Jewish Leaders Must Extract A Moral Thorn

December 17, 1997 - Anne Roiphe - The New York Observer

Phil Baum, Abraham Foxman, Robert Rifkin and all the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: You cannot push this away forever. Jonathan Pollard is on our consciences, giving us collective and private nightmares, and you know it. There is a growing swell of concern and anxiety in the community. Rabbi Avi Weiss' recent request for a religious court suit against the Conference of Presidents, Rabbi Irving Greenberg's statement in Mr. Pollard's defense that "Enough is enough" and Elie Wiesel's "Now is the time for human compassion" confirm the rising sentiment in the community, one whispered even in the corridors of all the major Jewish organizations, that Mr. Pollard has become a moral thorn deep in our hearts.

The leadership is telling us it doesn't matter that this man who spied for Israel was given a life sentence without parole, a punishment far greater than that given men and women who have spied for America's allies. Jonathan Pollard has been in prison for 12 years, often in isolation. We ordinary Jews who do not run organizations and are not privy to the complicated political balancing of truth against deception cannot see why our leadership does not call out for equal justice under the law in this case.

In America, thousands of murderers and child molesters are released after a few years in prison, but a man who was both conflicted and passionate in his loyalty, who did what he thought was right for a country he loved, who admits his guilt, is still behind bars without hope for freedom. Why is this? Jews at first were frightened by the dual-loyalty accusation. It seemed bad for all the Jews in the State Department. It seemed particularly to frighten or shamen our leadership that a Jew had betrayed America.

But would the Irish community be embarrassed if it was one of theirs trying to defend Ireland? Are Jews in America still so fragile and defensive? Why was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger so vindictive? Was he afraid of something Mr. Pollard might reveal about the other secrets the United States was keeping from Israel, or did he just loathe him for his defiance or for his Jewishness? This we will never know, but what we do know is that American justice has turned to vengeance in the Pollard case, and that we cannot ignore. It endangers us as American citizens. It shames us as American citizens.

On Dec. 8, Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Silvan Shalom announced in the Knesset that the Government would now act openly to obtain Mr. Pollard's release. At last. Today, Arab terrorists still return to their homes in Government deals while Mr. Pollard remains in prison. America should have given whatever Israel needed over the table. I am surprised that the Jewish leadership did not loudly protest State Department unfriendliness to a friend in jeopardy.

Maybe there is a good reason for that decorum. Maybe they didn't want to rock the international boat. Maybe they were too timid or maybe not. But the fact is that Mr. Pollard, a real human being who believed he was acting in Israel's best interests, has been squeezed between the big players and is suffering on and on, his life mutilated.

It is like watching an awful accident in slow motion. Mr. Pollard lies beneath the wheels of politicians: our own leadership, the State Department, the Israelis who are watching out for their own hides. And we the Jewish public know that this is not right. I have heard the argument that Mr. Pollard is expendable for the good of the community.

But Jews do not sacrifice our own. The good of the community must rest where it always has in America: on equal application of the law, and on our faith in our personal and communal dignity being equal to that of all other citizens. Jonathan Pollard has expressed remorse. He shouldn't have spied on the United States, even if he thought he was protecting our beloved, and he has paid a high price for his deed. I have been asked if he is crazy, as if a positive answer would alter the justice issue. He is no crazier than anyone else would be in his circumstances. I have heard people complain that they don't like his second wife or they don't like his friends.

I have heard rumors, untrue, that he spied for China or for money. This is a man with many enemies, all of whom want the rest of us to stop mentioning his name. But we can't stop because, as his incarceration continues, he becomes a special kind of tragic political prisoner. Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, you are a man of courage and honor. Jonathan Pollard should be your cause because you understand that if he can be crumpled up and thrown away, so can I and so can the rest of us.

Mr. Baum, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, has said there is no issue of anti-Semitism in the Pollard case. Maybe we haven't found the smoking gun, but most of us believe that in some way this unequal treatment, this odd matter of why Israel didn't already have the information Mr. Pollard gave them, is related to anti-Semitism. Today, Mr. Pollard has no information that is not old news. He is no threat today to our State Department or to Israel's Mossad. He is just a man locked up too long. He is not Dreyfus. He did do what he is accused of doing. Nevertheless, there is an echo of the Dreyfus affair, a sense that one man should not be singled out for such severe punishment, an aura that evokes in us memories of other Jews unjustly jailed or lynched. We cannot be calm when there is even a hint of anti-Semitism rising from our courts. Wishing the hints away, Mr. Baum, does not convince us that all is well in our republic.

And the same goes for Mr. Rifkin, president of the American Jewish Committee. I agree that the Jewish community has many pressing issues on its table. It always has. It always will. Jonathan Pollard is just one man, and some among us think that is reason enough to ignore his plight. But it doesn't work that way. We are who we are because of how we respond to those of our own who need our help. We do not ignore the hungry or the desperate because they are powerless. So, too, we cannot ignore Jonathan Pollard sitting in jail and listening to the steel bars slam again and again.

The Jewish leadership has a chance here to show our young people that we have ideals and principles, even when it's difficult, when it appears that we are making ourselves unpopular. This is one issue in Jewish life that is not of the right or the left, the Orthodox or the secular. It brings us together and reminds us that we are one people, both vulnerable and strong. We will keep our covenant by standing together.

We need to let our young people know that we will not allow ourselves to be singled out for especially harsh treatment, and that whatever went on in the State Department that put Israel's survival at risk we do not accept as normal. This is a matter in which noise is required. Such is politics in the real world. Everyone who cares must speak up. The Jewish leaders may one day respond to their constituency.

See Also:
  • After 13 Years, Can Israeli Spy Finally Go Free?
  • My Two Loyalties