Leiby Kletzky’s killer pleads guilty

Levi Aron, the Brooklyn man accused of killing 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree murder and kidnapping.

Aron is facing at least 40 years in prison, according to The New York Times. Originally he had pleaded not guilty to eight counts of murder and kidnapping.

Despite Aron’s history of mental illness, New York State Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog told the defendant on Thursday that “a defense of not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect would not be a viable defense,” the Times reported.

“Today we close the door on this one aspect of our tragedy and seek to remember only the gifts that God has bestowed,” Brooklyn state Assemblyman Dov Hikind said Thursday, “including the nine years Leiby was with us.”

Aron, 36, was charged with murdering Leiby near his home in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn in July 2011. The boy, making his first attempt to walk home alone from camp, had stopped to ask Aron for directions and entered his car. Less than 48 hours later, the search for Leiby came to a grisly conclusion when parts of his dismembered body were found in the freezer of Aron’s apartment in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

After Peres medal, pleas for Pollard persist

The Washington festivities honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres have come and gone, without an assurance of clemency for jailed spy Jonathan Pollard.

But while Pollard’s 27th year in federal prison continues, so do calls for his release.

“While I certainly don’t condone what he did—no question, he did wrong, and was paid to do it—still, he should not be treated neither more leniently nor worse than anybody else who provided information to a friendly government,” U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who has visited Pollard in prison twice, said in an interview with JNS.org. “It’s gone from bad to worse. After [27] years, it’s enough.”

Pollard’s advocates in Congress and elsewhere say his life sentence resulting from a conviction of spying for Israel—without intent to harm the United States—is disproportionate to his crime. Prior to his June 13 private meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Peres—the Medal of Freedom awardee—said he would request clemency for Pollard. Speaking from Washington, he told Israel’s Channel 2 that Obama “has humanitarian authority” and therefore “can mull considerations [for Pollard] that the courts did not.”

However, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, at a briefing for reporters the day of the Medal of Freedom presentation, quashed all discussion of a possible clemency. “Our position has not changed and will not change today…I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of very serious crimes,” Carney said.

A request for the commutation of Pollard’s sentence was the subject of a June 11 bi-partisan letter spearheaded Engel and U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ). The letter appeals to Obama, saying “There is no doubt that [Pollard] has paid a heavy price, and, from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence, we believe he has been imprisoned long enough…We join our voices to those who see clemency as an act of compassion justified on humanitarian grounds and for purposes of fairness and equity.”

In 1985, Pollard had pleaded guilty to one count of “conspiracy to delivery national defense information to a foreign government” and was set to receive “a substantial number of years in prison.” While the prosecutor in this judicial process (there was no trial) did not technically ask for a life sentence, former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger did, and Judge Aubrey E. Robinson acquiesced.

Engel told JNS.org that the government “double crossed” Pollard. “In making a plea bargain,” said Engel, “you do so with the expectation that it will be implemented.”

Why is Engel appealing for Pollard’s release specifically at this time? “Pollard is in ill health,” Engel said. “It’s time to commute his sentence to time served. It’s a mistake for it not to have happened earlier—now we should re double our efforts and keep trying.”

The collaboration of Engel, a Democrat, and the Republican legislator Smith is an example of bipartisan support for Pollard. “It’s important for us [Democrats] to have a good relationship with people on the other side [of the political spectrum]—we can come together with them on Israel and things like the Pollard issue,” Engel said. “Chris Smith does not play it safe. He will stick his neck out for what he believes is right.”

Engel called the Pollard situation “a thorn in the side of relations between the U.S. and Israel, one successfully used by Israel bashers to drive a wedge.”

“Having Pollard in jail is like a festering sore,” he said. “It’s time to heal that sore.”

Engel said every recent president—Clinton, Bush, and now Obama—has been thwarted from considering the release of Pollard because of strong opposition from the intelligence and military communities. Obama may find it “easier to do nothing” based on the history of his predecessors’ inaction, Engel said.

