An Interview with the new Mrs. Jonathan Pollard
September, 1994 - Good Fortune - Shifra P. Abramson
Jonathan Pollard was indicted on one count of passing classified information to an
ally, an offense for which the median sentence is
two to four years.
Why was he sentenced to
life imprisonment, when agents convicted of
treason who handed over secrets to U.S.
enemies, causing irrevocable damage and death,
Why is he singled out for
cruel and dehumanizing treatment?
Is there really justice for all?
* * *
Jonathan Pollard has no shoes.
What were once shoes are now in tatters, full of holes, falling apart. All his fellow inmates - pornographers, murderers and drug dealers - in the Butner, North Carolina prison where Jonathan Pollard is now incarcerated, may go to the commissary and buy shoes. Pollard has to fill out special forms, requesting permission to buy shoes, which are then forwarded to Washington. He has been waiting for an answer for six months.
"I had to beg him to go public on the story of his shoes," his wife of several months, the former Esther (Elaine) Zeitz of Toronto, stated during a recent visit to Israel. "Every time I reveal something he gets punished. I have to be very careful about what I tell."
Jonathan is the most harassed, most abused, most over-monitored prisoner in America today," she continues. "There are rules and regulations for Jonathan Pollard and Jonathan Pollard only. You cannot imagine the kind of suffering he goes through on a daily basis."
Pollard is now serving the ninth year of a life sentence. For almost seven years he was kept three stories underground, behind thirteen locks, in the harshest unit of the harshest prison in the system, in Marion, Illinois. During this time,
he was consistently harassed and subjected to anti-Semitic provocations by the authorities.
In the first year, he was held in a prison for the criminally insane. In addition to other torments to which he was routinely subjected, he would be kept naked for hours on end simply to dehumanize him and break his will. Under questioning from Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the warden admitted
there was no reason for Pollard to be there.
Last year Pollard was transferred to Butner, a level three-to-six, medium-to-maximum security prison. He was shackled in a closed van for the 16-hour transport, during which time he was refused permission to go to the lavatory. Upon arrival,
he was greeted with a barrage of anti-Semitic epithets and threats and thrown immediately into hard labor.
From solitary confinement in Marion, Pollard was put into a dormitory room with fifty other men, where diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS are rampant. His hair is now long because he is terrified of having it cut. Despite a serious sinus condition which impairs his breathing, he is forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day in a factory, cutting material with a 14-pound band saw and lugging bales of material. The fibers irritate his sinuses and lungs,
causing him to cough and to throw up blood. He needs an operation, but cannot even obtain proper medication. In contrast to other prisoners,
every detail of Jonathan Pollard's life is mercilessly scrutinized.
Butner is supposed to be a better prison, Esther says. "It's got a much nicer visitor's room, which makes visitors feel better. It doesn't, however, do much for Jonathan's quality of life," she notes sardonically.
We sit in the lobby of Jerusalem's Plaza Hotel on a late Friday afternoon. The tale of horror Esther quietly relates contrasts starkly with the aura of luxury and ease that surrounds us. The hotel's well-heeled international clientele mills about, as the sinking suns begins to bathe Jerusalem in a golden glow.
Esther, dark-eyed and demure in a candy-striped blue and white dress, with her hair covered, speaks so softly that I sometimes have difficulty hearing her. But her voice rises in anger when discussing the tack taken by certain American Jewish leaders and Pollard activists; namely, that Jonathan simply wait another two years until he becomes eligible for parole.
"That's the one thing I'm bitter about in this whole episode," she states emphatically. "How anyone can argue for him to sit one second longer in that place I cannot understand and do not forgive!"
She emphasizes, moreover, that the issue of parole is a red herring. Jonathan, she says, has seen the file:
it contains three strong recommendations that he never be paroled - from former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, sentencing Judge Aubrey Robinson and U.S. District Attorney Joseph diGenova. The latter stated publicly that "Pollard should ever again be allowed to see the light of day."
It is inconceivable that any parole board would go against that.
Echoes of the Dreyfus Case resound loudly vis a vis the sentence that Appeals Court Judge Stephen Williams referred to as a "
fundamental miscarriage of justice."
Jonathan was indicted on one count of passing classified information to an ally.
Yet his sentence was much harsher than those of enemy agents who caused major damage to U.S. security interests.
Clayton Lonetree, convicted of treason on 13 counts of espionage for conspiring with the KGB, was sentenced to 25 years. That was reduced to 19, and this July to 15.
