Letter To Clinton From Rabbi Morris Sherer

October 12, 1993

Dear Mr. President,

First thing first: Thank you for inviting me to participate in the White House religous leaders breakfast last month. I enjoyed the gathering, was especially impressed by your remarks, was delighted to hear your strong words of support for the Religous Freedom Restoration Act, and left with an optimistic sense of your potential for great moral leadership.

I had hoped to write earlier, but the Jewish holiday calendar had other plans for me. With the Jewish holidays now behind us, I would like to communicate with you - as I did with your predecessor President Bush - about a humanitarian matter that weighs heavily on my mind: the tragic case of Jonathan J. Pollard.

You have publicly committed yourself, Mr. President, to reviewing this case personally, so I will forgo a lengthy recitation of the facts. Let me just recap the procedural chronology:

Pollard received a life sentence in 1987 after pleading guilty to the crime of espionage - conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. The foreign government in question was Israel.

Three years ago or so, Pollard engaged in a legal effort to have his plea withdrawn, and to obtain a new trial. That effort ran its course unsuccessfully, as the Supreme Court last year refused to hear Pollard's appeal from a 2-1 ruling against him by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. At that point Pollard petitioned for commutation of sentence. That petition has now been pending for nearly a year.

The severity of Pollard's sentence is incredible, for several reasons. Life imprisonment is apparently the harshest punishment ever meted out to someone found guilty of spying during a time of peace. Indeed, since the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the Korean War, no spy has received a harsher sentence even during a time of war.

Pollard did not stand trial for his crime. Rather he received his life sentence after entering into a plea bargain agreement with the government. He entered into that agreement, relinquished his right to a trial, cooperated with government investigators, pleaded guilty - all with the reasonable expectation that some leniency would be shown in his sentence. The expectation was reasonable, but it proved illusory. The "bargain" was all one-sided.

Perhaps most incredibly of all, Pollard was sentenced to life in prison despite the fact that he was never accused of delivering classified information to an enemy of the United States. He was accused of spying for Israel, a staunch American ally.

A comparison of Pollard's sentence with those recently received by other convicted spies - some of whom spied for enemy countries, some who did not plea bargain - reveals an incredible and inexplicable disparity. How, for example, can one justify imprisoning Pollard for life when William Bell received only an eight year sentence for delivering antitank missile radar technology to a Polish agent (N.Y. Times, January 9, 1981)? When Abdelhader Helmy received a 46 month sentence for illegally exporting to Egypt classified ballistic missile technology (N.Y. Times, December 7, 1989)? When Richard Miller received a 20 year sentence for a delivering counter-intelligence manual to the Soviet Union (N.Y. Times, February 5, 1991)?

Agudath Israel of America's national board voted last year to support Pollard's request for commutation of sentence. As you can well imagine, Mr. President, this was not an easy decision for our organization to reach. Espionage is among the most abhorrent of all crimes, and Jonathan Pollard has admitted that he committed espionage. One need not condone Pollard's act, however, to understand the sense among many Americans that the incredible severity of Pollard's punishment is entirely out of proportion to the harm he committed.

Many thanks for attention to this urgent humanitarian plea. I hope we will have occasion to meet again soon. For now, you have my every best wish and prayer for continued great success.


Rabbi Morris Sherer
President, Agudath Israel of America

  • See also Rabbi Sherer's 1994 Letter To Clinton