Jewish leaders meet Biden in Thanksgiving week appeal for Pollard

Four drug dealers, a trafficker in stolen goods, a gambler and a turkey made President Obama’s Thanksgiving freedom list, but Israel’s best-known spy did not.

But advocates of releasing Jonathan Pollard aren’t giving up hope. Seven Jewish leaders who met Monday with Vice President Joe Biden said they were “encouraged” after more than an hour of back and forth.

A statement issued jointly by the seven groups noted that Biden had invited the group in response to their earlier request for a meeting. It described the meeting and exchange as “meaningful and productive.”

That was all any participant said, although Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, emphasized—as others did, off the record—that the phrase “meaningful and productive” was more than boilerplate.

Foxman says he has an Israeli staffer who asks him after every meeting,  “Haya kedai?”—“Was it worth it?”

“I told him it was worth it,” Foxman said.

One measure of the seriousness of the conversation was how long it lasted—more than an hour, in Biden’s White House office.

Another was the composition of the Jewish group, representing three major streams of Judaism and the spectrum of pro-Israel outlook.

In addition to Foxman, those in attendance included Michael Adler, vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America; Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish community’s public policy umbrella; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the foreign policy umbrella; Simcha Katz, president of the Orthodox Union; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly; and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The day before, Pollard’s wife, Esther, said in a statement that her husband, who is said to suffer from an array of grave medical problems, may not survive another year in prison.

“In the last year, as Jonathan’s [medical] condition became worse, he was too weak to even sit through a one-hour visit. I feel he’s withering away in front of my very eyes,” Esther Pollard said in the statement.

She added that after “26 years, all his systems are feeble and we both know that the next emergency hospitalization or operation are just a matter a time, and that no one is promising us he’ll make it through.”

Pollard has been hospitalized four times this year.

Biden promised last month at a holiday reception at his home that he would meet with Jewish leaders on the Pollard case after telling a group of rabbis at a meeting in Florida that “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time.’ “

The movement to free Pollard has gathered steam in recent months. Starting the ball rolling a year ago was Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who spearheaded a letter from 39 members of the U.S. House of Representatives calling for clemency for Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Frank—and Pollard’s supporters—were frustrated that they were unable to sign on a single Republican to the effort. Within the national security community, opposition to Pollard’s release still runs strong.

Since then, however, a trickle of current Republican officeholders have joined the calls for clemency for Pollard, among them Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, and Tea Party-aligned Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.).

Additionally, an array of former Republican senators and former top officials of Republican administrations—some who played a role on Pollard’s incarceration—also have called for his release.

“We do not condone espionage, nor do we underestimate the gravity of Pollard’s crime,” says an Oct. 26 letter signed by 18 former senators. “But it is patently clear that Mr. Pollard’s sentence is severely disproportionate and (as several federal judges have noted) a gross miscarriage of justice.”

A number of the signatories had served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, including Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and David Durenberger (R-Minn.)—a position that would have allowed them access to secret information that opponents of Pollard have alleged implicates him more seriously than the publicly known information he shared with Israel.

Biden’s meeting came the same day that Obama announced five pardons and a commutation for Thanksgiving. None of those pardoned are still serving time. The action clears their record, and frees them to participate in areas of public life previously denied them, such as voting. (As it happens, it was also the 26th anniversary of Pollard’s 1985 arrest.)

Presidents may pardon and commute at will—it is one power not subject to any oversight. Traditionally they issue pardons around holidays; expect another round before Christmas. Obama has been relatively parsimonious with his releases; he has issued 22 pardons and one commutation. Bill Clinton gave pardons or commutations to 456 people in eight years, while George W. Bush issued 200.

The meeting also came the week that the White House announced that the president would observe the decades-old tradition on Wednesday of pardoning a turkey headed for the Thanksgiving table.

Esther Pollard last week published an appeal to Obama in The Jerusalem Post that noted the tradition of pardoning turkeys.

