Sharansky and Pollard

Rabbi Avraham Weiss - The Jewish Standard - January 15, 1993

I remember clearly my travels with Avital Sharansky as we worked for her husband's - Natan Sharansky's - release. I can still recall how deeply pained we and all people were, how angry we all felt. Today, I act as Jonathan Pollard's rabbi, devoting countless hours working for his release. Again I feel the pain, again I feel the anger.

To be sure, there is a major difference between the cases. Jonathan, unlike Natan, is not innocent. Although Jonathan felt morally impelled to warn Israel that the U.S. military build-up of Iraq posed a great danger to the Jewish military state, legally he was wrong. He violated American law, and has said that he deserved to be punished.

There are, however, many areas of similarity. While Pollard supporters have not referred to Jonathan as a prisoner of Zion - a title reserved for heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement - he, like Natan, can be labeled a political prisoner. Natan was a political prisoner from the first day of his arrest. By contrast, Jonathan was not a political prisoner during the first few years of his incarceration. But now that he is serving well beyond the time served by others who have committed comparable offenses, now that he remains incarcerated because of improprieties, prejudice, downright anti-Israelism, and elements of anti-Semitism that still exist in the U.S. Departments of Defense and Justice - now he has become a political prisoner.

I'm not alone in this assessment. Many former Soviet prisoners of Zion agree. Two years ago Ida Nudel, in a letter delivered to then Israel Defense Minister Moshe Arens, declared that there remained yet another political prisoner, this time an American - Jonathan Pollard. The letter was signed by 15 former Soviet prisoners of Zion.

Just as activists legitimately and correctly protested against the U.S. government for dragging its feet in Natan's case, they appropriately raise a voice against a perversion of the American justice system that resulted in Jonathan Pollard's excessive sentence.

There is a second similarity between the two cases, one that is common to the notorious Dreyfus affair as well. Although Dreyfus and Sharansky were innocent while Pollard was not, the issue that binds all three cases together is that the respective governments used the convictions of these individual Jews as political weapons against their larger Jewish communities. Again we have another point in common. [J4JP Note: More importantly, what the Pollard and Dreyfus cases have in common is that both Pollard and Dreyfus were falsely accused of treason.]

A third element that Natan and Jonathan's cases share is the harsh and unjustified prison conditions to which they were subjected. Natan's ill treatment is well documented. Jonathan Pollard has entered his eighth year of solitary confinement of a life sentence. For the past four years he has been in the Marion Federal Penitentiary, the toughest prison in the United States. A majority of the inmates are transfers from other prisons, having committed vicious crimes there. Marion is called "the last stop," "the belly of the beast." Just recently, Jonathan's kippah (skull cap) was thrown to the ground. He was spread-eagled against the wall, and his testicles squeezed. His food is served split open or spoiled by over-zealous guards. Before coming to Marion, Jonathan spent a year in a hospital for the criminally insane in Springfield, Mo. Most of his stay there, he was kept naked in freezing temperatures.

There are other point of similarity:

  • In both cases, once people became aware of the facts, they understood that the individuals involved stood for much more than simply themselves - in Natan's case, the right of Soviet Jews to freely emigrate; and in Jonathan's case, the right of Jews to be judged by the same standards as their fellow Americans.
  • In both cases, Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs felt an inner stirring to become involved. Natan talks of students and housewives who were responsible for his release. The effort to free Jonathan is a grass-roots one. The recent open letter in The New York Times to President George Bush - asking that Jonathan's sentence be commuted to time served - signed by 570 rabbis and 80 rabbinic organizations, representing the broad spectrum of the American Jewish community, powerfully attests to this fact.
In the years of Natan's incarceration, the American Jewish community expended enormous energies advocating for his release. The call "Free Sharansky Now" reverberated everywhere. Today, a new cry is daily gaining strength: "Justice for Pollard." "Free Pollard Now."

And in the end, as in Natan's case, justice will be done.