Shiraz on the Potomac

The Trial of the Shiraz Jews and The Pollard Case
by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein - The Jewish Press (NY) - August 25, 2000

Note: The characters in this story are fictional. All the facts cited about the Pollard case are true.

Ali Mostophi, second officer at the Permanent Mission to the United Nations of the Islamic Republic of Iran smiled to himself when he saw Jack Ferguson approaching.

As often as protocol and the rule book allowed, the young American, a junior officer in the diplomatic corps, sought out Mostophi at the 13th floor lounge at the UN. Ferguson enjoyed prying off-the-record observations and analysis from him. Nothing earth-shattering, but it made Mostophi feel like a bit of a mentor to someone, and it had been a long while since young people in the full bloom of their idealism looked up to him.

Anticipating their usually friendly banter, Mostophi was taken aback by the edge in Ferguson's voice.

"You know that I've never swallowed the conventional line that paints Iranians in shades of black. But after this Shiraz fiasco, how can any educated person see your people as anything but primitive fanatics?"

The news headlines that morning had announced the sentencing of 10 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel. Mostophi understood. "You are troubled, no doubt, over the sentences of the Shiraz Jews. Do you want to vent, or do you want to learn something?"

"Learn? What's to learn? You violated every rule sacred to modern judicial systems!"

Unruffled by the young man's sharp tone, Mostophi offered, "Stop right there, let me finish for you. I will tell you exactly what you find ugly and offensive. You were about to tell me, of course, that the Shiraz Jews were convicted without benefit of effective counsel. You want to moralize about how there was no jury, only a judge who had reason to be, shall we say, 'biased.' And of course you will certainly point out that the Shiraz Jews were convicted on the basis of evidence that was never shown to them. Correct, so far?"

The wind taken out of his sails, Ferguson said only, "Yes, but you've left out the most upsetting element of all."

"That," said Mostophi, "would be the anti-Semitic thrust of the whole episode. When you hear that a government would fan the flames of prejudice against the world's favorite scapegoat, you are reminded of Czarist Russia, right?"

"Precisely," countered Ferguson, although with a bit of hesitation about what was to follow.

Mostophi spoke quietly and confidently. "First let me assure you that your whole premise is incorrect. The trial has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. We've tolerated Jews for three millennia, and we will tolerate them longer. We have nothing to gain from whipping up popular frenzy against people who have been good citizens, even if they are not Moslems."

Ferguson sensed that something important was coming. "So why the show-trial?"

Mostophi settled back into his chair. "Nothing against the Jews per se. They do, however, serve a useful function."

"A useful function?"

Mostophi nodded. "Our country is on the verge of some relaxing of restrictions, the first in many years. People get drunk with a little freedom. Remember how quickly the Soviet Union crumbled once people sensed that their freedom was increasing? We aren't ready for that. We needed to broadcast a message that we are still prepared to rein people in, if they gallop too quickly."

Ferguson frowned.

Mostophi explained, "Of course, the Jews have done nothing wrong. But they were using the new openness to their advantage. They started sporting their Judaism more publicly and openly. Nothing illegal about that. But we did want all our citizens to know that they should not mistake our letting up on some restrictions, with our inability to be firm about others. We aren't ready for that yet."

"So the Shiraz Jews were indicted and tried, just to send a message?" Ferguson shot back.

"Of course," said Mostophi firmly. "The trial of the Jews effectively sent a message aimed more at the rest of our people than the Jews."

"So you really don't hate the Jews. You are just prepared to sacrifice a few of them to make a point."

Mostophi sighed, "And you, my dear Ferguson, have missed the entire point." He let Ferguson stew for a moment, "It is natural for governments to take cues from others, to see how far they can go in pushing their own interests."

"What are you getting at?" Ferguson prodded.

"Do you recall what Hitler told his generals before invading Poland? He said, 'Go, kill without mercy . . . who today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?' "


"What one nation does is a trial balloon for the plans of the next. In other words, if the United States, the supposed world paragon of judicial virtue can callously deny the rights of one person to suit its own needs, then some of the rest of us can go a good deal further."

"Just what are you driving at?"

"I should think that you would have caught on by now," Mostophi said. He leaned towards Ferguson and pointed an accusing finger, "You Americans led the way with your famous Pollard case."

"But Pollard was guilty! And your defendants are innocent!"

"Guilty of what?" Mostophi shot back., "Of spying for a friendly country? Yes, to be sure! But see how his treatment has been disproportionately severe, relative to people convicted of downright treasonous spying - the kind that compromised the identities and lives of hundreds of your operatives while the Cold War was in progress. Why was Pollard treated differently? Because he was Jewish!"

Ferguson grimaced.