“Whatever [Obama] does will be controversial and bound to result in sharp disagreement,” Engel said. “To do anything in an election year is a difficult and tricky, unpredictable situation.”

Opinions about the appropriateness of releasing Pollard have changed significantly. The former head of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, now support clemency. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who is believed to have seen the Caspar Weinberger memo, says nothing in Pollard’s file justifies denying him clemency.

“No one is able to tell us any reason why it should not be granted,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, told JNS.org.

Lerner, who has been a consistent voice lobbying for Pollard’s release for more than 15 years, said he “is encouraged” by Carney’s use of the word “today” in his statement about Pollard.

“No one expected the keys on the spot,” Lerner said. “It’s part of a process.”

Lerner emphasized that Pollard is seriously ill and not receiving adequate medical care. “A man’s life is at stake… The bottom line is, someone tell us why he is still in jail? What relevant information could he have?  What could be top-secret 27 later?” he said.

The rabbi last visited Pollard in May, and told JNS.org that Pollard is “not well” and suffering from numerous serious illnesses, including kidney problems and diabetes.

“These are medical issues that won’t be solved in prison,” Lerner said.

Although no letter addressed to the president regarding Pollard’s case has ever been directly answered, Lerner stressed that “the Jewish community must join together and write” on Pollard’s behalf.

“We accept that he committed a serious crime, that he should spend several years in prison, but not be there for life,” Lerner said. “We are calling on the president and every person who cares about justice to end this injustice. President Obama just gave the Medal of Freedom to a man he respects. That man has expressed a wish for Pollard’s freedom. You would think that when the President of an allied country asks for a favor, one would think that wish would be granted.”

A Pesach plea for prison reform

Last week, here in Los Angeles, we read with horror of an inmate in a local county jail who was strangled to death in his cell. This inmate had been complaining to a judge that he was being “hassled” by other inmates. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions have plagued L.A. County’s jails for more than 30 years, along with a culture of violence and fear that includes prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and the use of excessive force by deputies.

Too often in recent years, state prisons have been used to house lower-level offenders and parole violators, which wastes money due to the costs of state prisons, aggravates already overcrowded conditions and hinders rehabilitation, because facilities can’t adequately serve so many inmates. Furthermore, while parole boards need some autonomy and flexibility in their decisions, those decisions also can’t be arbitrary. The Chowchilla kidnappers case, for example, is a case in California that may continue to be an arbitrary denial of parole. No children were hurt when these three men kidnapped a bus in 1976, yet they continue to be denied parole 35 years later.

This Chowchilla case is just one of the vast array of problems in the broken California penal system putting a strain on the state’s budget and welfare. It was recently found, for example, that the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium Level II correctional facility in Norco, Calif., was built to hold 1,800 inmates, but now holds more than 4,700 and is almost always under lockdown to prevent fights due to overcrowding. Parts of the buildings, built in the 1920s, are so outdated that electricity is shut off during rainstorms to ensure that prisoners aren’t electrocuted. It has been reported that the facility is understaffed by 75 guards, and its rehabilitation program for drug use has a three-month waiting list.

Over the past few decades, California has engaged in minimal reform for its prisons and yet has enacted tougher laws that put more people behind bars for longer times. More and more policies, notably the “three strikes” law mandating prison for life after three or more felony convictions, are created to follow an ethos that the goal of incarceration is punishment alone.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget cuts may bring promise for the expansion of community-based alternatives to incarceration, which have been shown to reduce crime and long-term recidivism (such as in Missouri, for example).

For now, conditions in our prisons remain extremely dangerous for the incarcerated. Many prisoners keep knives in body cavities, one ex-convict told me last week, to ensure they can protect themselves from brutal prison violence and rape. This horrific description haunts me.

