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Pollard and the price of organized indifference
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Pollard and the price of organized indifference

There is a flyer on the display table of my synagogue(s) every Shabbat requesting that we connect to a website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to express our solidarity with Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held captive by Hamas. Seeking his freedom, Israel offered an exchange of prisoners. Hamas not only demanded hundreds but specifically those who were involved in bloody attacks on Israeli citizens. Israel declined, presumably out of fear of more attacks. This is where we stand with Gilad Shalit. There is nothing we can do on his behalf. His redemption, if it is to come, will be through Israel.

In 1985, Jonathan Pollard, a civilian analyst for U.S. Naval Intelligence, came upon evidence that both Syria and Iraq were producing poison gas. By treaty, our government was obliged to turn this information over to Israel but, under orders from then Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, the information was not shared with Israel. Pollard reported this to his superiors in Naval Intelligence who basically told him to mind his own business.

He then passed it on to the Israelis. When this reached Rafi Eitan, then head of a branch of Israeli intelligence, he wined and dined Pollard, put him on the payroll, and essentially ran him as a spy. Pollard, obviously impressed by all this attention in addition to clandestine meetings in European countries, cooperated. Then he was caught. Notified of his impending arrest, he sought refuge in the Israeli Embassy but was denied admission.

The American Jewish community was stunned and ran for cover. Pollard was denounced for his “spying” and no organization seemed to notice that the information imparted to Israel was crucial for its defense and that the U.S. was obliged to share the information.

The U.S. government did not want a trial and entered into a plea bargain. In exchange for a guilty plea to the charge of passing classified information to a foreign government, the government would not request a life sentence and would inform the court of Pollard’s cooperation. The agreement was immediately violated by Weinberger who, an hour before sentencing, requested the judge issue the stiffest sentence commensurate with Pollard’s “treasonous” behavior.

On other occasions Weinberger said that Pollard ought “to be shot.” According to his under-secretary, Lawrence Korb, Weinberger had an “almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy.” As part of the agreement, Pollard’s wife, Anne, who was ill, was not to be charged. The plea bargain, undermined by the U.S., was not accepted and Pollard was sentenced to life without parole and his wife was sentenced to five years.

On both counts, this was unheard of. While spies for hostile countries had received life sentences, those caught spying for friendly nations received sentences of 10 years or considerably less — except for Pollard. No wife had been charged, including one who helped her husband escape the FBI.

Despite this obvious discrepancy, the organized Jewish community was mute until the 1990s, when grass roots committees, spurred on by Pollard’s family, effectively shamed the Jewish organizations into joining in. In Israel, the Rabin and Netanyahu governments put pressure on President Clinton, who reportedly agreed to pardon Pollard but met with great resistance from the Justice, State, and Defense departments.

The lack of organized support for a Jew confronted by the government is not unique. In 2004, two AIPAC staffers — Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman — were indicted for receiving classified information from a government employee and passing it on to Israel. The government claimed that it made no difference that Rosen and Weissman were unaware that this was classified information and brushed off warnings from civil liberties organizations that the case undermined the work of journalists and researchers.

AIPAC summarily fired Rosen and Weissman and even refused to pay their legal costs. The government’s case was so weak that the judge ruled for the defense in motion after motion (including one that forced AIPAC to pay the legal costs) until the government dropped the case last year.

The Pollard case has recently been revived. The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was considering a pardon for Pollard in exchange for Israeli concessions in the peace talks. Four members of Congress — including my own, Bill Pascrell — wrote to Obama pointing out the “great disparity from the standpoint of justice between the amount of time Mr. Pollard has served and the time that has been served — or not served at all — by many others who were found guilty of similar activity.”

We hear all the time, most recently from Rick Sanchez, how powerful we are and yet Jonathan Pollard has been sitting in prison for 26 years, much of it in solitary confinement. It is long overdue that we get Pollard out of jail and let him spend his remaining years in Israel, if not for him at least for our own self respect.

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