WASHINGTON (Feb. 17)
Jonathan Pollard’s campaign for clemency has again failed to win the endorsement of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the body responsible for setting policy for much of the organized American Jewish community.
By a vote of 162-147, with 41 abstentions, delegates to NJCRAC’s annual plenum here rejected a proposed letter to President Clinton that would have asked for a review of Pollard’s life jail sentence, with an eye toward commutation for time already served.
Instead, the delegates opted to continue NJCRAC’s longstanding policy of neutrality on the Pollard case, in the belief it does not demand the attention of the organized Jewish community.
The vote Wednesday was a major setback for the former U.S. Navy analyst, who was convicted in 1986 of espionage for Israel.
It was also something of a surprise given Pollard’s growing support among community activists and mainstream Jewish organizations.
Several national Jewish agencies and local community relations councils have recently adopted statements calling either for commutation or review of the sentence.
But the Anti-Defamation League voted last week to maintain its position of neutrality on the issue, concluding that there is no evidence of anti-Semitism in Pollard’s sentencing or jail treatment.
The biggest factor in the NJCRAC vote appears to have been the Pollard activists themselves. Delegates on all sides of the issue said the tone and positions taken by the activists in the ongoing communal debate were a deciding factor in the decision to reaffirm NJCRAC’s neutrality.
‘A LOT OF UNFAIR CRITICISM’
“The NJCRAC committee on Pollard, and NJCRAC itself, has taken a lot of unfair criticism by the Pollard supporters, and that led many, including some who themselves have questions about the sentence, to rally behind the organization” and not vote for commutation, said Douglas Kahn, who as executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council drafted the proposed letter to Clinton.
The prime target of name-calling by Pollard supporters has been Phil Baum, associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress and head of NJCRAC’s ad hoc committee studying the Pollard affair.
During Wednesday’s debate, Baum called his experience in that connection “the most unpleasant and painful in all my years working with the Jewish community.” He received a resounding show of personal confidence from the NJCRAC delegates.
In fact, though, AJCongress and Baum recently changed their position from neutrality toward one calling for presidential review with an eye toward commutation, akin to that rejected by the plenum.
In making the case in favor of commutation, Kahn of San Francisco argued that Pollard’s life sentence is disproportionately long, that he has already served seven years in prison and that there is reason to believe his plea bargain was violated by the government.
But Kahn strongly disassociated himself from the Pollard activists, whose suggestions that some of the convicted spy’s actions could be justified “sometimes border on disinformation,” he said.
Some of Kahn’s arguments were disputed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“There are others who received similar sentences for similar crimes. You can’t simply assume what has been assumed about the sentencing,” he said.
Yoffie said there is a feeling in the UAHC that when Pollard becomes eligible for parole in 1995, “we would support it.”
The question of timing also led to the defeat of the resolution. Many delegates were concerned about raising the sensitive matter of Pollard at the beginning of the new U.S. administration.
“Last night we heard from the vice president of the United States, supporting many of the issues we went to Capitol Hill to argue on behalf: full funding for Head Start, increasing the Earned Income Credit, expansion of the women’s and children program,” said Lynn Lyss of St. Louis.
The Pollard case “is not the first issue we want to bring to the government,” said Lyss, a NJCRAC vice chair and delegate from the National Council of Jewish Women.
‘A CANCEROUS GROWTH ON THE COMMUNITY’
Another delegate explained that raising the issue now would put Clinton in a bind: Either he would reject the request, and needlessly offend the Jewish community, or he would commute Pollard’s sentence, and risk being seen as pandering to Jewish voters.
Further hurting the resolution’s chances was the fact that the vote on whether to break with NJCRAC’s neutrality and send a letter to the White House was held before the specific language of the letter could be debated.
That led at least some, and perhaps a deciding number, of delegates willing to support a softer pro-Pollard resolution to abstain instead.
But there was a clear sense that even among those supporting the resolution, few placed the issue of Pollard high enough on their agendas to be swayed come election time.
While a few cited the human suffering of Pollard, more spoke to issues of perception and pressure. Some spoke of concern that NJCRAC’s position of neutrality was being misinterpreted as opposition to commutation.
Others appeared weary of defending the neutrality in the face of what Richard Stone of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America described as “a great sense of unease within a greatly inflamed Jewish community that Pollard has been mistreated.”
In a partial explanation of his support for clemency, Stone said, “This is a cancerous growth on the community, and for that reason alone we should want to cut it out.”
Instead, NJCRAC is likely to remain the target of vilification from Pollard activists.
But David Luchins, a vice president of the Orthodox Union, offered some advice to the activists: “If you want people to agree with you, don’t bash them.
“There’s so much rancor and name-calling and intensity of feeling,” he said. “I think this became a vote of confidence in the NJCRAC ad hoc Pollard committee rather than on the issue at hand.”
Luchins said his personal argument on behalf of commutation may have been undercut by the legal threats from Pollard’s attorney to sue him for alleged statements against the jailed spy.
He added: “I wish there was this much feeling in the community about Jewish education, intermarriage and continuity, issues which are more pressing for Jewish survival.”