Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

No, not the politically-correct "Happy Holidays." Our Jewish holiday that happens at this time of year, Chanukah, is long past. We lit our Menorahs for eight nights, sang songs, ate fatty fried foods, played gambling games and exchanged presents. Now it is our neighbors' turn to celebrate their own joyous festival. To all my Christian friends, colleagues and neighbors, I wish you much joy as we enter the day of Christmas Eve. May this festival uplift and inspire you as you reflect on its deepest meanings. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Letter Supporting Clemency for Jonathan Pollard

I have thought a lot about the Jonathan Pollard case over the years. He was hired by the US Navy, gave classified documents to Israel, was arrested and sentenced while I was serving in the Navy's intelligence-gathering establishment. I actually had a professional connection to the case; I served on the damage assessment team prior to his sentencing. At the time, I was struck by two discrepancies. First, after the extensive reportage on him I wondered why he had ever been hired by the Navy in the first place. Second, when the damage assessment team unearthed that he was a minor 'desk jockey' who funnelled various intelligence summaries from other agencies to analysts within his agency, why was he touted as an 'Israeli Master Spy' and given a life sentence?

The answer to the first question became clear to me five years later when I was due a routine five-year update and background investigation. I found that I had to submit information going ten years back; because of the rapid build-up of the intelligence services in President Reagan's first term - during which Pollard was hired - the agencies investigating applicants for top security clearances were swamped beyond their capacity and often pencil-whipped the clearances if the applicant had no police record and there was no 'red flag' on the application. If my own SCI update was signed without investigation, my guess is that a new hire, a young man recently out of school, someone with some 'yichus' (his father was a prominent professor at Notre Dame who had surely done some work for the government at some point) would not attract close scrutiny. The Navy didn't know Pollard was something of a 'fruit-cake' because they didn't give him much of a look.

On the issue of the extent of the damage Pollard had done to national security, two factors certainly worked against him. The first was his, and his defense team's, own miscalculation. In jailhouse interviews to CBS' '60 Minutes' and the Jerusalem Post's Wolf Blitzer before sentencing, Pollard and his wife bragged about the high levels at which they worked within the Israeli establishment. The truth all along was that the Israeli agent 'running' Pollard was conducting something of a rogue operation. Why did the Pollards puff themselves up in the media? My guess (and this is only a guess, but I think a good one) is that they calculated they would force the US and Israeli governments at the highest levels to begin negotiations for the Pollards' release. The second factor was Secretary of Defense Weinberger's interference with the case. Weinberger, according to Lawrence Korb, his deputy at the time, seriously inflated the damage assessment to make it sound as if Pollard had made extremely damaging disclosures not only to Israel but to the Soviet Union and other states. And in an apparent attempt to manipulate the ire of the presiding judge, Aubrey Robinson who is an African American, Weinberger painted a picture of disclosures to (then Apartheid state) South Africa. Given all this, it is no surprise that the judge locked Pollard up 'and threw away the key,' and that Pollard spend some eight years in solitary confinement.

Over the years, I've had the sense that this was a very bad deal. Pollard is certainly no hero, although there are elements in Israel who see him that way. He was more like a village idiot. Given the undue meddling in the case at the highest levels, and the Navy's negligence in ever granting the guy a security clearance, I think that 25 years in prison for him is more than enough and have signed on to the effort to free him. Below is the text of the letter I recently sent to President Obama at the request of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC, 20500

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to you to add my voice to those requesting commutation of Jonathan Jay Pollard's sentence to time served.

I was serving on active duty in the U.S. Navy and working as a Cryptologist at the time Pollard was arrested. Working at the time for the G6 organization of the National Security Agency, the Middle East-North Africa section, I was chosen to participate on the team assessing the damage potentially caused by Pollard’s disclosures. My recollection matches those of Senator Dennis DeConcini, Dr. Lawrence Korb and Mr. R. James Woolsey, all of whom have suggested Secretary of Defense Weinberger seriously inflated the assessment of the damage done by Pollard in his report to Judge Aubrey Eugene Robinson, who presided over Pollard’s case. My own recollection is that there was nothing that we came across to indicate that Pollard gave information to any country but Israel. Further, the information he probably disclosed consisted primarily of daily operational intelligence summaries, information that is extremely perishable. It did not appear to me at the time that the information he gave Israel should have resulted in a life sentence.

