The human spirit: Prisoners of Zion
By BARBARA SOFEROp Ed The Jerusalem Post 08/30/2012 13:43
In this season of taking stock, of counting our blessings and regretting our
faults, we recognize with profound appreciation that we live at a time when
the Jewish communities of the world are free.
When I speak to student groups about one of the great dramas of my
lifetime – the exodus of the Jews of Russia and how, to use Natan Sharansky’s
words, “housewives and students” defeated the powerful Soviet Union, I might
as well be telling them a Hanukka story. They don’t know who Sharansky is,
and the term “Prisoner of Zion” has little meaning.
That’s not a criticism. What molded our lives doesn’t have to mold theirs.
In more recent times, we have directed our efforts to finding and freeing
individual Jews, mostly soldiers of the IDF who are missing in action: Ron
Arad, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Guy Hever, Zachary Baumel. I wonder if I am
the only one who, for so many years, included Gilad ben Aviva (Schalit) in
the entreaties of my daily prayers? And who sees that he occasionally still
finds his way in, before I remind myself that he was freed last October?
Where does Yehonatan ben Malka fit in our private and community prayers?
He’s not incarcerated in an underground cell in Gaza or in a Communist
prison. Yehonatan ben Malka is an Israeli citizen whose exact location we
know. Prisoner number 09185016. Butner Federal Correction Complex in
Granville County, North Carolina. Jonathan Pollard.
I was eight years old, walking from public school to Hebrew school in
Colchester, Connecticut, stopping at Fanny Miller’s candy store for
fireballs and chocolate-covered raisins, already taking part in the great
debate with my Jewish friends. “What would you do if America and Israel went
to war against each other?” we asked each other.
The subject of loyalty was deeply embedded into our consciousness as
American Jews. Somehow you knew that your Irish and Polish and Italian
classmates weren’t having a parallel debate. In a sense we were
hyper-patriots. We couldn’t take freedom and security of America for granted
like the Daughters of American Revolution in town.
At the same time, the values of liberty and justice resonated with both our
Americanism and Judaism. In the rare circumstances I heard the names Ethel
and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans to be executed for spying in the
Cold War (in 1953), the subject was quickly hushed up.
By the time I was 12, I’d read one of the early Holocaust accounts: Judith
Sternberg Newman’s biography In the Hell of Auschwitz. Newman’s relatives
lived in Colchester. On one hand, I felt even luckier that my grandparents
had left Eastern Europe for the United States. On the other hand, the need
to protect the Jewish people was imperative.
Grave errors had been made in America towards the Jewish people. Although I
felt unhampered by my Jewish identity to attend any university, a generation
earlier talented Jews faced admission quotas and certain branches of the
armed forces were known to be difficult for Jews to enter. The US, with its
wide-open spaces and supposed immigrant culture, didn’t take on an organized
rescue policy for Jewish victims of Nazi Germany until 1944.
Think of the 937 passengers on the ship called the St. Louis, refugees from
Germany, sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of
Miami, being turned back to the Nazis in May 1939.
Public opposition to immigration, xenophobia and anti-Semitism kept
immigration restrictions rigid even after World War II. In addition to the
moral greatness of saving the Jewish people, imagine what America would be
like today if the country had taken in the Jews of Europe. Take even the
simplest parameter: Nobel Prize winners. Thirty-seven percent of American
winners are Jews – and that is without the Six Million.
You couldn’t count on the US to avoid making additional errors about the
fate of the Jews. What would any of us do if we were in the position to
raise the alarm and help avert a future catastrophe? Even back in Hebrew
school the answer was clear.
Jonathan Pollard was born in Texas in August 1954, and grew up in Indiana.
While working as an American civilian in intelligence in Washington, Pollard
saw classified material that contained information about maintaining Israel’s
security. I don’t care that he was paid – Mossad agents get salaries, too,
for taking on dangerous work.
You can spend hours reading the details of his case online and the strong
opinions it has generated. Here’s the short of it: Pollard’s illegal
activities for Israel were detected. He sought asylum in the Israeli Embassy
in Washington but was rejected. To avoid an embarrassing trial, Pollard was
persuaded to agree to a plea bargain that would also guarantee that he wasn’t
given a maximum sentence. He expressed profound regret for his actions. The
prosecutor complied with the plea agreement and asked for “only a
substantial number of years in prison.” Nonetheless, Judge Aubrey Robinson,
Jr. imposed a life sentence after hearing a “damage assessment memorandum”
from the defense secretary.
That was in 1987. Unless he receives a presidential pardon, Pollard’s
possible parole won’t come until November 21, 2015.
No one has ever revealed what documents Pollard gave Israel in 11 deliveries
of confidential files about the Middle East. Was the information critical in
convincing Israel to knock out the nuclear plant in Osirak, Iraq? If so, his
perspicuity saved not only Jewish lives but American lives, too.
WHY, THEN, is he still in jail?
Among those who opposed Pollard’s release was his former boss, the late US
Navy Rear Adm. Sumner Shapiro, who served as director of the Office of Naval
Intelligence from 1978 to 1982. Said Shapiro: “We work so hard to establish
ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up... and
then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make
him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me.”
Pollard’s incarceration, then, isn’t only about spying. To a Jew who rose to
the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy, he should be punished
for threatening the hard-won proof that he was as loyal an American as his
After shameful denials, Israel admitted that Pollard was working for us and
declared him an Israeli citizen. His release is often mentioned in
connection with prisoner swaps and peace deals, to sweeten an otherwise
hard-toswallow deal. Former US deputy defense secretary Lawrence Korb said
“the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral
dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies” in American foreign
policy.” Do any of us doubt that US Vice President Joe Biden’s vituperation
against Pollard had less do with the spy’s deeds than his anger towards the
State of Israel?
Nonetheless, more than a quartercentury after Pollard was jailed, many
voices across the political spectrum agree that his punishment was
excessive. Left-wing Congressman Barney Frank is in rare agreement with
rightwing former House speaker Newt Gingrich on this one. Former CIA
director James Woolsey says Pollard’s punishment is excessive. Even former
defense secretary Caspar Weinberger admitted that “the Pollard matter was
comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance.”
As we enter 5773 – an election year in the US – Jews of every political
orientation should be able to agree that the time to release Pollard and
make their views known is now. Synagogue members of every orientation should
include him in public declarations. To quote accused spy Sharansky, who now
heads the Jewish Agency: “The time has come to vigorously and loudly demand
From one Prisoner of Zion to another.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of
modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.