He is now eligible for parole.
Albert Sombolay, a military man, who spied for Iraq and Jordan during the Gulf War, passing over information on U.S. troop deployment as well as a copy of a protective suit against chemical warfare, was convicted of treason.
Richard Miller, who spied for the Soviet Union and did terrible harm to U.S. security interests, got 20 years.
He was released after serving a fraction of his sentence.
Abdul Kader Helmy, who spied for Egypt and passed on material used to build aircraft missiles and rockets for Iraq's benefit as well as Egypt's, was sentenced to
three years and ten months.
Aldrich Ames, the highest-ranking CIA official dealing with the Soviet Union, who handed over information and was responsible for the deaths of four to eleven agents, was indicted for
treason and for harming the United States. He received the same sentence as Pollard - life imprisonment.
Thomas Dolce, who committed the same offense as Jonathan, on behalf of South Africa, was indicted on one count and got the maximum sentence possible today,
ten years. (After Jonathan's case, Esther points out, a maximum punishment of ten years was placed on passing information to an ally.) He'll be going home this month, after serving
six years. The median sentence for such an offense is
two to four years.
Esther notes that Pollard was sentenced as a result of a plea bargain - subsequently
violated by the government on every account - in a closed hearing. In return for agreeing to the plea bargain, he gave up his right to a trial. According to attorney Alan Dershowitz, Jonathan would never have gone to prison had he pleaded "not guilty" in a trial, because the government had no basis for prosecution.
She points out that if a government minister in Canada interfered in a sentencing procedure - as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger did when he asked the sentencing judge to impose the maximum sentence for "treasonous" behaviour, i.e., life imprisonment -
a mistrial would be declared and the minister would have to resign.
"Treason," she says, "is legally defined as aiding and abetting the
enemy; people like Weinberger and the CIA's Bobby Ray Inman worked behind the scenes to turn this into a political show trial and affect a de facto
redefinition of Israel as an enemy."
There are no legal precedents for Jonathan's sentence. In his recent refusal to grant clemency, President Clinton, who is a lawyer by profession, said he wouldn't commute Jonathan's sentence because he had done such great harm to American security interests. But harming U.S. interests' is an indictable charge in and of itself, separate from any other. In fact, the sentencing judge said that
Jonathan didn't spy against anyone - only on behalf of Israel, a fact acknowledged in the CIA's damage assessment.
"As a tactical analyst in the antiterrorist unit of the U.S. Navy, Jonathan came under great pressure from Israel to hand over information on the United States, something he flatly refused to do. All the information he turned over was
information that the U.S. owed Israel according to the terms of the Letter of Understanding of 1983."
Esther explains that there were "tons" of data crossing Jonathan's desk daily about upcoming
terrorist attacks and the buildup of nuclear weapons and
poison gas in Iraq and surrounding countries.
"He tried desperately to get this information released through legal channels. He went all the way up to the secretary of state and met with resistance every step of the way. He was told by his superiors to mind his own business - that
Jews get nervous when you talk about poison gas."
Esther stresses that President Clinton rejected Pollard's appeal earlier this year in the harshest possible manner by saying that Jonathan didn't deserve any clemency whatsoever. He failed to address any legal issues or to respond to the concerns of the America Jewish community. "Nor did he acknowledge that
Prime Minister Rabin had personally asked for clemency. No head of state puts his prestige on the line and makes a request to another expecting to be turned down.
"Furthermore, the timing of the refusal - Erev Pesach - was a slap in the fact to Israel and the Jewish people. Clinton is very good at Jewish p.r.: he knows the Jewish calendar, when to light Chanukah candles, etc. This was the eve of our Festival of Freedom.
It was very symbolic."
Despite the serious commitments by the Israeli government to secure Jonathan's release, "We have serious questions," Esther says. She has been informed that if Israel asked the U.S. government in no uncertain terms,
Jonathan would be released within 24 hours. "Everyone understands that Jonathan was a casualty of the war with the Arabs. If it's an era of peace, isn't it time to end this episode?" she asks rhetorically.
She is very encouraged by her meeting with Justice Minister David Libai, who promised to do his utmost to help secure her husband's release. "He went on record saying, I respect very much what Jonathan Pollard has done for Israel. And he has done very much for Israel."