This combines with my sense that the Navy was seriously negligent in even granting Pollard a security clearance. Had the Navy done the required background investigation, Pollard certainly would not have been hired in the first place. But when Pollard was hired it was at a time of very rapid expansion of our intelligence services; then it was fairly commonplace for clearance investigations to be dropped and the clearances granted if the investigators saw no ‘red flags’ on the application. I was due a routine five-year update of my clearance the year Pollard was hired; five years later, the Naval Investigative Service had to go back 10 years because of the omissions during the build-up during President Reagan’s first term.

These two factors – the giving of what appears to be only extremely perishable information to an ally, and the extreme unsuitability for the work to begin with – do not erase the guilt for the crimes Pollard committed. But it does lead me, as someone with a connection to the case on the government’s side, to add my voice to those of Senator DeConcini, Dr, Korb, Mr. Woolsey and the members of Congress who have recently asked you to consider commuting Mr. Pollard’s sentence to time served.

Thank you for your prayerful consideration of this matter, and may you and your family enjoy a blessed Christmas holiday.

Donald A. Levy
Rabbi, Temple Beit Torah
Chaplain, Major, USAF (retired)

What do YOU think?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vayechi - And He Lived

I was thinking about the recent and tragic death by suicide of Mark Madoff, the son of convicted Ponzi Schemer Bernard Madoff, while studying this week’s Torah portion. The younger Madoff, a 46-year-old father of four, hanged himself with a dog leash in his Manhattan apartment last Saturday while his wife and children were out of town. The day on which Madoff killed himself was the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. Mark Madoff and his younger brother Andrew were the ones that turned their father in, after he had confessed his crimes to his family. The entire Madoff case is a tragedy: for the Madoff family, for the many individuals and charitable foundations whose investments were lost, and for the entire Jewish community. The specter of an obviously-Jewish crook defrauding so many of billions of dollars should be a source of shame for every Jew. And one would have to be heartless to not sympathize with the many who feel the pain that his crimes spread, including his family. For an intelligent young man of 46, a father of four and apparently uninvolved in his father’s crimes, to take his life in such a way, can only be heart-rending.

This week’s Torah portion opens with the words, “Vayechi Ya’akov – And Jacob lived in the Land of Egypt 17 years.” Jacob tells his son Joseph of his wishes for arrangements after his death. He knows that his death is approaching. He is happy that he was able to live out his final years in Egypt, under the protection of his son with whom he was miraculously reunited after many years apart. Jacob doesn’t want to be buried in Egypt; he instructs Joseph that, when he dies, he wishes for his remains to be taken back to Canaan, to be interred in the burial place of his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. Recognizing that the family will eventually leave Egypt and return to the land promised to them by G-d, Israel does not wish for his remains to spend eternity in the soil of a foreign land. Israel’s swearing his favored son to carry out his wishes as to what to do after his death, serves as a leitmotif for following generations.

Joseph himself, having taken his father’s bones back to Canaan for burial, makes the same request of his sons. Eventually, when the people Israel leaves Egypt, they carry Joseph’s bones with them for re-interment in Canaan. But the practice of making known one’s final wishes has become commonplace and normal. We instruct our loved ones as to where we’d like to be buried, or if we prefer some other method for our remains to be dealt with, we make that known. And it is an important ethical principle that one carry out your relative’s dying wishes.

But beyond expressing our wishes as to what we’d like done to our remains after we die, we also express our preferences as to he circumstances of our dying. Thanks to the incredible technology that can keep us legally alive long after we’ve reasonably expired, we often give advance notice as to our wishes with regard to so-called heroic measures being taken, or not, which will determine when and how we die. In recent years, the idea of palliative care to ease our death, rather than heroic measures to prolong our life, has become more popular and compelling. I have to say that the availability of palliative care is a good thing and has allowed so many to die with some dignity intact.

But the ultimate level of taking control of the circumstances of one’s dying, is achieved by taking one’s own life – by suicide. In recent years, there has been a movement to allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients to take their own lives. As you remember, Doctor Jack Kevorkian – dubbed ‘Dr. Death’ by some – elicited both praise and condemnation for his illegally assisting, by his own claim, 130 people to commit a painless suicide. He served eight years in a Michigan state prison for his efforts.

