prison (in Butner, N.C.). Both time he impressed me with his deep feelings of remorse. He acknowledges he was wrong. He knows that were other ways, legal ways, for a devoted Jew like him to help Israel.

At this point, it seems to me that he has suffered enough. Justice has been served. Now is the time for human compassion. A presidential decision to pardon him or reduce his unusually harsh punishment to time served would prove that our democratic system is rooted not only in justice but also in humanity.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel is a professor at Boston University.