Supermax prisons engaging in solitary confinement in the United States, in particular, are some of the most miserable places on earth. Impenetrable cement cells, where prisoners are fed through a hole, and the bare minimum of exercise are the norm for those residing in these 6-by-8-foot cells. Such conditions are not only inhumane, they bring on and worsen mental disabilities and raise the recidivism rate.

Federal, state and local governments must seek alternatives to incarceration to ensure more humane options, to reduce overcrowding and to cut budget costs. Incarcerating just one inmate costs about $30,000 per year, according to the Pew Center, and often perpetuates further criminal activity. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the United States has the highest incarceration rate and largest prison population of any country in the world.

Prisons have only gotten worse in modern times. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French philosopher, argued that the penal system had shifted from regulating one’s body, by means such as torture and corporal punishment, and replaced it with “technologies of punishment” regulating thoughts and behavior, by means such as strict surveillance and psychological abuse. This “disciplinary punishment” provides a potential abuse of power on the part of the parole officer, jailer, psychologist and program facilitator over the prisoner.

The inhumanity of today’s incarceration has no place in the Jewish tradition — aside from temporary pretrial detention (mishmar), the Torah has no model for prison and only provides a number of alternatives. The only exception is a brief period when the rabbis, under Roman influence, instituted a kipa, or temporary jail.

One biblical alternative proposed is that of the eved k’na’ani laborer, whom the Talmud requires be treated like his master. This is to ensure his dignity not be lessened in the process of repairing the wrong committed as he gives back to society. Another model, the “City of Refuge” (Ir Hamiklat), provides for the unintentional murderer a protective community operating much like a normal city.

The Jewish commitment to human dignity, even for those who have erred, can inspire us to affirm more of the alternatives to incarceration that exist in America today, such as: work crews, electronic monitoring, probation, educational sentencing programs, drug rehabilitation and house arrest. These less-expensive options work to address systemic problems in more sustainable and moral ways.

As we approach Passover, we can recall Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s (Netziv) teaching on Exodus 2:25 about the spiritual dangers of overcrowding in narrow spaces: “It is known that a wide-open living space widens one’s mind, and thus the opposite, a crowded living space and lots of people together, degrades one’s mind. Pharaoh strove to degrade the minds of the Israelites, and so he would press them in one place.” Scholars today argue that overcrowding narrow spaces is a great causal factor of prison rape. A cage can transform a man into a beast.

Slavery in Egypt was like an overcrowded jail that destroyed the minds of its inhabitants. The Netziv taught that conditions became so bad that it was clear that God needed to liberate these people. Today, we can emulate the Divine — we must hear the cries of those in very narrow spaces and advocate for more alternatives to the failing model that exists in today’s prisons.

When we are called upon this Passover to remember the foreigners living in our midst, we can think of the approximately 31,000 noncitizens, including children, held in immigration detention in America on any given day. Most especially, we can remember the few hundred immigrants, mostly children, who have died in incarceration, many of whose deaths can be attributed to medical neglect.

Rav Soloveitchik taught, “The halachah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries, but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life.” It is time that those committed to Jewish law and values work to transform prisons in America, one of the greatest human rights problems in California and the United States.

We must be sure to maintain adequate and effective punishments for crimes, yes, but we must also remember and retain our feel for nuance in societal realities and cling to our tradition’s value of compassion for the dignity of all human beings, even of criminals.

This Passover, may we remind ourselves of those trapped in the darkest and narrowest straits.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University. utzedek.org

Loughner pleads not guilty in Tucson shooting

A smiling Jared Loughner pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges related to the Jan. 8 shooting in Arizona, the ” title=”NYTimes.com” target=”_blank”>NYTimes.com.

Israeli History the Dershowitz Way

“The Case For Israel,” by Alan Dershowitz (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95).

