Facing Backlash, Jewish Leaders Defend Meeting With Jonathan Pollard

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Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York, November 20, 2015.
Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York, November 20, 2015.Credit: AP

When American Jewry’s most important national umbrella group hosted American Jewry’s most famous, recently paroled spy for Israel, it did so at a breakfast in an elegant synagogue conference room in Manhattan with a congressman in attendance.

That is about as much as can be gleaned about the setting of the closed January 25 meeting, based on a photograph of the event posted on a website that supports the recently freed Jonathan Pollard. In the photo, Pollard and his wife are pictured with Representative Jerrold Nadler and Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein in the background, along with a coffee urn and some miniature topiary.

But in a brief phone interview with the Forward, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, stressed that the meeting was in no way meant to convey the Jewish establishment’s embrace of Pollard, much less any aspect of the crimes for which he was convicted.

“That’s silly,” he said, when asked about the chances his group ran the danger of communicating such an impression. “We meet with people of every kind, of every point of view. Does that mean we embrace what he did? The conference has made clear our criticism [of Pollard]. It’s certainly not an endorsement.”

According to Hoenlein, the conference agreed to the meeting in response to a request from Pollard, who has been protesting the conditions connected to his parole.

“That’s why people came,” said Hoenlein, “because they were interested” to hear Pollard’s arguments that these conditions were a matter of Jewish communal interest. The meeting was kept closed and publicity about it strictly limited, he said, at Pollard’s request.

Leaders of a half-dozen Jewish groups among those invited to the meeting would not speak with the Forward. But Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, worried about what the Presidents Conference’s decision to meet with Pollard conveyed.

“I think it was unnecessary,” said Foxman. “It may send the wrong message, that the community embraces what he did.”

Jewish groups have for decades maintained a delicate balance in their position on the Pollard case. After years of declining to take a stand, the majority of communal organizations eventually supported Pollard’s release, citing solely humanitarian concerns about what they saw as an excessive sentence. Still, many resented Pollard for giving credence to fears of dual loyalty among American Jews. They sought to be careful not to appear to be holding him too close.

Now, with Pollard, who is 62, sprung from prison 30 years into his life sentence, some are questioning the Presidents Conference’s decision to invite him for breakfast.

“I don’t think embracing him sends the right message,” said Peter Beinart, a columnist for Haaretz and a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. “He served his time. Let him live his life. He is a traitor.”

Foxman, who while the head of the ADL disputed claims from some that Pollard’s severe sentence was motivated by anti-Semitism. But he, eventually supported clemency for the ex-spy. Now, he thinks that the community should distance itself from Pollard.

“It will provide his enemies, and the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people, with an opportunity to say, look, the community embraces [a] spy,” Foxman said of the meeting with the conference.

Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, among others, did not respond to requests from the Forward for comment on the meeting.

A spokesman for Nadler, a Democrat, said that the congressman had been invited after sending a November letter to United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking that the terms of Pollard’s parole be changed so that he is allowed to move to Israel. Democratic Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who also signed the letter, had also been scheduled to attend the breakfast but was unable to attend due to weather conditions.

Nadler, who represents heavily-Jewish districts in New York City, faced harsh pushback from Jewish groups in August over his outspoken support for the framework agreement for a nuclear deal with Iran, which was supported by a broad swath of Jewish groups.

Conference of Presidents officials initially attempted to keep plans for the Pollard meeting a secret. Members of the Conference were informed of the meeting via telephone, rather than email, to avoid leaks, and the Conference made no public statements before or after the meeting. Hoenlein criticized the pro-Pollard group Justice for Jonathan Pollard for announcing that the meeting had taken place.

Pollard, who appeared at the meeting in a suit and tie alongside his wife Esther, claimed that a January 20 Forward report on the planned meeting prevented him from delivering his address to the Conference. Instead, after brief introductory remarks, Esther Pollard read her husband’s speech, which went into restrictions on his parole that he believed the conference should oppose.

Aaron Troodler, a spokesman for Justice for Jonathan Pollard, said Esther Pollard told the conference about parole conditions “in which Pollard is not only prevented from working and from exercising his religious rights, but also effectively prevent[ed] from ever reintegrating into society.” He said Esther Pollard also revealed that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin handed President Barack Obama a letter regarding Pollard’s parole conditions during a White House meeting in December.

The conditions for Pollard’s five-year parole include wearing an electronic ankle bracelet with GPS tracking and submitting to surveillance of his and any employer’s computers. He also is confined to his New York home between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. – a condition that Pollard’s attorneys say interferes with his ability to observe the Jewish Sabbath and certain holidays. They argue that these conditions could also preclude him from holding a job.

In an on-line article, the Forward reported that Pollard protested having to keep the GPS ankle bracelet device charged at all times, on the grounds that recharging the batteries and then reinserting them during the Sabbath forced him to violate the holy day.

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