UPDATE 7:15 PM. WEDNESDAY OCT. 5
Vice President Joe Biden agreed Wednesday to meet a "small group" of Jewish leaders in the near future to discuss his opposition to clemency for Jonathan Pollard.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he approach Biden at a Rosh HaShanah reception for Jewish leaders and told him of the Jewish community's "deep concern" about his position.
"I said we need to discuss it and he agreed to the meeting," Hoenlein said. "He said he would convene a small group to talk about it. I don't know that he will change his mind. It's too early to predict, but he was very open to the idea and understood how serious this is."
At a private meeting with a group of south Florida rabbis last month, Biden is said to have called Pollard a "traitor who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison."
Hoenlein said that several others at the reception, held at the vice president's residence in Washington, "reinforced the message" about the importance of this issue. They included Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs of the Agudath Israel of America.
Asked if he is hopeful of changing Biden's mind about clemency for Pollard, Hoenlein replied: "When there is an opportunity for dialogue, there is an opportunity to see what we can do together to address this."
END OF UPDATE
Seeking to capitalize on the issue of Jonathan Pollard — put there in a spectacular way two weeks ago by Vice President Joe Biden himself — Jewish leaders this week are initiating a full-court press on the convicted spy’s behalf.
At a Rosh HaShanah cocktail party for Jewish leaders at Biden’s residence in Washington this week, they will ask Biden for a private meeting to convince him that Pollard’s nearly 26 years behind bars is long enough.
Biden is said to have told a group of rabbis in South Florida last month that Pollard, 57, is a “traitor who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he would broach the subject of the meeting in light of the fact that Biden’s “lifetime of work establishes him as a friend and supporter of American Jews and the State of Israel. … This is a topic that requires further discussion, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss it with him in a small meeting where we could really talk through the issues.”
Rabbi Yoffie pointed out that the subject of Pollard, a civilian naval intelligence analyst who stole thousands of classified documents in the 1980s before being caught and sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for spying for Israel, had been “taboo” for years after his arrest.
“No major political figure would identify with a release-Pollard petition, but now there are people in the political system who — without justifying his actions — are saying [clemency] is something that should be done,” he said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “the American Jewish community is wall-to-wall for clemency, even people who were very, very angry [with Pollard for his actions].”
He pointed out that former U.S. government officials and members of Congress have signed letters asking for presidential clemency, and that “every day that goes by smacks of vengeance. … Let him go for God’s sake.”
Foxman said he would bring to the cocktail reception a list of those who have signed letters asking for clemency, and that he hoped “something good” might come from this.
“This might yet turn around,” he said. “This has focused attention on the issue. I always said this is something that needed to be done quietly, but we did not initiate this [discussion], he did.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, who also plans to attend the reception, said he would welcome a future discussion about Pollard with Biden.
“Biden is certainly a friend of the Jewish community and a supporter of the State of Israel, and this is what really confuses me about this,” he said. “I can’t help but suspect there is more information at play than is available [to explain] why he would take a harsh stance on clemency.”
But Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel and a longtime supporter of Pollard, said he also “does not know what Biden knows, but I have to put trust in George Schultz, who was secretary of state when Pollard was arrested. He had an understanding of what Pollard did, and he wrote a letter [to Obama] saying enough is enough. [Former Central Intelligence Agency Director] Jim Woolsey told me he knew everything and that enough is enough.”
Rabbi Lerner also questioned why Biden has changed his stance on Pollard. In an interview on Shalom TV in 2007, Biden said: “There is a rationale in my view why Pollard should be given leniency. There is a rationale for that.”
Nathan Diament, who plans to attend the reception as director of public policy for the Orthodox Union of Jewish Congregations of America, said he expects Biden to bring up the subject of Pollard during his welcoming remarks.
It was Biden himself who brought up the subject of clemency for Pollard during his Sept. 23 meeting with a group of about 15 South Florida rabbis, according to interviews with about half of them.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue said Biden mentioned it after declining to comment about the case of Sholom Rubashkin, a former kosher slaughterhouse executive who was convicted last year of a variety of fraud charges and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
“He said, ‘You probably would like to ask me about Pollard,’” Goldberg recalled. “He said, ‘The president is not your problem on Pollard, I am.’ And he said that the president was prepared to talk about clemency, `but you’ll have to get past me first.’”
