After 13 Years, Can Israeli Spy Finally Go Free?

April 1, 1998 - Anne Roiphe - The New York Observer

One of my children groans, "Not again, you'll turn into a broken record." True, I've written about Jonathan Pollard before and most likely will again. There are some times, however, when being stuck in a groove hits the honorable note. My daughter forgets that what is merely boring for her is a daily life in jail for a man whose lock-him-in-a-dungeon-and-throw-away-the-key crime was to inform Israel that Scuds were in the vicinity and that potential nuclear missile sites were sprouting in the neighbor's desert. Earl Pitts, the weird-eyed ex-F.B.I. guy who stole American secrets and gave them to the Russians, blamed his own treason on the seductiveness of the windows on Madison Avenue.

This sleazy piece of work told us that on 60 Minutes, and he was about as credible as any person whose life style exceeds his income can ever get. He will be out of prison before he serves as much time as Jonathan Pollard already has.

Mr. Pollard, in jail now for 13 years, has been sentenced with a vengeful fury to a term greater than that of any other peacetime spy. That makes a mockery of our desire for equal justice under the law. This cannot be justice tempered with mercy, and it cannot be good for America to use its vast power against a single unthreatening individual in such an unremitting temper tantrum.

Perhaps one doesn't have to go paranoid about Mr. Pollard's cruel sentence. Perhaps it is the accidental result of the Jewish American fear of being hit once more with a dual loyalty slam, and of an Israeli Government that was embarrassed to be caught with a hand in the American strategic cookie jar.

It is not sinister. It's just pathetic. It is probably not overtly anti-Semitic and probably not a conspiracy on the part of the Arabists in the State Department. But Mr. Pollard's continuing incarceration is out of proportion to the crime. Perhaps our State Department and our military were excessively defensive about a piece of information hidden for no apparent reason from Israel, our ally and friend. A man who betrayed America for Israel broke his word, committed a crime, acted recklessly out of love and fear for his people. He has expressed remorse. He is a wiser man now than he was then. But was he the worst spy who ever nicked this republic? Hardly. Does he deserve this endless sentence with no realistic hope of parole, no expectations of relief?

He harmed no one. Our prisons are filled with rapists and sex offenders who will see freedom before Mr. Pollard. Only under the unabashedly cruel regimes of dictators and tyrants would the justice system play this out to its bitter end.

Our major Jewish organizations are now making gestures toward getting Mr. Pollard released. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sent a rather formal and cool letter to President Clinton. Surprise, surprise, they received a pro forma turndown, which they didn't protest publicly because they chose to go the route of polite caution. Fair enough: Why be loud and noisy and make a nuisance of yourself when the fate of only one Jew is at hand?

After 13 years of expecting Jonathan Pollard to permanently disappear in the American prison system, the Israeli Government seems ready at last to do the right thing. Most lawmakers on all sides of the contentious political spectrum are no longer denying that Mr. Pollard acted on their behalf. In mid-March in Jerusalem, Communications Minister Limor Livnat called on the United States to allow Mr. Pollard to come to Israel. The immigration minister, Yuli Edelstein, has visited Mr. Pollard in his Butner, N.C., prison. Ophir Pines-Paz, a Labor Party member who is the head of the Knesset lobby for Mr. Pollard, distributed letters to his Knesset colleagues calling on them to visit Mr. Pollard. Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman has visited Mr. Pollard and promises to press for his release.

Israeli cabinet secretary Dan Naveh has been designated by the Government to deal with the Pollard issue. Yitzhak Oren, an official at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, has told Mr. Pollard that he will do all he can to bring him home. Tommy Baer, president of B'nai B'rith International, said that if Mr. Pollard is not released soon, "It has the potential to become the closest thing to an American Dreyfus case." Mr. Baer noted that Alfred Dreyfus was innocent and Mr. Pollard was not, and that distinction is important, but symbolically, when a Jew is treated unfairly by the courts of his country, the matter echoes in our historical ear and resonates with our most unhappy memories. Mr. Baer has not condoned spying, but he feels that Jonathan has already paid his debt to society.

Where, I wonder, is The New York Times on this issue? Abe Rosenthal weeps for persecuted Christians in China and that's good, but why hasn't he got a single tear left for Mr. Pollard? William Safire carries on about campaign finance, but hasn't that partisan moralist noticed something smells in our justice system? How can columnists of The Times turn their backs on such an issue? What are they afraid of?

A Washington insider said that two things must happen before Mr. Pollard can be released. He must express remorse, and the major Jewish groups must make it clear that this matter is high on their agenda, important to them. Jonathan has expressed remorse loudly and clearly. He knows that his act deserved punishment. Let the Highest Judge of All decide the guilt he should carry into eternity. Now the Jewish organizations, our leadership, must demonstrate courage on this issue, and provide loud and forceful leadership. They must speak out for the Jew who tried in the wrong way to do the right thing that the American State Department wouldn't do. Jewish organizations have an unfortunate history of trying to mend fences behind the scenes when outcry would have been the dignified and correct choice. Not again, not this time, please. While Mr. Pollard remains in jail, his term now so off the justice scale, no Jew can place complete trust in this country. Are there two standards of justice?

Chancellors and rabbis, writers and artists, synagogue attendees and secular atheists support his cause. Everyone I speak to says, Of course I care. But then we all return to our private matters, we feel helpless before the power of the state. I feel a deeper tie to Jonathan and more anxious than ever that the long night of his incarceration come to an end. There is something about a man in jail for life because he was afraid for Israel's safety that galls, that rips out the heart, that makes the bitter herbs of this Passover seem more bitter than ever.

  • See Also: Jewish Leaders Must Extract A Moral Thorn