New Pollard Pesach Push


A largely behind-the-scenes campaign on behalf of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has gone public in recent weeks, as a variety of Jewish organizations and former American political officials have urged the onetime naval intelligence analyst’s release from a life prison sentence.

This week Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella group of the country’s haredi community, issued a declaration that requests President George W. Bush to grant Pollard clemency. Agudah also backed an effort, coordinated by the National Council of Young Israel, to have “Americans who support the cause of Mr. Pollard’s freedom” place telephone calls daily until Passover to the White House.

And this week the Connecticut-based Bnei Elim organization, whose Web site bears the clenched-fist logo and the “Never Again!” motto of the late Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, announced a series of “Free Pollard!” street protests in Israel and the United States. Also, Midrashah Tzionit, an educational center in Ukraine, called for hunger strikes and a petition drive.

These actions follow statements by former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross and former CIA Director James Woolsey, and by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for Pollard’s release.

Young Israel “is behind a lot of it,” Executive Vice President Rabbi Pesach Lerner said of the orchestrated pro-Pollard activities. “We’ve built ourselves a small group of people who care” about the issue. “A group of us decided it has to be now. Jonathan’s health is getting worse.”

Pollard, 52, a prisoner for 22 years, is now incarcerated in North Carolina. He is known to suffer from heart and intestinal problems, as well as high blood pressure. Jewish spokesmen contacted by The Jewish Week suggested that the apparent increase in sympathy in the Jewish community for Pollard’s release is due to his declining health, a newly elected Democratic Congress and the Supreme Court’s refusal a year ago to reconsider the circumstances of Pollard’s conviction.

“It’s a combination,” Rabbi Lerner said. “Everything came together. Maybe God is blessing our actions.”

He said people connected to Young Israel persuaded Woolsey to make his statement.

The Supreme Court’s inaction indicated that “the legal remedies [to obtain Pollard’s release] have been exhausted,” said Kenneth Lasson, a Baltimore attorney and law professor who has served as a pro bono advisor for Pollard for 20 years. “The only course open is through publicity and the political avenue. It’s really a grass-roots effort.”

“I can’t take credit for Ross,” who independently came out in favor of Pollard’s release, said Rabbi Lerner, adding that the Bnei Elim brand of street protests “is independent” of Young Israel’s campaign. “The Pollards are not behind this type of activity.”

The Zionist Organization of America “welcomes James Woolsey and Dennis Ross’ statement,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a prepared statement last week. “It needs to be remembered that Jonathan Pollard passed on classified information to Israel, a U.S. ally, not a U.S. enemy.”

Agudah, which often favors advocacy out of the limelight, made a public statement because “we felt it was important as a signal to our people … if they would say a prayer for him it is a good thing,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, an Agudah spokesman.

Rabbi Shafran said Agudah, which has issued public statements on Pollard’s behalf in past years, all with the blessing of its Council of Torah Sages, acted this week at the suggestion of Young Israel. “Rabbi Lerner certainly has our ear.”

Pollard “is not a hero to us,” Rabbi Shafran said. “He’s a Jew in distress who needs our help. There’s absolutely no condoning of what he did.”

Pollard pleaded guilty in 1986 to one count of spying for Israel, and received a life sentence with a recommendation against parole, a sentence that many legal observers say is far disproportionate to a crime of its severity. Israel publicly denied Pollard was an Israeli spy until 1998, when he was granted Israeli citizenship. Several Israeli leaders have reportedly sought Pollard’s release during meetings with U.S. presidents and other high administration officials.

“Nobody says Pollard was innocent, but the sentence was an abomination,” Lasson said.

Several prominent American Jewish organizations have agreed to join the Young Israel campaign, Rabbi Lerner said. “I don’t think the establishment anymore is worried about the ‘dual loyalty’” charge, he said, referring to the accusation that American Jews place Israeli interest above America’s.

“It’s enough. Jonathan paid his price,” Rabbi Lerner said. He said that Young Israel will soon expand its effort to the non-Jewish community in the U.S., and “show them that this is a question of American justice that has gone astray.”

“We’re praying. We’re pushing. We’re hoping,” Rabbi Lerner said. “Ultimately, it’s up to God.” And to Bush, in whose hands a clemency decision lies. “God willing,” Rabbi Lerner said, “by Pesach he’ll say ‘Jonathan, go home.’”