Another rabbi remembers Biden saying: “I’m Irish and to me loyalty is the most important thing, and Jonathan Pollard is a traitor who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”
Asked by one rabbi whether Pollard had not already served enough time — he will begin his 27th year behind bars next month — Biden is said to have smiled and said no.
“It would take the Third Coming before I would support letting Pollard out,” Rabbi Goldberg recalled Biden saying.
Rabbi Michael Gold of the Tamarac Jewish Center said he was surprised that Biden voiced little room for leniency “in a conversation that was very pro the wishes of the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Goldberg said the only time Biden said he might consider agreeing to free Pollard was if a peace agreement in the Middle East depended on it.
“I personally regretted that we as a group did not object more strongly and allowed his emphatic rhetoric to pass without strong objection,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘Mr. Vice President, this is unacceptable.’
“It’s shocking to me that the White House has not responded to requests for clemency from the prime minister and president of Israel, the chief rabbis of Israel, three former CIA directors, Henry Kissinger, numerous members of Congress from both parties, and its only response was made to 15 rabbis with the vice president saying it would take the Third Coming before he would even think about it.”
Contrary to published reports, the rabbis said Biden never claimed Pollard would receive clemency over his “dead body,” but Goldberg said he “might as well have because that was the message he sought to communicate.”
Although Biden never offered an explanation of why he felt so passionately about the issue, Rabbi Samuel Kieffer, spiritual leader of B’nai Aviv Synagogue in Weston, said he remembers Biden referring to Pollard as a “traitor” several times.
Rabbi Lerner pointed out that Pollard is not a convicted traitor.
“He was convicted of spying for a friendly country with no intent to harm the United States,” he said, adding that he is the only person convicted of spying for a friendly country who received a life sentence.
Rabbi Lerner pointed out that the person who wrote the government’s impact statement for the court was Aldrich Ames, a former Central Intelligence Agency counterintelligence officer who was later arrested and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia.
Rabbi Kieffer said he believes the purpose of the meeting “was an acknowledgement by the administration that Jewish support is decreasing and it wanted to find a way to shore it up. When it came to Israel, I think he was trying to convey to all of us that the support for Israel is still significant and serious and that the administration should be judged on its actions not on its words. He sort of acknowledged that some of the words that have come out have not been the best chosen.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner, the senior rabbi at Temple Solel in Hollywood, said he left early and missed the Pollard discussion but that what he heard convinced him that Biden had a complete grasp of the Israeli political scene.
“He clearly understands the complex political situation [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has and that he is trying to hold his coalition together,” he said. “He said he speaks with the prime minister several times a year and that he has known many people in the Israeli government throughout his career. … Given the administration’s public relations problem with the American Jewish community, I was surprised as to the frankness of the vice president’s understanding of that PR problem.”
Another rabbi who asked to remain anonymous said he remembered Biden “describing Obama as a ‘young African American president’ who is similar to a Jewish freshman in college — both don’t have the same sensitivity about Israel as he has, growing up after the Holocaust and living through Israel’s ’67 and ’73 wars. He was saying it is a generational thing, and at the same time he referred to Obama’s ‘body language’ problems.”
All of the rabbis interviewed said Biden’s strong comments on Pollard were shocking, and one said it left him “dumbfounded.” Another described Biden as “very callous and cold hearted.” And a third said he was upset with himself for not getting up and walking out.
Pollard’s wife, Esther, said in an e-mail that Biden’s comments were “as puzzling as they were troubling. … Unlike those officials calling for Jonathan’s release, Mr. Biden offered no explanation at all for his passionate call to keep Jonathan in prison for the rest of his life. Fortunately, [he] is not the one who will decide whether or not to commute Jonathan’s sentence to time served. Only the president can make that decision. … We are hopeful that Mr. Biden’s remarks … will elicit a swift response and clarification from the president.”
Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he believes Biden’s comments open the door for a reassessment.
“I think the president can still do it if he wants to,” he said. “He can stand up to the intelligence community and do it. Pollard has served enough time and should be released on humanitarian grounds. It would certainly be propitious if he did it before Yom Kippur.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he too believes Pollard has served a “grossly disproportionate” sentence.
“In the midst of the Days of Awe, as we ponder the wrongdoings we have committed and pray for God’s mercy, we pray as well that President Obama will act with mercy and grant Mr. Pollard long-overdue clemency,” he said.