Under normal circumstances, the lifting of Jonathan Pollard’s parole on November 21 would have resulted in much celebration among Jews who spent the last 35 years engaging in the mitzvah of Pidyon Sh’vuyim on his behalf. One could imagine the packed seats in Five Towns when Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom and Rabbi Yaakov Trump of the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst hosted Eliot Lauer, who has been the attorney for Pollard for the past 20 years. Under the conditions of the pandemic, the two rabbis hosted Lauer on Zoom in a public lecture this past Sunday.
“This is a subject that I’ve been involved in for the past 30 years,” said Rabbi Hain. “This has been a very challenging and controversial issue in the Jewish community.”
A naval intelligence analyst, Pollard was a supporter of Israel who felt that the United States was withholding information that was necessary to Israel’s survival. Lauer said that this policy was likely a retaliatory measure taken by the Reagan administration to punish Israel for bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, which Israel had done without consulting Washington. Three years later, Pollard met Aviem Sella, the commander of the Osirak operation and offered his services to Israel. The proposal was approved by Israeli intelligence director Rafi Eitan, who handsomely rewarded Pollard for sharing the classified information.
Pollard was arrested in 1986 and accepted a plea bargain, but then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger requested the harshest possible sentence from the court and it was granted – life imprisonment.
Lauer’s relationship with Pollard began in 2000, when a prominent Jewish philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous approached him about representing Pollard. “He had no serious representation since 1992, when he lost an appeal in the Second Circuit. My partner Jacques Semmelman and I pulled out his file. It was going to be an uphill fight,” Lauer said. “We appreciated the injustice that happened with Pollard’s sentence.”
Lauer and Semmelman recognized the potential to raise awareness of the injustice in the legal and Jewish communities, offering to represent Pollard pro bono. “His original lawyer had failed to challenge the government’s breach of the plea agreement. Ordinarily, if you prove that a plea agreement had been breached, you’re entitled to a new trial. In a collateral attack, you must prove a serious miscarriage of justice,” said Lauer.
On the Second Circuit in 1992, Judges Laurence Silberman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ruled against Pollard, while Judge Stephen Williams wrote a ten-page dissent. The opinion described the government’s three plea bargain promises to Pollard and how they were breached, ending with a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Although Pollard’s first lawyer Richard A. Hibey was paid by the Israelis, as Lauer asserts, they did not pay attention to the case. He noted that Hibey grew up with James Zogby, a Lebanese-American pollster with a noted hostility towards Israel. “When Jonathan was arrested, he first called his father at Notre Dame and asked him for a lawyer. The dean at the university recommended James Hibey.” James represented Pollard’s then-wife Anne, while his brother Richard represented Jonathan.
Attempts to earn the clemency of American presidents were unsuccessful as leading national security figures argued against releasing Pollard. At the same time, Israel acknowledged Pollard as a former spy and granted him citizenship. With an organized campaign, support for clemency rose among federal lawmakers, former cabinet members, Jewish organizations, and legal thought leaders. He received parole in 2015 with harsh conditions limiting where he could work, live, and travel. Lauer’s attempts to have these conditions relaxed on account of Pollard’s Shabbos observance, inability to secure employment, and the obsolescence of whatever intelligence he could remember from 1985, were countered by testimonies from James Clapper, the director of US National Intelligence, and CIA Director John Brennan, who served during the Obama administration.
With the Trump administration’s refusal to challenge the end of Pollard’s parole this past summer, the former spy was cleared to cut off his monitoring bracelet, walk the streets of New York as a free man, and plan for aliyah.
Lauer thanked two segments of the Jewish community for their outspoken advocacy for Pollard: religious Zionists and the yeshivish sector, for whom the mitzvah of redeeming captives was personified by Pollard, his harsh sentence, and his support for Israel. He also thanked his law firm, Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP, for providing resources during his two decades of unpaid work for Pollard, even while it had important clients in oil-rich Arab nations that were not as friendly towards Israel as they are today. “We’d have run up four to five million dollars in legal fee value for our work,” Lauer said. “The firm stood by us and offered staff as needed.”
At this time, Pollard’s wife Esther is undergoing chemotherapy, and if it goes well, their plans for aliyah will proceed as planned.
Lauer concluded that the campaign for Pollard’s release demonstrated that Jews are not embarrassed to stand up for a fellow Jew, and they never gave up.
By Sergey Kadinsky