Amid Pollard’s deteriorating health and what advocates call a disproportionate punishment, calls for commuting his life sentence persist. The ball remains in President Obama’s court.
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Rabbi Pesach Lerner has been visiting Jonathan Pollard in prison for two decades, and most recently he has witnessed the deterioration of his health. But when advocating for Pollard’s release, Lerner focuses on justice more than the humanitarian argument.
“Justice has not been served in the fact that he did 26 years [in prison],” Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, told JointMedia News Service. “He deserves to be out because enough is enough. He deserves to be out because he shouldn’t have been there for life to begin with. Anybody doing what he did should be there for two, four, six, eight years, not going into 27.”
On Nov. 21, Pollard entered his 27th year in prison. Convicted of spying for Israel without intent to harm the U.S., he is currently incarcerated at the Butner Federal Correction Complex in North Carolina. Pollard is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for spying for an American ally.
The advocacy group Justice for Jonathan Pollard compares his sentence to those of 20 others convicted of spying for U.S. allies (http://www.jonathanpollard.org/sentences.htm), with sentences ranging from a few months to 14 years. Today, the maximum sentence for Pollard’s offense is 10 years and the median sentence, according to the website, is 2-4 years.
“Each case is unique, but certainly if you take that kind of comparative view, the sentence is disproportionate, and our argument is based on humanitarian grounds,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JointMedia News Service. “We’re not arguing the case or the details right now, what we’re saying is that [after] 27 years, he has paid the price, he has expressed remorse. It is time to let him go and to act on his appeals. There’s nothing more to be gained by his further incarceration, by most assessments.”
With the recent releases of Gilad Shalit and Ilan Grapel from Hamas and Egyptian captivity, respectively, many inside and outside the Jewish community are now focusing their energy on Pollard, encouraging President Barack Obama to commute his sentence.
On Jan. 4, well before Shalit and Grapel were free, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote to the White House to formally request Pollard’s release. But in October, the New York Timesquoted Vice President Joe Biden as saying, “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time’ ... If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.” In a conversation with U.S. Jewish leaders after the publication of the Times article, Biden denied making the comments.
Instead of taking Biden’s reported comments on Pollard seriously, Lerner said the opinions of “people in the know” are what matter—such as former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, former CIA head James Woolsey, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, who have all vouched for granting Pollard clemency. While those individuals have “firsthand knowledge” of Pollard’s situation, there’s no reason to assume Biden has researched the issue at all, Lerner said.
“These are the people who had access to the information andwho are responding from a knowledgeable point of view, and under those conditions they have all said, enough is enough,” Lerner said of Schultz, Kissinger, Woolsey, and others.
“The vice president can shoot from the hip, and so what?” he said.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) wrote a letter to Obama supporting Pollard’s release signed by 39 legislators in 2010, recently led a group of 39 members of Congress who submitted a plea of clemency to the White House, and again asked for clemency in a speech on the House floor this past August. Frank described Biden’s reported comments as “damaging to the chance of getting [Pollard] out.”
“I wish I could be more optimistic [about the chances for clemency],” Frank told JointMedia News Service. “I’ve written to the president, but I’ve never gotten any acknowledgement for any of this.”
In terms of granting Pollard clemency, Obama “may be a little bit afraid politically on this,” Frank said, adding that he has “gotten only silence from the Administration.”
Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents, which represents more than 50 national Jewish groups, advocates with presidents and members of Congress to keep the Pollard issue on the agenda. The goal is “to try and speak as a community on this issue, even if everyone will not necessarily sign or endorse every letter we write,” he said.
In June, Pollard was denied the right to attend his father’s funeral, and in August—days after a visit from Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.—he underwent “urgent” but successful surgery, Pollard’s wife Esther told the Jerusalem Post.
“Nobody stays in prison for 27 years and walks out with a clean bill of health,” Lerner told JointMedia News Service. “The environment, the food, the air, other sick people—it’s not conducive [to health]. Especially [since] it has been seven years [for Pollard] in solitary confinement. Eventually, you end with problems, whether it’s diabetes, or whether it’s heart problems or kidney problems or some combination.”
As Pollard’s plight becomes more of a “humanitarian issue,” a number of people in the Jewish community who once took a “harder position” against his release “have come around,” according to Hoenlein.
Some remain hesitant to back Pollard’s release by virtue of their association with the U.S. military, but “the overwhelming consensus is that he should be let go,” Hoenlein said. The opposition to clemency has subsided since the early years of Pollard’s imprisonment for a variety of reasons, Hoenlein said, including the considerable time that has passed, his expression of remorse, and his deteriorating conditions.
“When you’re on the outside, you always say ‘He deserves it. He should’ve gotten more,’” explained Lerner, trying to explain some people’s hesitancy to support Pollard’s release. “That’s not logical.”
“[Pollard] has served more than anybody else in history for spying for any country,” Lerner said. “He was indicted for spying for another country without intent to harm the United States. You don’t get life imprisonment for that.”
Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.