Alan Dershowitz’s new book describes an Israel no Israeli would recognize, an impossibly virtuous country whose intentions are always pure, whose conduct is forever above reproach, and whose rare misdeeds can be explained away as accidental. Conversely, the Palestinian Arabs (and for that matter, all Arabs) are depicted as malevolent terrorists bent on Israel’s destruction; every one of their deeds is attributed to the basest of motives, every decision a result of unremitting hostility, trickery, foolishness, or a combination of all three. No reader of Israeli historical scholarship or journalism would recognize the simple tale of good and evil, of angels and devils, described in the pages of Dershowitz’s book.

Though equipped with the tools of historical scholarship (footnotes, primary and secondary textual documentation, etc.) and presenting itself as an exploration of the historical roots of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in pre-State Palestine and Israel, his book is not a serious work of scholarship on the enormously complex struggle of two national movements over the same small piece of land. Instead, it is the latest in a long tradition of hasbarah, propaganda, that is not unlike the material produced by the Israeli Office of Hasbarah in years past, or pamphlets issues today by various pro-Israel advocacy groups in the United States.

In seeking to “make the case for Israel,” Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard and prominent defense attorney, has abandoned any pretense of balance, nuance or objectivity, all of which are guiding values for professional historians. That he is more interested in a one-sided polemic than a sober historical exploration is evident in the title of the book (would anyone interested in the political history of the United States rely on a book titled “The Case for America?”). It is also evident in its structure — each chapter title is framed as a question (Did Israel Start the Six-Day War? Were the Jews Unwilling to Share Palestine?) whose answer is predetermined from the outset, and then divided into sections on “the accusation,” “the accusers,” “the reality” and “the proof.”

Dershowitz is not to be criticized for writing a polemic, for that is what he set out to do, and he presents his case with passion. But the question is: Is such an approach helpful at this critical time?

Most important, it is evident in the book’s many factual errors, misinterpretations of evidence and selective quotations. To take but one example: Dershowitz resurrects the old, discredited canard that the Arabs themselves are primarily responsible for the departure of approximately 750,000 Palestinians during and immediately after the 1947-1948 war, and therefore bear most of the blame for the creation of the refugee problem. To bolster his case, he quotes the prominent Israeli historian and author Benny Morris: “In some areas, Arab commanders ordered the villagers to evacuate, to clear the ground for military purposes or to prevent military surrender.”

Dershowitz also uses evidence from Morris to argue that the Arab leaders of Haifa encouraged their community to leave. What emerges from Dershowitz’s selective use of Morris’ book is an account of the refugee problem that places responsibility for the problem squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians themselves.

However, Dershowitz neglects to mention Morris’ conclusion, based on detailed research and stated quite clearly in several of his books (including those cited by Dershowitz), that the majority of Palestinian refugees were in some cases expelled by Jewish forces and in others fled out of fear of expulsion or massacre by those forces. On the very same pages Dershowitz cites to make his argument for Palestinian culpability, Morris writes the following:

“During the second stage, while there was clearly no policy of expulsion, the Haganah’s Plan D clearly resulted in mass flight. Commanders were authorized to clear the populace out of villages and certain urban districts, and to raze the villages if they felt a military need. Many commanders identified with the aim of ending up with a Jewish State with as small an Arab minority as possible. Some generals, such as [Yigal] Allon, clearly acted as if driven by such a goal…. Ben-Gurion clearly wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish State. But there was still no systematic expulsion policy…. Yet Israeli troops … were far more inclined to expel Palestinians than they had been during the first half of the war. In Operation Yoav, Allon took care to leave almost no Arab communities along his lines of advance.”

Clearly, Morris’ argument is considerably more complicated and morally ambiguous than the simplistic version Dershowitz presents. The latter has violated a cardinal rule of historical scholarship: an author is responsible for weighing all evidence at his or her disposal before making a conclusion, even if some of that evidence contradicts one’s own argument or bias.

