| Jewish Geography |

Storming the Heavens

If all went smoothly, President Bush should now be in possession of a letter signed by gedolei hador, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita and Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, asking the president to release Jonathan Pollard from jail


The letter was the product of intense, behind-the-scenes contacts, initiated by Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Rabbi Lerner is a friend and confidante of Pollard, having visited him in jail on a regular basis for several years.

Pollard, a Jewish-American, who hails from South Bend, Indiana is currently imprisoned in a federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina, having served some twenty-two years of a life sentence for espionage on behalf of Israel. Most individuals sentenced for such an offense are released after serving from two to seven years, leading many legal experts, as well as politicians with knowledge of the Pollard case to contend that the punishment far outweighs the offense. Pollard, a former naval intelligence official is both accused by authorities — and credited in pro-Israel circles — with having provided information on Iraqi weapons activities in the 1980s that enabled Israel to be prepared for the Scud missile threat during the 1991 Gulf War. Israel has acknowledged that Pollard furnished them with classified information, but has done little to gain his release.

The Gedolim’s Idea

The letter signed by Rav Elyashiv and Rav Steinman was relayed to Jeremy Katz, special assistant to the president and liaison to the Jewish community, and others in the White House. Copies of the letter were also sent to various Jewish communal leaders and activists, asking them to use their relationships to have the letters presented to President Bush.

“This was a serious process, and to my knowledge, unprecedented, as it is the first time that these Sages have written to an American president,” said Rabbi Lerner, in a telephone interview from his home in New York on motzaei Shabbos.

Even Rabbi Lerner, who has been spearheading the behind-the-scenes contacts with the gedolim for a year, was surprised at the outcome.

“I was asking for an acheinu bnei Yisrael letter to arouse public concern; it was the gedolim who made the decision of how to write it, how to phrase it, and who it should be addressed to,” said Rabbi Lerner, who discussed several aspects of this ongoing process with us on his recent visit to Israel, with an understanding that it was to remain off the record until the letters could be delivered to the president.

Rabbi Lerner stresses that both Rav Elyashiv and Rav Steinman are very aware of the details of the Pollard case and that their close and trusted confidants did thorough research on their own and were well prepared for the conversations that led to the issuance of the letter.

Pollard, who comes from a traditional Jewish background, has done teshuvah in prison. While prison authorities put him to work every day, he has volunteered for degrading tasks such as cleaning lavatories and washrooms to avoid chillul Shabbos. He has expressed remorse for his actions and has said that when he is released he will come to Israel where his wife, Esther, is waiting for him along with many friends and supporters.

Executive Clemency

The letter keeps the momentum going that began at the Agudath Israel of America convention last November, when Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg of Kehillas Chofetz Chaim of Cedarhurst, who visited Pollard in prison and wrote an article on his experience for the Jewish Observer, gave an impassioned speech at the shalosh seudos to raise awareness of the plight of Pollard.

A couple of months later, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel issued a kol koreh, signed by the Nesius Presidium and twenty-seven roshei yeshivos, dayanim and rebbeim, asking concerned Jews to do whatever they possibly could, to help free Pollard. Simultaneously, a campaign was developed, asking people to call the White House switchboard between now and Pesach to pass on the message to President Bush. A similar declaration was signed by the Moetzes some thirteen years ago and follow-up efforts were made at the time.

However, at that time, Pollard still retained some faint hopes of judicial review of his case. The final door was slammed shut last year when the Supreme Court declined to re-open the case.

His only chance of release now is through a process called executive clemency, a power granted to the president by the US Constitution to reduce a prisoner’s sentence without actually pardoning the offense itself. That is why the current campaign is focused exclusively on the White House.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 148)

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