Justice, Not Vengeance

Avi Weiss - The Jerusalem Post - August 20, 1993

Since August 1988, when I was first given clearance to see Jonathan Pollard, I have visited him in the Marion Federal Penitentiary more than 30 times, once every two months. Each time, we spent six intense hours talking to each other.

I have learned much from Jonathan. He has taught me 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 Israeli government abandoned him.

Over the course of these years, I've tried to step back to reflect on Jonathan's human condition. What follows is an attempt to understand Jonathan's inner feelings and to articulate what I believe to be his sentiments on some of the key issues and conflicts he faces.

One can only understand the moral dilemma Jonathan Pollard faced as a 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, he became aware of the toll the Holocaust had taken on his immediate family; 75 relatives were murdered by the Nazis. When he was about to become bar mitzva, 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 his life and 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 violated the 1983 Executive Agreement on sharing intelligence between the US and Israel, not to mention the human obligation to save innocent victims from a catastrophe.

Jonathan felt he could not simply acquiesce to a policy which could result in the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of innocent people.

As he wrote from prison one year before the 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 in 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 six million Jews were butchered while the whole world looked on in silence? I just could not walk away from the intelligence embargo [lifted in 1985] 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 such Arab states 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 his marriage; the cost of his incarceration. He regrets 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 expressed regret that he did not find a legal manner for passing the lifesaving 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. 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, he has said his motives and, perhaps more importantly, the consequences of his actions should be taken into account in terms of mitigating his sentence.

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 US.

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 to Israel would or could cause injury to the US.

Yet, unlike other cases of espionage on behalf of countries allied with the US which when prosecuted have typically ended with prison terms in the range of two to five 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 US government's violation of both the letter and spirit of a written plea agreement.

On my last visit to Jonathan before Pessah this year, he told 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 [the Jewish people] 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. We need to agree 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 this 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 demand of us that we not abandon Jonathan to the grasp of vengeful justice.