I suspect that Dershowitz will not be troubled by objections raised by scholars. His account of Israeli saints and Palestinian villains is not aimed at historians or academic specialists. It is also not intended for Israelis, for whom firsthand experience of their country provides a degree of skepticism and nuanced understanding utterly lacking in the book. Rather, it is aimed at American Jews who are deeply attached to Israel and seek intellectual ammunition and moral reassurance at a time of crisis. Given the brutal terrorist attacks on buses, in restaurants and cafes, an economy on the brink of collapse, fierce and unrelenting criticism of the country and an unmistakable increase in anti-Semitism throughout much of the world, it is perfectly understandable to seek solace and solidarity in Dershowitz’s impassioned plea on behalf of the Jewish State. And yet, despite the many problems confronting Israel, the author’s embrace of simplistic, black-and-white explanations should be resisted. It may be noble to raise a stirring defense of Israel, but not under the guise of serious scholarship. Like a long marriage in which each partner comes to know and love the other for who they really are, warts and all, concern for Israel should be based on an honest, balanced assessment of the country’s strengths and weaknesses, achievements as well as shortcomings. To their great credit, Israeli scholars, journalists and intellectuals have been providing such assessments to their fellow citizens for at least two decades. It is unfortunate that professor Dershowitz has sought refuge in the soothing pieties of a previous era.

Alan Dershowitz will speak on Oct. 22 at the Nessah Educational Cultural Center, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. $15-50. 5:30 p.m. (reception), 7 p.m. (discussion). For tickets, call (310) 246-7200.

Adam Rubin is assistant professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Yomtov Pleads Guilty

Teacher Mordechai Yomtov stood sobbing in his orange prison jumpsuit Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court as he pleaded guilty to two counts of committing continuous sexual abuse on a minor and one count of lewd act on a minor.

The Feb. 4 plea follows an agreement worked out between the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and defense counsel. Yomtov was sentenced to one year in County Jail, followed by five years’ probation.

Yomtov, 36, was arrested Dec. 3 and charged with 10 felony counts of committing lewd acts with three of his students, ages 8 to 10, at Cheder Menachem, an all-boys Orthodox yeshiva located in Hollywood and run under the auspices of West Coast Chabad.

Four family members of the three victims in the case were present; one mother even moved closer to force Yomtov to face her as he admitted to the crimes.

Yomtov’s attorney, Mitchell W. Egers, said he told his client it was possible to fight the charges but Yomtov declined.

"He told me he did not want to subject the children or their families to a trial or to cross-examination," Egers said, adding that his client is not a rabbi as previously reported (students traditionally call teachers there "rebbe").

The court ordered Yomtov to have no contact with the victims, their families or with any minors without an adult present, with the exception of his own three children. He must also undergo psychiatric treatment through USC for the length of his term (including probation) and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Following his jail term, he is prohibited from seeking employment in any position where he would be teaching minors.

The parents said they were satisfied with the agreement.

"Under the circumstances I think he is extremely lucky," said the father of one victim. "If we didn’t work with the district attorney, this guy would have got 25 years to life. But we understand that he is ill. He has an addiction that is not treatable."

The man said his son, one in a family of seven children, was undergoing therapy as a result of the incident.

"Only time will tell. Sometimes he acts like nothing is wrong and other times you can see it is affecting him," he said.

The boy, like the other victims, is still attending Cheder Menachem. Attorneys for two of the families say they have not ruled out a civil suit against the school.

"I’m pleased that the process of holding those accountable for the terrible crimes against these children has begun," said Gary Wittenberg, a civil litigator, adding that any further actions "depend on what develops over the next few days and weeks."

The father of the one victim said he hoped the case brought cloure not only for his son, but also for the rest of Yomtov’s victims.

"We know there were other victims who have not come forward and my prayer is for their parents to get these kids help," he said. "I also hope this clears up the rumors that the boys were making this up. there were people even last night telling me that. I hope [the plea agreement] will put those rumors to rest for good."

In response to the resolution of the case, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad, issued the following statement: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families that make up the Cheder Menachem community. We are very thankful to the various organizations, including Jewish Family Service and Ohel, that continue to support and guide Cheder Menachem through the healing process."