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March 31, 2014 12:10 pm

Why Pollard and Rubashkin Are Rotting in Jail

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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A Hebrew sign in Israel calling for Jonathan Pollard's freedom. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration is considering releasing Jonathan Pollard in an effort to save the Israeli-Arab peace talks. But why has the Jewish community left this man to languish in jail for nearly three decades when similar spying offenses carried sentences that were four to seven years? When Pollard plead guilty in 1987 for spying for Israel, he became the only person in history to receive a life sentence for spying on behalf of an American ally.

I recently met with Jacob Ostreicher, the orthodox Jewish businessman who was falsely accused of drug trafficking and left for dead in a Bolivian hell-hole. He was saved by actor Sean Penn who traveled to Bolivia, intervened with President Eva Morales, and whisked Ostreicher out of prison in circumstances that remain mysterious. In recognition of his heroism, our organization, This World: The Values Network, is honoring Sean, along with my former Oxford students Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, as well as anti-genocide campaigner John Prendergast, as this year’s Champions of Jewish Values at our annual gala dinner in New York City on May 18th.

Some were curious. Sean Penn? Champion of Jewish Values? But what did all these complainers do to save Ostreicher? Penn risked his own safety to save a complete stranger and one of Judaism’s greatest mitzvot is releasing those held unjustly. And this is aside from the tens of thousands of lives that Sean has saved in Haiti.

The Jewish community is typically embarrassed by our prison population. We want Jewish names displayed on buildings at Harvard, not on wanted posters. Only a few humanitarian organizations, like Chabad’s Aleph Institute, give a damn about Jews who are incarcerated.

And here you have the reason why inmates like Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Rubashkin, amid their inexcusable crimes, can be given highly prejudicial and outrageously lengthy sentences. The Jewish community, embarrassed at Jewish wrongdoing, rarely raises its voice in unified protest against punishments which, in both cases, are widely viewed by legal experts as discriminatory and excessive.

A few years ago, after I visited Pollard at his maximum security prison in Butner, North Carolina, a Jewish leader told me that Pollard was not worth the expenditure of Jewish political capital. “Israel is a much bigger priority than a criminal who humiliated American Jewry.” But the real embarrassment is a community that is afraid of charges of dual loyalty and will allow a brother to rot in jail after having paid his debt to society and then some, in total contravention of respected norms of American justice. It was my friend David Suissa, the noted columnist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, who pointed out that the continued incarceration of Pollard is not a Jewish but an American issue, making a mockery as it does of the American legal system.

In June 2010, after being acquitted of underage labor violations but found guilty of financial fraud, prosecutors unbelievably demanded a life sentence for Rubashkin but “compromised” for less. Rubashkin was a significant philanthropist and communal activist. He was the principal supplier of kosher meat to the American Jewish community. Driven by Chabad’s philosophy of increasing Jewish observance, he was more interested in people having a kosher home than becoming a millionaire and was noted for his fair and reasonable prices. Of course, none of this excuses the crimes he committed in an effort to save his business from going bankrupt, for which he deserved to be punished.

But take a moment to contemplate the unprecedented nature of Rubashkin’s sentencing with those of other white collar criminals. Rubashkin’s sentence is longer than Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former chief executive of Enron and L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chief executive of Tyco. Mark Turkcan, the president of First Bank Mortgage of St. Louis, misapplied $35 million in loans and was sentenced to one year and a day in prison. Sholom Rubashkin, however, a first time offender, was sentenced to twenty-seven years, scheduled for release at the age of seventy-four in 2033.

In the fall of 2012 the Supreme Court – ignoring six amicus briefs urging the court to review the case, including 86 former federal judges and Department of Justice officials, two FBI directors, four Deputy Attorneys General and one Solicitor General – formally declined to hear Rubashkin’s appeal. The decision let stand a draconian prison term that could lock up the 53-year-old for the remainder of his life, leaving his wife and ten children impoverished and without a father.

Where was the outrage from the American Jewish community? Some speculate it has something to do with the fact that Rubashkin is an Orthodox Jew who sports a beard and black hat and his missteps at Agriprocessors highlighted what many consider the unsavory sight of Jewish ritual slaughter.

Madoff had yachts and vacation homes and robbed people of their retirement pensions. Rubashkin lived in a modest home and his family ran a soup kitchen.

Our community has to reevaluate its relationship with Jews who are in prison. Just because a man goes to jail does not mean that he has nothing left to contribute. Michael Milken is one of the greatest philanthropists and agents for positive change in our time. His Milken conference in Los Angeles is one of the most world’s most respected gatherings of global leaders.

A man is more than the sum total of mistakes he has made and is always endowed by his Creator with the capacity for good. A cornerstone of Judaism is repentance. All it takes is one mitzvah, one positive action, to start an even larger chain reaction of goodness.

The Jewish community should move beyond its embarrassment and hesitation to help Jewish prisoners and join as a chorus for Jonathan Pollard’s release. We should do the same in protesting the injustice of Sholom Rubashkin’s 27 years when similar offenders were given a fraction thereof.

It should not take a Hollywood superstar like Sean Penn to embarrass the Jewish community into action.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the only Rabbi to have won the London Times Preacher of the Year competition and is the international best-selling author of 30 books. In May he will publish “Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. His website is Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • M. Stevens

    Being Jewish does not absolve anyone who has committed a crime.

  • hophmi

    “Our community has to reevaluate its relationship with Jews who are in prison.”

    No it doesn’t. The ultra-orthodox and hard right in our community does, because both seem to have a serious problem with accepting the idea that the American justice system can fairly imprison a Jewish criminal. Shalom Rubashkin is in jail, quite simply, because he committed multiple acts of wire fraud running into the tens of millions of dollars. He has appealed his conviction. His appeals were found to be meritless. The campaign launched in ultra-orthodox community first cast him as a victim of antisemitism, and then tried to make him out as some kind of hero. It revealed the community to be ignorant of the basic facts of the case and of the federal justice system. It was disgusting. The same is true of the way the Pollard case was handled; very little about how Pollard is viewed in these communities bears resemblance to the truth, which is that Pollard was an unbalanced nutjob with a cocaine habit who shopped intelligence to multiple countries, got a harsh sentence mostly for violating his plea agreement, and then promoted himself as a hero for giving the Israelis intelligence they were entitled to in the first place, when, in fact, what he sold went far beyond that. And also contrary to the way his case has been presented in public, he’s been eligible for parole for years, and has refused to apply. Although there now appears to be a humanitarian case for Pollard’s release, minimizing his crime is wrong.

    These campaigns are embarrassing to our community, and Shmuley should not engage in them, or at least should be honest enough to present all of the facts, instead of insinuating that there’s something wrong with the American justice system. Or, in Rubashkin’s case, if he has trouble with the sentence, he should campaign to reform the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and to allow judges more discretion, rather than getting involved just because a Jewish philanthropist got caught.

  • Ilbert Phillips

    I actually had a very negative opinion about Sean Penn; I disagreed with his politics. I have now changed my opinion and hope others learn to evaluate an individual’s just acts without regard to the political opinions that person holds.

  • dan kaplan

    the “jewish” daily forward had a lot to do with the outrageous, vindictive sentence given to rubashkin

    • Eli

      And Israel betrayed Pollard, denying him entrance into the embassy.

      • dan kaplan

        if this is a “reply” to my comment, please explain the connection.