Echoes of Pollard Case in Peru Prisoner's Plight

Rachel Donadio and Forward Staff - The Forward (NY) - October 6, 2000

One has been languishing in Peruvian jails since military judges convicted her of being a terrorist. The other is serving a life sentence in the United States, having pled guilty to spying for Israel.

Both Lori Berenson and Jonathan Pollard are Jewish, and some say each represents an authentic strain of Jewish tradition. Some say it was a Jewish commitment to social justice that in the rnid-1990s led Ms. Berenson into shady dealings with Peruvian rebels. Others argue it was Pollard's overzealous love of Israel that in the 1980s drove the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst to leak tomes of classified U.S. documents to the Jewish state.

Both prisoners have attracted supporters who are sympathetic ideologically with their goals. Recently, however, the tides have been shifting. Once the cause of a small core of right-wing Jewish activists, support for Pollard now stretches into the center of the Jewish community, with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements adding their voices to calls for clemency. Once championed largely by leftists, Ms. Berenson's case is piquing the interest of everyone from Orthodox rabbis to members of Congress, 221 of whom signed a letter urging President Clinton to call for her release.

"Recently we've been getting more and more support from the right of everything, particularly since the recent news of what's going on in Peru has made everyone aware," said Rhoda Berenson, Lori's mother, who with her husband, Mark, has been crusading to free their daughter.

In August, Peru granted Ms. Berenson a new trial in civilian courts, which began earlier this month. In a 1996 trial in which Ms. Berenson was not allowed to challenge the evidence brought against her, military judges handed the then 26-year-old New Yorker a life sentence for aiding rebels from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement in planning an aborted attack on the Peruvian Congress.

"A number of Orthodox rabbis have come out, plus (we have) solid support from the Conservative Jewish branch," Mrs. Berenson said. "Now people see it an a purely human level which has no left or right. Even in the non-Jewish community most of our support in Congress was from Democrats. But now we're getting Republicans from Mississippi and Christian Coalition types, so it's really becoming more universal."

The Rev Jesse Jackson last month urged Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to reexamine the Berenson case; Mr. Fujimori reportedly said he was willing to discuss it. Mr. Fujimori, who soon after called for new elections in which he will not run, had previously refused any dialogue with Ms. Berenson's camp. Mrs. Berenson said she does not know what the political shifts in Peru in recent weeks would mean for her daughter's case.

In Pollard's case the point of contention is not his trial [J4JP Note: Jonathan never had a trial. See the Facts Page.] but his sentence. Pollard has been serving a life sentence without parole since 1987, when he pled guilty to spying for Israel. Led to believe that the U.S. government would not seek a life sentence, he relinquished his right to a trial and cooperated with investigators.

"I think that the campaign for Pollard's release does enjoy support across the Jewish community," said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has lobbied to free Pollard and to get Ms. Berenson a fair trial.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she believes there are unresolved "due process issues" in the Pollard case, recently intervened to prevent authorities from moving the spy to a harsher prison.

Lieberman, by contrast, has said that the facts of the spy's case do not warrant any political intervention in the judicial process. [J4JP Note: To Understand Lieberman's politically-driven position, see the Lieberman Page.]

"In my mind the two cases have nothing to do with one another," Pelavin said. "In one case you have a man tried and convicted here in the United States. [J4JP Note: To understand how the U.S. system of justice failed Jonathan Pollard, see the legal documents and Court Case 2000 Page.] On the other hand you have a woman who was tried and convicted in a situation where a just result was all but impossible."

Others denied a connection between Ms. Berenson's Judaism and her involvement with the rebels. "I don't think the Berenson case has anything to do with her Jewishness," said Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, a businessman and negotiator who has visited both Ms. Berenson and Pollard in prison. "With the Pollard case there's not exactly anti-Semitism but rather the issue of Israel and how the State Department looks at Jews and feels about Israel, and I believe there's a bias."

"It's not like we ever said, "You're Jewish, Jewish people do this," said Mrs. Berenson, who taught physics at Nassau Community College and now works fun-time on her daughter's case. "But I think there's a whole history of this kind of concern that Lori picked up."

"The bottom line is the Jewish community should be knocking down doors and demanding basic justice, said Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel, a right-wing Orthodox group that has championed the Pollard cause. "Pollard didn't get a good trial. He had a lousy attorney. Lori Berenson had less. She's in a country that didn't have basic rights."

See Also:
  • The Facts Page and Related Links
  • The Court Case 2000 Page