David Dranikoff remembers the day in 1985 when Anne Pollard, the former wife of spy Jonathan Pollard, was arrested. It was the day after her husband was arrested in Washington for passing thousands of documents containing top secret classified information from United States Naval Intelligence to the government of Israel.
It was her arrest, not Jonathan’s, that drew Dranikoff and his wife, Lois, Livingston residents and longtime activists in the Greater MetroWest community, into becoming their advocates.
“We became involved about two-and-a-half days after they were arrested because Lois and the late Sister Rose Thering took up the cause of Anne Pollard,” said David Dranikoff.
Thering, a nun and professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, was a champion of interfaith relations.
Thering and Lois Dranikoff met with Anne “many times and urged leniency for her after she was sentenced to five years in federal prison for aiding her husband’s espionage activities,” David said. Anne Pollard was released after three years in prison and is currently living in Israel.
“If it weren’t for Lois and Sister Rose, I never would have become involved,” Dranikoff told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 17 phone interview. “But I have said a prayer for him on practically every Shabbat since he was arrested. Sure, he committed a crime, but he spied for a friendly nation and people who spied for the Soviet Union have served much shorter sentences.”
On Friday, Nov. 20 — one day shy of the 30th anniversary of his arrest — Jonathan Pollard, now 61, is being released on parole from a life sentence for espionage. The Justice Department has not yet revealed the terms of his release from a federal prison hospital in Butner, NC; Pollard’s lawyers have suggested terms will be negotiated up to the eve of his release, including whether he will be required to stay in the United States for at least a year.
Pollard’s release ends a long chapter in a saga that tested the U.S.-Israel relationship, embarrassed American Jews, included charges of anti-Semitism against top U.S. officials, and engaged local activists on his behalf through the administrations of five presidents.
Although few celebrated Pollard’s espionage, many felt, like Dranikoff, that Pollard’s life sentence did not fit his crime.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie of Westfield was president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) when he began advocating for Pollard — years after his organization condemned his actions.
“While some immediately argued for his release, we did not,” Yoffie told NJJN. “There were those at the very beginning who did not see it as a crime, but we were not in that category, and the overwhelming majority of the American-Jewish community was not in that category, either. We felt he appropriately should pay a price for those crimes, and that he jeopardized Israel’s standing in the United States. He also compromised American intelligence and put people in danger. Those were serious arguments.”
In 2011, while serving as URJ president, Yoffie was part of a rabbinical delegation that met with Vice President Joe Biden on Pollard’s behalf. “We made the case very forcefully — not that he was justified nor were we excusing or doing any of that, but that he had served enough time and should be released,” said Yoffie.
Yoffie declined to reveal Biden’s response. “It was an off-the-record meeting, and I must abide by that. We presented our views. He presented his views. He was very well prepared. He had all the facts of the case. That is all I can say.”
But according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Biden — who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of Pollard’s arrest — told the rabbis, “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.’”
Biden later denied having used those precise words, but acknowledged that the report accurately characterized his position.
“I am delighted he is finally being released; it is long overdue,” said Yoffie. “He committed very, very serious crimes and we don’t excuse that in any way, and neither do we turn him into a hero.
“But we should see him as somebody whose motivation was to help Israel, and even though it was misguided, we need to recognize that. But…he has been held far longer than he should have been held.”
‘Just not fair’
Rabbi Azriel Fellner, former religious leader at the Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, was active on Pollard’s behalf during his first five to seven years in prison.
“I felt even though he had done something wrong and the Justice Department had every reason to prosecute him, what they were doing to him was wrong,” he said, referring to the life sentence. “It was just not fair.”
Fellner blamed Caspar Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense, for Pollard’s harsh sentence. A day before Judge Aubrey Robinson of the Washington, DC, federal court sentenced Pollard in 1987, he received a letter from Weinberger, declassified in 2010, saying he could not “conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel.”
“Then I knew it was a dead issue,” said Fellner. “Weinberger put the kibosh on anything positive that could be said about Pollard, and we knew that was the end of it.”
But, Fellner added, “the fact that Pollard was Jewish played a role in the maximum sentence he was given, and I think that was unfair, and his punishment was way out of whack. We don’t know the intelligence level of what he gave Israel. But on the basis for what is known, I think his sentence was disproportionate.”
Eliot Lauer, a Pollard lawyer, told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot last month that Pollard’s dream is to immigrate to Israel. But, said Lauer, he’ll need President Barack Obama’s say-so, and that’s not happening in the near term.
Pollard’s lawyers said in July that they had “secured employment and housing for Mr. Pollard in the New York area.” Lauer, in an e-mail to JTA, declined to be more specific.
Pollard and his second wife, Esther, will enjoy freedom together for the first time. Pollard divorced his first wife, Anne, in part so she could forge a new and separate life. He married Esther, a Canadian who had been advocating for his release, in 1994, his ninth year in prison.
Though he’s looking forward to being active in the “Jewish community,” according to his lawyers, he’ll likely steer clear of mainstream Jewish communal officials, who, Pollard feels, let him down over the years.
“During the course of this initiative, we got to know an awful lot of Jewish leaders here in the United States,” Pollard told journalist Edwin Black in an extensive 2002 interview. “And they seem to fall into one of several groups in their response to me. Some ran away from it…, others promised to do things but basically didn’t,…and others did harm.”
With reporting from JTA