Ironically, it was during a summer in Israel four years ago, while she was working at the Ministry of Justice, that Esther first heard of Jonathan Pollard. "I picked up an ad urging people to write to him. The name sounded vaguely familiar - don't forget, the case wasn't known in Canada until I brought it in. I had tons of aerograms in my purse. I thought, Here's a fellow Jew, and if he's going to derive comfort from my writing to him, why not? So I dashed off a few lines."
Like other things, stamps were rationed for Jonathan. The day he received Esther's letter he had 20 letters to answer but only four stamps. "There was no rational reason for him to answer my letter," she says, "but he later told me knew he had to answer. He sent two envelopes: one with information about his case, and one personal. I had expected him to be full of bitterness and anger and condemnation, but instead he was filled with love for the Land and the people of Israel.
"The element of bashert is very clear to us, as is the fact that HaShem runs the world. I used to pray that when I'd meet the right man I'd know him immediately. For years and years, all I knew was when I met the wrong one! The day I met Jonathan, I recognized him. We both understood that we were brought together for a purpose."
Esther and Jonathan were married this past year during one of her secret visits to the prison, after being secretly engaged for some time. The marriage was a personal commitment, she says. "We did it to show our belief and faith in our future despite all apparent odds.
This whole case is built on lies and we believe that everything built on lies has to fail."
A special education and arts specialist who has spent much time writing and lecturing, and who heads Justice for Jonathan Pollard, Esther notes that all her life experiences prepared her for the tasks she now faces. "I realized that the gift Hashem gave me for writing was meant for the two, three, four letters I would send Jonathan every single day in Marion - some 2,000 in total - to keep him alive. When I'd lecture about issues in education and stress management, which is my background, I was training for a day when I'd stand before a much greater audience. But I don't relish this role. I look forward to the day when Jonathan can speak for himself."
Esther is reluctant to speak about life before Jonathan. It is clear that it has been fraught with difficulties. "Many heartaches and heartbreaks have nurtured my faith and taught me to be strong and resolute," she says.
"They could have done the opposite," I ventured.
"There were moments when things hung in the balance," she acknowledges. "There were times when I teetered on the brink and wanted to get angry and turn away. I had encountered so much disappointment, so much hurt and pain. It was difficult to understand why so many tragic things were happening. I remember one very critical time in my life - and there were a number - when I asked myself. What if your life never turns out how you want? Will you still serve Hashem or is it only for the purpose of getting what you want?' It took me an agonizing year of soul searching to answer that.
"The final answer I came up with, after tremendous reflection, was that my commitment to Hashem is absolute. I have faith that Hashem knows what He is doing, and why we are going through what we are going through. My commitment to Yiddishkeit has meaning in and of itself: it's not a means to an end because life doesn't really work that way. Nobody knows what will come at the end of the road, but we have to trust that the One who put us here will help us get to where we have to go. I'm certain it will be the right place and a good place.
"I recognized very clearly that all hardships and tribulations that I confronted were meant to strengthen me for the time when I'd face the greatest challenge of all, which is precisely the time that Jonathan and I are living through now. Those hardships were not only training me in the skills and talents that I'd need for this time but also in fostering the kind of emunah that a situation like this demands."
The outpouring of love by the Israeli people gives Esther tremendous encouragement. "The press and media have given the case so much attention. While I was walking down the street, two policemen called out to me: Mrs. Pollard. What's with Yonatan? Tell him we want him home.' The man at the newspaper stand said: We're ashamed that our government hasn't brought him here.' The daughter of the woman I'm staying with in Jerusalem - a total stranger - lights Shabbos candles for him. I was sitting in a park saying birkat hamazon after eating a sandwich, and a young woman touched my arm, and mouthed b'hatzlacha. I was so touched, when I finished bentching I ran after her to thank her.
"You can't imagine what this does for Jonathan, how it raises his morale. Strangers went out of their way to help me in so many ways. I hope and pray the government understands that
the entire nation, cutting across religious, political and age lines, cares about Jonathan and wants to bring him home.
"We know that the prayers of the people - of the taxi driver, the grocer, the policeman, of the average, ordinary, everyday little citizen - are going to pierce the heavens and bring Jonathan home."
What is the ideal happily-ever-after scenario that Esther envisions? "That's easy," she says, without hesitation. "A very quiet, private life in Jerusalem, with my husband doing all the speaking for the family. All I've ever wanted to be is a suburban housewife with a lot of kids. Nothing's changed."