Vice President Al Gore, making his first campaign trip to Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, found himself at odds with supporters on several key issues: including private school vouchers and freedom for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Gore said Pollard should be granted clemency by the president only if the Justice Department recommends it.
It apparently was the first time Gore has addressed the issue as he raises campaign funds for his 2000 Democratic presidential nomination bid.
"My position on the Jonathan Pollard case is that it should be handled through the appropriate legal channels and that only the president of the United States can act upon a petition for clemency, and should do so only upon a recommendation from the Justice Department," Gore said.
He was responding to a question from one of about 60 people at a private fund-raiser Dec. 8 at the Borough Park home of Democrat Orthodox power broker Abraham Biderman.
Gore said that when a clemency application is submitted by Pollard and "appropriately reviewed, then the decision should be made in that context and not a political context."
Because the Justice Department has several times rejected recommending clemency since Pollard was sentenced to a life term for spying for Israel in 1986, some observers say Gore seemed to be signaling he would not commute Pollard’s sentence as president.
"Some people were not thrilled to hear that," said one attendee of Gore’s response.
Seymour Reich, who heads a committee on Pollard for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, accused Gore of "ducking the issue."
"He knows that the Justice Department has already recommended to the president that commutation be denied," said Reich, who did not attend the Brooklyn event.
"Regardless of what recommendation this Justice Department might make in the Pollard matter, it’s the president who makes that decision, and therefore Gore should be able to share with us his views as a candidate for the presidency as to how he would react to the application for clemency."
President Bill Clinton, who twice has denied Pollard clemency, promised in October 1998 to have five national security agencies review the case again as part of a deal to conclude the Wye peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Clinton’s initiative sparked a near mutiny in America’s intelligence community, which claimed that Pollard is one of the worst spies in U.S. history and should never be freed.
Reich said four federal agencies, including the CIA, have recommended against commutation, while it is not known how the fifth, Justice, has ruled. Clinton’s decision is still pending.
Asked to clarify Gore’s statement, a New York Gore campaign spokesperson referred questions to Gore’s vice presidential press staff. A Gore spokesperson in Washington said that "I think the critical points are that it is the president’s decision, and he makes it in consultation with the relevant authorities."
His Brooklyn host, Biderman, a former finance commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch, said that "obviously most people would like to see Pollard free" but added that Gore should not be judged on one issue.
However, Gore is also at odds with the Orthodox community for his staunch opposition to private school vouchers.
"I’m confident that I disagree with many of you here on the question," Gore told the crowd. "I understand the feeling that payment of taxes in support of public schools and simultaneously paying tuition at private schools creates the feeling that this is a problem that must be addressed."
But citing the principle of church-state separation, he said, "If the national government begins to put taxpayer funding into religious schools in response to political desires of this community or that community, then the line which is crossed is a line that was originally put in place to protect religious freedom and to guard against religious intolerance."
One participant said that Gore’s stance should not dissuade the Orthodox community from voting for him over Democrat rival Bill Bradley because Gore has a long and positive history with the Orthodox.
"I think the recognition of people in the room was that for years he has been a friend of Israel and the Jewish people and that friendship buys you a little leeway," this participant said.
Asked about whether as president he would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (as stipulated by congressional legislation) Gore implied that Israel itself had asked the U.S. not to take actions that would damage America’s role as a peace facilitator.
"We have respected the request of Israel therefore to play a role in facilitating that dialogue, and that means showing forbearance in what would otherwise be our wish to move quickly to do exactly as you suggest," the vice president said.
One Orthodox leader backed Gore’s contention about Israel’s request. In 1995 Congress enacted legislation directing the embassy be relocated to Jerusalem this year. But Clinton, citing "national security" reasons, has delayed the action, inviting criticism from Republicans and right-wing Jewish sources.
Regarding the future status of Jerusalem, Gore said it must be resolved only by the negotiating parties, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
"I will fight against any effort by the United Nations, or anybody else, or any other institution to take away from Israel the right to reach peace with security on terms that Israel drafts with its negotiating partners."
On Israel, Gore said "you will find no stronger friend of Israel in the United States of America than [me]."
He declared that Israel should not be pushed into conditions for a peace agreement by unnamed outside forces, speaking to a claim made by some politically conservative Orthodox groups.
Gore, looking fit in a dark blue suit, schmoozed with the audience, talking about family and his own strong religious convictions. (He’s a Southern Baptist.) Gore noted that he became a grandfather for the first time on July 4, and was astonished to discover one woman in the audience who claimed more than 31 grandchildren. "I’m just a rookie," he joked.
Biderman’s home was the second stop of two fund-raisers in the city. Earlier, Gore attended a Greenwich Village event sponsored by state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat. The events raised a total of $250,000.Gore’s visit included a stop at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where he helped light a Chanukah menorah and gave children plastic dreidels.