Why President Obama won’t pardon Jonathan Pollard

By David Benkof

Israel is abuzz with allegations of American bad faith in continuing to imprison convicted spy Jonathan Pollard even though recent disclosures have revealed that the U.S. itself has snooped on many friendly countries for years.

A Jerusalem Post editorial in November described the situation as “an egregious double standard and a stunning example of American hypocrisy.”

In Commentary Magazine, Jonathan S. Tobin charged that the use of the Pollard case “to demonize Israel or to claim that the Jewish State behaved in a manner unbecoming an ally is undermined by the revelations about the United States’ own considerable efforts to snoop on its friends.”

And Pollard’s wife Esther complained to the Post that U.S. President Barack Obama wouldn’t free Pollard even as he participated in the traditional presidential ritual of pardoning turkeys on Thanksgiving. She objected that Obama would show “compassion and mercy to two lowly barnyard birds again this year, granting them a full pardon and sparing their lives” without showing her husband the same benevolence.

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For more than 28 years, Jonathan Pollard has been serving a life sentence in American prisons for passing classified information to Israel. He is currently in poor health. Obama received a petition for executive clemency in October 2010, and has not acted upon it.

Many suspect the U.S. refusal to grant clemency to Pollard is evidence that Obama holds anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or even anti-Semitic sentiments. They’re wrong.

The problem is something else entirely:  Obama hardly pardons anybody.

So far, Obama has granted only 40 pardons and commutations, mostly for minor offenses (and none relating to convictions of more than five years). In fact, he offered exactly zero commutations for the first three years after his election. In toto, no more than two percent of pardon applications are treated favorably by his administration. (Ronald Reagan’s number was 20 percent.) And Obama’s only pardon in all of last year? Another Thanksgiving turkey.

By contrast, George W. Bush extended clemency to 200 people, and Bill Clinton did so for 459 people. No president in a century has been as stingy with mercy as Obama.

The president’s unlimited pardon power, which is ensconced in the American Constitution, exists to correct excessive sentences and show compassion to repentant convicts. Pollard is hardly the only one deserving the president’s compassionate treatment. Perhaps most egregiously, thousands of men and women currently serve inhumanly long sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

With an African-American president, and an African-American attorney general, the Obama administration should actually be extra sensitive to the injustices of the American penal system. Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated Americans are black.

Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe Obama doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a black liberal softie when it comes to crime. Do we really have to wait for a Republican president who’s willing to have a “Nixon-goes-to-China” moment in order to fix the insane reluctance to pardon deserving convicts?

My recommendation to those concerned with Pollard’s plight is as follows: Make allies. Work together with African-American, prison-reform, drug-policy, and other groups that would like to see the pardon spigot loosened.

No amount of pleading from Bibi, linkage with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, hunger strikes, demonstrations, or petitions from American congressmen is going to make a whit of difference with a president who has never commuted a life sentence for anyone and doesn’t appear open to changing his policy.

We’ve agitated, correctly, for a “pardon for Pollard.” But we’ve been focusing on issues related to Pollard when we should have been looking at the pardon power itself. It’s not too late to change strategies.

David Benkof grew up in St. Louis and made aliyah in 2010. He teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and constructs the Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle, which appears weekly in the Light. This essay first appeared in the Jerusalem Post. He can be reached at [email protected].