U.S. Orthodox court to hear Pollards case

NEW YORK — Orthodox divorces and mundane business disputes are the bread and butter of Jewish religious courts.

Now, however, one of the country's most prominent religious courts is being asked to rule on convicted spy Jonathan Pollard's contention that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has been derelict by not actively seeking his freedom.

Pollard's spiritual adviser, Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss, of Bronx, N.Y., submitted a formal petition to the Beit Din of America on Nov. 11, asking the court to hear Pollard's claim against the Conference of Presidents; the umbrella organization often represents American Jewish public opinion to the U.S. administration, particularly on matters relating to Israel.

Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who pleaded guilty in 1986 to spying for Israel, is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Butner, N.C.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said that he had not been officially informed of Pollard's effort, which he called "frivolous."

"I understand Pollard's frustration and that this is an expression of it," Hoenlein said. "We'll see if any beit din would accept" this case.

The Beit Din of America is connected with the Rabbinical Council of America, the main organization of centrist Orthodox clergy.

The court's senior judge, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, was not aware of Pollard's request and the court's executive director, Rabbi Michael Broyde, did not return phone calls. But even if the beit din agrees to hear the case, its ruling would have little impact because the court has no power of enforcement.

Pollard, through frequent mailings to journalists and Jewish leaders, and phone calls placed by his second wife, Esther Pollard, has long publicized his sense of victimization by the Israeli and U.S. governments and by the organized Jewish community, which, he says, has neglected his plight.

Why is he taking the Conference of Presidents, rather than another Jewish organization, to a beit din?

"The Conference is the address the American government goes to because they represent themselves as the government of our people," said Pollard in a telephone interview Tuesday relayed through his wife, Esther.

In a letter Jonathan Pollard faxed to Weiss on Nov. 4, he said, "This group's unprincipled indifference toward me constitutes a refusal on its part to honor two of our most important mitzvot," pidyon shevuyim, or redeeming captives, and pikuach nefesh, which means saving a life and takes precedence over all other commandments.

"I can only hope that this action will finally compel the organization to act in a way that underscores our people's sense of compassion and accountability for one another," Pollard wrote in the letter, a copy of which was made available this week by his wife.

The Conference's Hoenlein says that his group has done what it can to get Pollard paroled.

The Conference sent President Clinton a letter last year seeking his freedom, and its representatives have raised Pollard's situation "every time" that they have met with the president and other senior administration officials, Hoenlein said.

"From different people we've gotten different answers," he said in an interview from Indianapolis, where he was attending the Council of Jewish Federations' General Assembly.

"We've heard security reasons why he has not been freed, political reasons as to why, but five out of the five government agencies involved recommended against his release," Hoenlein said.

Clinton has twice refused to commute Pollard's sentence, as did President Bush once before him.

Not everyone agrees Pollard's case is the Jewish communal establishment's concern.

"There's no corporate Jewish responsibility for the act he committed or the sentence he received because his abhorrent act did not involve us," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress and a member of the Conference of Presidents.

"We made a concerted effort to ascertain if there was any anti-Semitism involved in his trial, sentencing or incarceration, and we could find no evidence of it," said Baum. "Short of that, it's not relevant to us."