How printing a letter from Jonathan Pollard nearly got me fired

Page One of the July 22, 1987 edition of the Light. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In a long anticipated development, a federal panel has granted parole to American-Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, paving the way for his release from prison after serving 30 years of a life sentence. Pollard’s sentence has been a highly controversial and divisive issue in U.S.-Israel relations and within the Jewish and general communities since its inception. Pollard, 60, could be released on or before Nov. 21, according to his lawyers.

Ever since Pollard’s arrest in 1985 outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the life sentence he received two years later, the case has been a kind of third rail among American Jews. On one extreme were those who described Pollard as a modern Jewish hero who bravely risked imprisonment to provide Israel with important intelligence regarding Syria and the Palestinians. At the other extreme were those who described Pollard as a traitor, who was more than an embarrassment to American Jews and Israel. Some in the latter group said that Pollard deserved the death penalty for his actions.

In between were many American Jews and non-Jews who believed that Pollard confessed his guilt and expressed remorse. They felt he did not deserve to be more severely punished than other spies who had shared top secret and classified information with the Soviet Union or Iraq.

Indeed, from a journalistic point of view, the Pollard case clearly was the most significant high profile case involving a Jewish defendant since the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 after having been found guilty of providing atomic weapons information to the Soviet Union. The Pollard case even drew comparisons to that of Alfred Dreyfus, the French Army captain who was wrongly convicted of spying against France. Both the Dreyfus and Rosenberg cases drew charges and countercharges that the Jewishness of the defendants and blatant anti-Semitism played major roles in their convictions.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

In my 46 years with the St. Louis Jewish Light, the Pollard case was among the top major and highly controversial stories the newspaper has covered. In 1987, I received the first of two lengthy letters from Pollard, who was then serving his sentence at the federal prison in Springfield, Missouri. As a Jewish prisoner, Pollard was receiving the Jewish Light as a means of providing Jewish inmates with ongoing contact with the Jewish community.

The letter was dated 2 Tammuz 5747 and June 29, 1987. In publishing it, the Light carefully stressed that the views expressed were those of Pollard’s. One part of the letter was printed on Page 1 of the July 22 edition, and a second part inside the July 29 edition.

In his letter, which was picked up by Jewish newspapers around the world, Pollard was pointed in his criticism of then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Pollard accused Weinberger of attempting to eliminate Israel’s military superiority to its adversaries among Arab states through the U.S. sale of state of the art tanks to Egypt, which had suffered major defeats in tank battles with Israel in a series of major conflicts. 

If the sale went through, Pollard said, “Israeli decision-makers would, therefore, be left in the unenviable position of having to choose between a ‘heinous war or a shameful peace,’ which is precisely the type of excruciating dilemma that Mr. Weinberger feels would make them more receptive to ‘legitimate’ Arab political grievances.”

In a 56-page memorandum to the federal judge in the Pollard case, Weinberger had said that it was hard to imagine “a greater harm to national security than that caused by [Pollard].” 

Before the very next issue of the Light, we were able to score another major “scoop” in the Pollard case.  Pollard’s parents had visited their son at the federal prison in Springfield and then traveled to St. Louis to meet with members of the local community who favored his released. Carol Lundgren, then executive editor of the Light, and I were able to conduct an extensive interview of Morris and Mollie Pollard, an exclusive face-to-face session. The interview took place at the then-Howard Johnson’s Motel at Hampton Avenue and Interstate 44.

The Pollards would later leave for South Bend, Indiana, where Morris Pollard, then 71, was a professor of biological science at Notre Dame University. Mollie Pollard, then 69, was taking a law course at the university at the time. In the interview, the Pollards pleaded for understanding and compassion in their son’s case. They also pointed out that Pollard had been transferred to Springfield from the federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia, because of death threats he had received from neo-Nazi and radical Muslim groups.

Pollard would later be transferred two more times, first to the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and finally to the federal prison at Butner, North Carolina. While in Marion, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who had served early in his career as the rabbi at Traditional Congregation in Creve Coeur, served as Pollard’s informal chaplain. Along with our then-photographer David Henschel, I covered a seder Weiss conducted at the gates of the prison. Prison officials had denied Weiss entry to the facility, so he conducted a seder ceremony at the gates.

Of course all of us on the Light staff were thrilled that we had scored a double coup, with the exclusive letter from Pollard and the exclusive interview with his parents, followed by coverage of the “freedom seder” conducted by Weiss. Not everyone in the local Jewish community shared our excitement, as I was to find out.

The late and admired Bill Kahn was then serving as executive director of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. He said that some prominent members of the Jewish community were upset over the coverage given to the views of Pollard, whom they viewed not only as a spy, but also guilty of treason against his own country even though he was spying for an ally, rather than an enemy. They were also upset over the vast quantity of information Pollard supplied to Israel and over the fact that he was paid substantial sums of money for his espionage.

“Bobby,” Bill Kahn said in his deep baritone voice. “Could you come to my office for a meeting on the Pollard stories and a request that they be put on the agenda of the Jewish Federation’s upcoming board of directors meeting?”

One prominent leader was insistent that Kahn place the Light coverage of Pollard on the agenda of the upcoming board meeting, calling for an official “reprimand” of the Light and to perhaps terminate me as editor-in-chief of the paper. 

During a tense meeting in Kahn’s office, in which he heard the grievances of the offended Jewish leader and gave me a chance to respond, Kahn said that he would not agree to place the issue on the Federation board agenda. Even though the Light was (and still is) a beneficiary agency of the Federation, the paper has an autonomous board of trustees, and runs independently of the Federation. Kahn added, “We also have in this country something called freedom of the press, and I will not be a party to curtailing it.”

Thanks to Kahn’s high ethical standards, I am still associated with the Light as editor-in-chief emeritus  and look forward to writing more about Pollard after his anticipated release from prison and probable move to Israel.