NEW YORK (Sep. 7)
On Yom Kippur, the Jewish tradition teaches, God ascends the seat of compassion (rachamim).
Then we are sometimes forgiven for a sin that cannot be undone. Not because we deserve absolution, but because we have suffered enough — or maybe because the world needs a periodic moral cleansing.
Through the mystery and blessing of mercy, we are forgiven and given a chance to start anew.
This Yom Kippur, it is time to extend that mercy to Jonathan Pollard.
When the Pollard case initially broke, I was not one of those who expressed any sympathy for him. I feared that a great American Jewish political achievement was undermined by his behavior.
By the 1970s, many American Jews had become convinced that during the Shoah, American Jewish leadership had been intimidated politically.
Driven by a desire to be accepted fully in the United States, they failed to exert sufficient pressure to rescue European Jewry. This led to a colossal moral failure — i.e., abandoning the victims.
To avoid repeating that error, we pushed for an aggressive American Jewish political agenda in support of an embattled Israel. We argued that Jews must not suppress our emotional bonds and our natural loyalties to Jews abroad.
Instead, Jews could make an important contribution by upholding their moral concerns and their loyalties as a factor in setting foreign policy. The political force of multiple loyalties would enrich American democracy and make its policies more moral and humanly responsible.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a whole new breed of American Jews emerged in government who shared these values and expressed them in public service. They were proud Jews, secure enough not to lean over backwards and suppress Jewish concerns to prove they were kosher.
The partnership between Jewish activists and the American government, when applied to Soviet Jewry, saved a Jewish community in danger; within two decades, this policy undermined a totalitarian empire and made the world more democratic and more humane.
We were helping to create a pluralist American culture and foreign policy.
Increasingly, Israel, too, was sustained in unprecedented ways by American support; this advanced both democracy and American interests worldwide.
For this very reason, I was shocked by Jonathan Pollard’s actions — and by the Israeli role as well. This case threatened to erode the priceless mutual trust that was the bedrock of American Jewish activism and its partnership with other Americans.
I was stung and saddened when leading Jews in Washington lamented that, after Pollard’s actions, doors were closing and access was being denied to Jews in inner governmental circles.
It is not that I did not appreciate Pollard’s desire to protect the Jewish state. How could I not be grateful that Pollard was outraged when Israel was not being briefed on developments that could threaten its security?
But Pollard’s good intentions had paved the way to political hell.
Once he concluded that Israel was in mortal danger and that his superiors would not correct the situation, he had two honorable choices: He could have made a public scandal that would have put a spotlight on the danger to and the abandonment of Israel and trusted public opinion and the political process to correct the situation.
Or he could have resigned and moved to Israel to work in its defense.
By staying and working as a spy, he and his handlers gave credence to the worst anti-Semitic paranoias and threatened the remarkable democratic breakthroughs and policy achievements of recent decades.
For this reason, the initial attempt of Pollard’s supporters to portray him as a hero turned me off. They unwittingly compounded the damage done to the precious fabric of partnership at the highest levels of government.
However, 12 years have passed since Pollard’s trial. I must say that I was struck immediately by the severity of his sentence.
While I did not protest it, I have watched later developments with cumulative pain: Pollard’s harsh, sometimes inhumane, incarceration; Israel’s extremely poor handling of the case of his handlers and its repeated abandonment of responsibility for him; the deterioration of Pollard’s family circumstances; the repeated errors or political misjudgements and/or limited capacity of his support networks; the relentless parade of parallel cases in which far more damaging and dangerous spies received milder sentences.
Six months ago, at the request of Rabbi Avi Weiss who is Pollard’s rabbi, I took a call from Pollard.
Then, and in several conversations since, I have come to see the extent of Pollard’s suffering, his recognition of the error of his ways, his isolation and the fact that his life is ruined. I have also come to see that despite my worst fears, the American Jewish/non-Jewish political symbiosis has held.
Finally, I have come to the conclusion that enough is enough.
This is my Yom Kippur plea to President Clinton and to American Jewry alike. Have mercy. For God’s sake, let us act with compassion to end the suffering.
The Talmud says that whoever prays for the needs of his fellow human beings will himself be helped. Have none of us ever committed an act for which we need a termination of suffering?
Have none of us ever been stained in a way that will not go away, but for which we want forgiveness? Then let the president ascend the seat of compassion and extend the pardon.
Let us assure him that most American Jews and people of good will everywhere will put aside the arguments and excuses and will thank him for the release and blessing of mercy.