Thirty members of the House of Representatives have put their names on a proposed resolution calling on President Reagan to pardon five rabbis who chose to go to prison to dramatize the plight of Soviet Jewry.
The five rabbis were convicted two weeks ago of violating a District of Columbia statute that prohibits demonstrations within 500 feet of the Soviet Embassy.
Disturbed that the 132 rabbis, ministers, Hebrew teachers and others who have participated in planned arrest rallies since last May have been subjected to what they say is selective prosecution — no charges have been pressed against those arrested at similar protests in front of the South African Embassy — the five rabbis opted to dramatize the issue of Soviet Jewry by going to jail rather than accept a suspended sentence, probation and a fine.
Maintaining that their oppressed brethren in the Soviet Union had no option of freedom, they began serving their 15-day sentence at the minimum security prison in Petersburg, Virginia, December 13.
The day before the rabbis were to report to prison, Rep. Michael Barnes (D. Md.), sent a telegram to the President urging him to pardon the five as “a real life example” to the Soviet Union “of what true justice and compassion in this holiday season mean.”
Barnes maintained that the rabbis — four of whom are his constituents — had been sent to prison during the last days of Chanukah and before they had a chance to appeal their case or settle their affairs. He called the “unusually harsh sentence and its excessively swift execution” an “outrage.”
A “sense of the House” resolution calling for a Presidential pardon was introduced by Barnes last week and has won 30 sponsors to date, including Barbara Mikulski (D. Md.) who, like Barnes, is a candidate for the Maryland Democratic Senate nomination, Morris Udall (D.Az.) and Tom Lantos (D. Calif.).
LAWMAKERS APPLAUD RABBIS’ COMMITMENT
At a press conference at the Capitol last Friday, Representatives Steny Hoyer (D. Md.), Pat Schroeder (D.Colo.), Benjamin Gilman (R. NY), Barnes, Mikulski and others, joined with spokesman for the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and the Washington Board of Rabbis, which has sponsored the demonstrations at the Embassy, to express their solidarity with the rabbis and with oppressed Jewish refuseniks and Hebrew teachers in the Soviet Union.
Standing before a row of photographs of Prisoners of Conscience and harassed Hebrew teachers and Jewish activists, the legislators applauded the rabbis’ commitment and promised their continued support.
“We are here to pay tribute to the indomitable human spirit and to send a message to the Soviet government that Congress and the American people of all faiths will never, never, never abandon the cause of religious freedom,” Hoyer said.
The legislators interrupted their statements to speak by telephone with David Oler, one of the five jailed rabbis. “We admire your courage and commitment,” Hoyer told Oler before the television cameras. Mikulski called it an “incredible paradox” that “you are in prison so that others can be free.”
One hundred and thirty two people have been arrested in the seven planned arrest rallies that began last May. Of those, 43 rabbis and a Lutheran minister, the Rev. John Steinbruck, have thus far been tried and convicted, and all but the five who opted for jail were given suspended sentences, probation and fines.
Staff members in Barnes’ office said that although the proposed resolution did not come to a vote before the current session of Congress adjourned last week, it served the purpose of highlighting the plight of Soviet Jewry that was the basis of the rabbis’ decision to go to jail.
EARLY RELEASE FOR RABBIS
Meanwhile, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry reported today that the rabbis are scheduled to be released from prison tomorrow, three days early, for “good behavior” and because of the holidays.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.