I was the first person, save for his family and attorney, to make contact with Jonathan Pollard after his November 21, 1985 arrest for passing classified information to Israel.
At the time of Jonathan’s apprehension, I was the Rabbi of Sinai Synagogue in South Bend, Indiana, a traditional, Modern Orthodox congregation. Pollard’s family was very active in the synagogue for decades. Jonathan celebrated his Bar Mitzvah there.
Jonathan’s parents, Molly (Mildred) and Dr. Morris Pollard, were ardent Zionists, and among the most prominent members of the South Bend Jewish community. Morris was a world-renowned microbiologist, who headed the Lobund Laboratory, and an award-winning professor at Notre Dame University. I was very close to both parents. We shared many a festive Shabbat meal together at our home.
I cannot begin to tell you how shattered and devastated Morris and Molly were over this whole sordid saga. It essentially destroyed their lives. Morris, a decorated WW2 army veteran, winner of a Commendation Medal and three Presidential Citations, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was a fierce patriot, and could not begin to comprehend the charges against Jonathan that questioned Jonathan’s upbringing, and his family’s loyalties.
From the start, Morris and Molly advocated for leniency for Jonathan. As my career brought me to Springfield, Massachusetts, and Stamford, Connecticut, I invited Morris to address my congregations in an effort to rally support for his son.
I spent more than seven hours with Jonathan outside his prison cell in Marion, Illinois. He was kept in a subterranean vault, in solitary confinement, several floors below ground, in a cell near that of John Anthony Walker, Jr., who committed treason in what is considered the most damaging Russian spy-ring in history. Walker constantly bombarded Jonathan with anti-Semitic drivel, and Jonathan showed the scars of that incessant abuse. Jonathan was brought to me in handcuffs and leg shackles. His pallor did not seem human. I had never seen anyone whose skin was so white and pasty, as though he had never seen the sun. It was a pitiful sight to behold.
When I saw Jonathan in jail, in 1987, he seemed to have aged then well beyond his years. Imagine how he must be doing now, in 2014.
I corresponded with Jonathan and visited his then wife, Anne Henderson Pollard, in a prison in Danbury, Connecticut. I wrote an amicus memorandum to Jonathan’s sentencing judge, Aubrey Robinson, pleading for leniency, a message undoubtedly lost on the Court, and also penned articles in the general and Jewish press advocating for Jonathan.
I wrote about my visit with Jonathan. I stressed that our democratic ideals and our unique system of justice are tested most and best by our fair and balanced treatment of those who do the unsavory deed, and are universally condemned and vilified for it. I also described Jonathan as an angry young man, not the easiest to root for. I noted as well that just because Jonathan indisputably erred does not mean, therefore, that we should throw away the key to his cell.
This is a theme to which I still wholeheartedly subscribe. Yet, my words reflected an insensitivity to the emotional toll that Jonathan’s ordeal must have taken on him. I focused indelicately on his anger, and was oblivious to his circumstances. My words hurt Morris and Molly deeply, and, after that, they refused all contact with me.
In response, I inexplicably buried my support for Jonathan then and there. I no longer advocated for Jonathan on any level, and, for a long time, I would not follow closely the unfolding story.
I cannot possibly justify my silence. I suppose that it was a way of masking or sublimating my own upset or hurt in the matter. All that I can do now is what I ought have done all along: simply add my own voice to the growing international groundswell of support for Jonathan’s immediate release from prison on humanitarian grounds, if nothing else. My complicity of silence ends here and now.
Jonathan is more than just a case or a cause. He found love and faith while in prison. He is married to Esther, and is now an observant Jew.
To add to the tragedy of a brilliant young man with abundant promise consigned to an interminable nightmare in prison, Jonathan has not been well. He has a variety of serious ailments that have required surgeries, among them gallbladder and kidney issues. His current health condition is reported to be poor, as he has suffered from the cumulative effects of his long-term incarceration under harsh conditions, including seven (7) years in solitary confinement.
A growing chorus of American political leaders and cultural icons has appealed for Pollard’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds under the President’s powers of clemency and pardon, among them Elie Weisel, Alan Dershowitz, Rudy Guliani, John McCain, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former CIA director James Woolsley, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasy, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Lawrence Korb, Benjamin Hooks, the former executive director of the NAACP, and scores of U.S. congressmen who have signed petitions requesting the commutation of Pollard’s sentence to time served.
Most recently, David Durenberger, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when Jonathan was convicted, who is intimately acquainted with the full details of Jonathan’s crime, wrote to President Obama arguing that the harshness of Jonathan’s sentence was “uncalled for,” and appealing for his immediate release.
In addition, a number of petitions for clemency for Pollard, each signed by hundreds of U.S. religious leaders across all faith lines, have urged the president to act now, arguing that failing to do so represents a “gross miscarriage of justice.” And, the drum roll for Jonathan’s freedom beats long and hard internationally as well, in academic and political leadership circles, and at the grassroots, most especially in Israel. A petition urging President Obama to commute Jonathan’s sentence was signed by 200,000 Israelis.
Jonathan is ailing, and has spent the better part of his life in jail. His life has been ruined. The authorities barred Jonathan from visiting his dying mother in 2003, and his father in 2011, nor was he permitted to attend their funerals.
When we examine all the arguments on both sides of a presidential pardon or clemency for Jonathan Pollard, it might do us well to consider the United States Attorneys’ Manual, which provides guidelines for the consideration of petitions for Presidential pardons and clemency. It notes, in Section 1-2.112, that the President’s consideration of a request for pardon takes into account post-conviction conduct, and acceptance of responsibility. Jonathan has a spotless prison record, and cooperated fully with the government following his arrest. He has also accepted responsibility for his actions, and has repeatedly expressed great remorse for his unlawful actions.
Further, as the Manual points out, in Section 1-2.113, a presidential sentence commutation request is reviewed with a mind to the undue severity of the sentence, and the critical nature of a prisoner’s illness. Jonathan Pollard’s request for commutation or clemency clearly provides ample evidence in support of these two factors as well. Recall that the median sentence for the offense for which Jonathan was convicted is two (2) to four (4) years. The maximum sentence today for such an offense is ten (10) years. Incredibly, Jonathan is now in the 29th year of his incarceration, having been sentenced to life imprisonment. And, the critical nature of Jonathan’s deteriorating health condition has been duly noted.
The call of restorative justice summons us to find that pristine place in our warm, compassionate hearts to help Jonathan Pollard come back from the brink. A few months before Pollard’s father died, it was reported in the local South Bend press that he could only hope and pray that justice for Jonathan would prevail. Let us honor a dying father’s last wish, answer the call of equity and justice, and join the fight for Jonathan’s freedom.
Better late than never.