"Preposterous, you say? The United States is hardly anti-Semitic? Perhaps, but there were other factors. Would you be surprised if I told you that one element in the perversion of justice - as reported by your own media - involved a decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make an example of Pollard. They wanted to send their own message." Mostophi paused for effect. "They couldn't keep Jews out of the highest places in the government, but they didn't trust them either. There is this issue of dual loyalty to Israel. Best to let all American Jews know: you are welcome to work here, but you better leave your feelings for Israel at the door. In fact, your Defense Department even went so far as to use Pollard to justify a security alert which was circulated to all American corporations doing classified work that they should consider their Jewish employees as security risks because of their religious attachment to Israel."

"I don't believe that."

"You don't believe the Washington Post or the rest of your 'credible' news sources?"

Ferguson squirmed in his seat but did not reply.

Mostophi continued, "Over the years, we have watched how cleverly the Pollard case has been used by your people. We have learned the lessons well." He had Ferguson's attention.

"For your Defense and Intelligence crowd, the Pollard case became a tool to diminish Jewish influence. For those individuals in the government who have little use for close ties between the US and Israel, the case was and still is a convenient means of calling into question Israel's reliability as an ally. To this day, whenever it is needed, the Pollard specter is pulled out of the closet and the bones rattled at the Jews. It reminds them not to get too presumptuous. On that score, you Americans have learned well from us, that Jews can be good citizens, but must be kept in their place."

"But Pollard was a traitor!" Ferguson attempted to stem Mostophi's argument but he was no longer feeling very sure of himself.

Mostophi smiled, "Pollard a traitor? Just like the Jews of Shiraz? Listen, Ferguson, did you know that Pollard was never charged with treason? He couldn't be - after all he spied for an ally. But that did not stop your people from constantly implying that he had committed treason. Even his life sentence - completely inappropriate for the one count of friendly espionage he was indicted on - reflected a false charge of treason.

"But why?"

"There were a number of reasons. The false charge of treason was first made by your former Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, in a secret memorandum that he delivered to the judge at Pollard's sentencing."

"That doesn't make any sense. What would be the motive for Weinberger to falsely accuse Pollard of a crime like treason? Perhaps you misunderstood."

"No. Think about it. Your laws define a traitor as one who spies for an enemy during time of war. Israel is not an enemy - and even if it were, the US is not at war with Israel. So what was the point of falsely accusing Pollard of treason? If Pollard could be portrayed as a traitor, then logically it must follow that Israel is the enemy. What this accomplishes is a de facto political redefinition of Israel as an enemy state. To this day, the average American reading his daily newspaper believes the lies that Pollard was a traitor and the worst spy in American history - which is truly laughable. This tactic continues to be the single most effective means of pressuring Israel, as needed. It is no doubt the most successful means that has been used this century to undermine popular support for the US - Israel special relationship."

"Let me get this straight. Are you saying that the Pollard case is not about Pollard?"

"It is about Pollard in the same way that our spy case is about the Shiraz Jews. The message is more important than the medium."

Ferguson was troubled by what Mostophi was saying but couldn't think of an effective rebuttal.

"Look," Mostophi continued, "Do you remember the term 'lettres de cachet'? In pre-Revolution France, all it took to imprison someone indefinitely was a letter signed by the king and the Secretary of State. You can be sure that some of those who were incarcerated, before the Revolution put an end to the practice, may actually have been guilty of various crimes. But that was irrelevant. What is important was that due process was circumvented at the whim of the government."

"I know what that has to do with the Shiraz show trial, but what does that have to do with Pollard?"

"Pollard himself is of no concern to me. The issue is that except for the people who locked him up and threw away the key, no other Americans know anything about what Pollard really did. That is the crucial point. When the United States government found it within its interest, it engineered a way to lock Pollard away while denying him the rights that are supposed to be sacred in your country."

"Pollard had his day in court," Ferguson insisted. "Even Senator Lieberman says so."

"The good Senator has it backwards. Our Jews in Shiraz had their day in court. Your Jew never even had a trial."

"Come on! Pollard never had a trial? "


"Okay. You have my attention. Explain."

"The point isn't innocence or guilt, but that Pollard was railroaded by some powerful forces."

"Railroaded? Okay maybe he did get a heavy sentence, but that is justice, not railroading. What he did was terrible."

Mostophi sighed and shook his head patiently. These Americans, he thought, they all believe their own fairy tales, cheap imitations made in Hollywood. It is time for this one to get a dose of reality.

"Pollard was set up from the day he was caught spying for Israel. You remember the Israelis returned the documents that Pollard had given to them?"

Ferguson nodded, "I remember reading about it."

"The Americans leaned on the Israelis to return those documents. This was of course unheard of - asking a country to provide evidence against its own agent. The Israelis balked at first, but finally agreed on the condition that the returned documents would not be used against Pollard. The Americans promised; but even before the ink was dry, they violated this agreement."

"I don't believe that."