Now I’m astute enough – and compassionate enough – to know that some reading this will think of Jack Kevorkian as a hero. I think I understand how painful it can be to be in the throes of a terminal illness. I watched my father die a somewhat messy death from multiple myeloma, and before that my maternal grandfather from colon cancer. A prolonged death from a terminal illness robs the dying patient of his last scraps of dignity, causes his loved ones pain to see him suffer so, and can bring financial ruin to those responsible for his care. Even so, I have to tell you that the slippery slope that assisted suicide opens up, gives me some pause. Some people have famously expressed a desire to die for what can only be termed trivial reasons. It is natural for someone facing a life of severe disability to think themselves better off dead. Someone who has lost his sight, or ability to walk, or ability to control his bowels, could be forgiven for thinking that suicide offers a release from the indignity of continuing to live. My point here is not to condemn those who would wish to take control of their life by determining the time and manner of their death. Rather, my point is to offer a contrasting viewpoint. It is only natural to feel despair when faced with a life in which one will be denied some activity, some talent that is important to one’s self-definition.

Most of us have activities that we love to do. Golf, tennis, running, skiing…our favorite sports and activities give us untold amounts of pleasure and help us through the difficult times. But while these things are fun and bring joy, we should not measure our lives by these things. If we do, then our lives will seem far more shallow and vapid after they’re over. We should be able to drift in and out of these activities, because our lives’ meanings should be far deeper than these things. If we think that our lives are no longer worth living because we’ve lost the ability to play some sport, then we’ve lost sight of what the real meanings of our lives are. We should think of those whose spirits have been able to soar despite our trials and setbacks. Of, for example, the wounded warriors who have found the emotional strength to live on despite losing one or more limbs in battle. Of those whose fighting spirit makes them see that their worth as individuals, far exceeds the sum of what they’re capable of doing. What a tragedy if someone thinks that, because they can no longer perform some accustomed physical feat, that their life is no longer worth living. Of if a terminally ill person frets over the way his protracted treatment is eating up the estate he might leave to his heirs. Another hint of misplaced priorities.

And how about a relatively-young man, with many years of health, happiness and yes, productivity ahead of him, so despairing because of his father’s crimes that he feels he must ‘check out’ prematurely? Perhaps it is unseemly to reflect on these things as we inaugurate the Shabbat, the day of rest and renewal of spirit that is G-d’s greatest gift to the Jewish people and the Jews’ greatest gift to humanity. But my purpose is not for us to despair, rather to learn an important lesson. And that lesson is that we must, while we have control of our faculties, take stock of what’s most important in our lives. Although evil surely does exist in our world, I’m guessing that just about everyone reading my words today has spread far more good than evil in his or her lifetime. Perhaps you have not given yourself the credit you deserve for the good you’ve spread. We frequently think more harshly of our lives than we should, because we focus far to much on achievements, than goodness. Mark Madoff, according to those close to him, was not a man in his crooked father’s image. Rather, he was a relatively unassuming man who helped many with his expertise in investments, who prospered at least in part because of his hard work, and who cared deeply about those closest to him. It is a tragedy that he ended his own life so ignominiously, leaving a widow and four orphans, because of the shame his father’s crimes caused him to endure. How tragic when any human being feels his life has lost its meaning, whether because of a broken relationship, because he must endure a protracted illness, or because some new disability has robbed him of some activities that brings him joy. In all these cases, from the famous to the anonymous, the tragedy is that we find it difficult to see the true value of our lives.

Jacob’s life was supremely valuable, although he had a rocky beginning. As his death approached, he might have been forgiven for thinking that he had outlived his usefulness. He might have thought he would be unduly overburdening his son by making him swear to carry his bones back to Canaan for burial. But Jacob’s greatness, through all his foibles, was that he understood the values that make life worthwhile. He therefore felt free to burden Joseph with his request to return him to Canaan for burial with his fathers. And Joseph’s greatness is amply displayed in the fact, chronicled later in this week’s Torah portion, that he indeed carried out his dying father’s request.

“Vayechi – and he lived.” May we find the strength and resolve to live out the fullness of our years. And may we be blessed to understand the true worth of our lives, and those of the ones closest to us.