“While the pardoning ceremony is light-hearted, the values it demonstrates are solemn and deeply cherished,” she wrote. “As the president of the United States, your granting clemency to a lowly barnyard bird demonstrates to the world the great respect that the American people have for the values of justice, compassion and mercy. It is in this light that I write to bring to your attention once again to the plight of my husband, Jonathan Pollard.”

Whom Pardons Are “Made For”

The list of pardons granted by President Clinton on his last day in office included fugitive financier Marc Rich and convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali — and then there was Al Schwimmer.

Nobody has paid much attention to the pardon for the 83-year-old former smuggler and aircraft executive, including Schwimmer himself.

"The pardon won’t change anything for me. I don’t feel any different," Schwimmer told The Jewish Journal during a phone call to his Tel Aviv home.

So indifferent was Schwimmer that when Brian Greenspun, an influential Las Vegas newspaper publisher and longtime Friend of Bill, broached the subject, Schwimmer said he would never sign a paper admitting to any wrongdoing.

"My service to Israel was one of the proudest things I have ever done," Schwimmer told Greenspun.

What Schwimmer did was to use his contacts and experience as a World War II flight engineer for the U.S. Air Transport Command, and similar civilian service for TWA, to smuggle some 30 surplus war planes to the nascent Jewish state in 1948.

He also recruited the pilots and crews to fly the planes by circuitous routes to Israel where the men, mainly World War II veterans, became the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force.

So crucial was Schwimmer’s role in the days when America and all other countries imposed a weapons embargo on the Middle East that David Ben-Gurion described his actions as the Diaspora’s single most important contribution to the survival of Israel.

In the eyes of federal law enforcers, however, Schwimmer had violated the U.S. Neutrality Act and faced charges when he returned to America in 1950.

With him was an even more colorful arms smuggler, Hank Greenspun, later to form a publishing and real estate empire in Las Vegas and to do battle with Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Greenspun pleaded guilty, while Schwimmer demanded a trial and was convicted. Both were fined $10,000 (paid by the Jewish Agency). They were also deprived of their civil rights, which meant they couldn’t vote, run for office or be employed by the government.

Greenspun later obtained a pardon from President Kennedy, but Schwimmer couldn’t be bothered.

He was running an aircraft maintenance company in Burbank when Israel again called for his services in the early 1950s. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion asked him to come back and establish an Israeli aircraft industry for commercial and military uses.

When Schwimmer retired 30 years later, in 1988, the company was worth $1 billion. Its value now is $2 billion, with 20,000 employees, making it the single largest industry in Israel, Schwimmer said.

In the mid-1980s, Schwimmer took on a side job as special advisor for technology and industry for then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

In this capacity, he found himself an intermediary between Washington and Tehran in the ill-fated attempt to trade American and Israeli weapons for U.S. hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

In this special assignment, which Schwimmer still won’t discuss, he met with President Reagan and Vice President George Bush, who either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were dealing with a convicted felon.

Schwimmer’s old friend and fellow smuggler, Hank Greenspun, died in 1989, but the aircraft executive kept in touch with the son, Brian Greenspun. The younger Greenspun had been a classmate of Clinton’s at Georgetown University and was a frequent visitor at the White House.

About a year ago, Greenspun broached the idea of seeking a pardon, and when Schwimmer evinced little interest, Greenspun decided to go ahead on his own.

When the pardon was announced, Schwimmer was as surprised as anyone, and so far he has not received any official notification.

Greenspun is not concerned that the controversy surrounding the pardon for Rich and others will reflect on him or Schwimmer. "A case like this is what pardons were made for," he told a reporter. "I have no qualms about what I did."

Schwimmer is now focusing his energies on a different Israeli cause, the movement to give the country its long-delayed constitution.

A pillar of the constitution would be a Bill of Rights, guaranteeing equality to all branches of Judaism, prohibiting state interference in religious practice, and providing the option of civil marriage and divorce.

"Without such rights," he warned, "relationships between Israel and the Diaspora will wither away."

So far, Schwimmer has resisted all entreaties to write his memoirs. "Who would be interested?" he asked.