"The Americans immediately used the documents to coerce a guilty plea from Pollard, and to secure his cooperation."

Ferguson did not argue.

"The Americans struck a plea bargain with Pollard without ever telling him that they had committed not to use these documents against him. Without that information, Pollard was never able to take the appropriate legal steps to defend himself."

"Wait a minute. You said Pollard had a plea-bargain. Why did he need to defend himself? An American plea-bargain is iron-clad."

"In other cases, perhaps . Not in the case of your Jew. The Americans violated the plea-bargain with Pollard, but he had already waived his right to a trial. He had no recourse. Sound familiar?"

"You're implying just like the Jews in Shiraz?"

"Yes. And just like Shiraz, his fate was not in the hands of a jury, but of a single judge."

"But in America, there are legal safeguards to prevent a judge from exercising bias."

"Oh really?" Mostophi mocked. " And yet your Caspar Weinberger recently revealed in an interview that the secret memorandum that he submitted to the judge on the day that Pollard was sentenced had actually been solicited by the judge."

"What is wrong with that?"

"A lot. It seems that the judge had asked for Weinberger's assessment and recommendations about how much damage Pollard had done without mentioning this solicitation in the record! Pollard and his attorneys did not get to preview the document or to challenge it before it was used at sentencing to put him away for life."

"But Pollard pleaded guilty. You commit the crime, you do the time."

"Really, my friend, and what about the great American principle of 'due process'? Is due process a drum you beat only for the Jews of Shiraz, but not for your own?"

Ferguson was starting to feel uncomfortable. He hoped that the older man would not notice.

Mostophi continued, "On the basis of the secret memorandum Weinberger presented to the judge at the last moment before sentencing, Pollard's plea bargain was thrown out and he was given a life sentence for a crime that probably would have carried no more than a 2 to 4 year sentence, had he gone to trial. Who plea bargains for a life sentence?"

Ferguson persisted, "At least Pollard saw the evidence and he was allowed to defend himself."

"Not exactly. Pollard and his attorneys saw the secret memorandum for only moments before sentencing - enough time to see the false charge of treason in it, but hardly adequate time to mount an appropriate legal defense. From that day on, Pollard and his attorneys have never been allowed to see the document again in order to challenge it in a court of law - a clear violation of the man's American right to due process."

"But I've read that the FBI has a whole file filled with evidence of the damage Pollard did to American security."

"That is what your government wants you to believe. To this day, the Americans continue to claim that there is "secret" information about how bad Pollard was. They won't share that information, of course, so the result is the same as our citing 'security concerns' about the evidence that convicted the Shiraz Jews."

"But we are a democracy. Our government is reliable in its claims."

"One of your own, a Senator Charles Schumer, didn't think so. He decided to have a look for himself. Schumer examined the classified Pollard file a few months ago, and he announced that there was nothing in it - nothing to justify Pollard's sentence."

Ferguson did not answer.

Now Mostophi's moved to turn the tables. "You see, my friend, it is not you who should be disappointed. We have done nothing unusual by your standards. In fact, though, it is your America that has grievously injured us, injured me...." His voice trailed off. He heard himself telling the young man, "I love my country. I always have. And I never gave up on the dream of it becoming a real democracy. The reforms of the Shah were welcome, but hardly enough. I welcomed the Islamic Revolution, and believed that it would be the vehicle for the establishment of true democracy, once the necessary religious passions cooled."

Mostophi stopped. He could never openly admit his secret admiration for Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other American reformers who had shone a light in the world, that he had secretly hoped some day would shine on his people as well.

A weariness crept into his voice as he continued, "I have been a career diplomat long enough to know what can happen to an imperfect democracy, even one well-meaning in its imperfections. Imperfect democracies are quickly undone. Their fault lines can multiply with stress, like the smallest crack in a car's windshield which only grows, if left unattended. Only perfect democracies - ones that refuse to compromise principle for practicality - are strong enough to endure all the challenges from within and without."

Mostophi looked at Ferguson, a sad smile on his face.

"We are not the villains; you are. I used to think that the world's most perfect democracy would not only outlast the imperfect ones, but blaze a trail for everyone else. Your Pollard affair shows that you are just like the rest of us. You are no better and no worse. You too have your price. Your moral beacon will not be bright enough to light the way for the world. We will all have to content ourselves with imperfection, slipping in and out of periods of personal freedoms. And that, my friend, is the real disappointment."

Ferguson watched as Mostophi rose, turned his back and walked away. His indignation began to subside when he realized that even if he were to confidentially share Mostophi's disquieting observations with some local Jewish leaders, they would probably agree that the whole exchange - just like Pollard - should just remain buried. After all, what good would be accomplished by reminding American Jews just how close they live to Shiraz? I guess cowardice really is the better part of valor these days, Ferguson thought, as he sat back and contemplated the New York City skyline.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.