A new campaign for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has racked up a series of big name politicos in the last few weeks: former Vice President Dan Quayle, former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama.
The recent successes can be traced not to Washington lobbyists or a New York boardroom, but to a small team of four activists whose doggedness, rather than political connections, have yielded results.
The four men, spread across America, have managed to generate more momentum on the Pollard issue—or at least more expressions of support for clemency from public figures—than any public campaign in recent years.
Foremost among the activists is David Nyer, a 25-year-old Orthodox social worker from Monsey, N.Y., about 25 miles from New York City.
Nyer was the force behind a letter last November to President Obama from 39 congressional Democrats urging the president to grant clemency to Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who received a life sentence in 1987 for spying for Israel.
Over the past few months, Nyer successfully elicited letters calling for Pollard’s release from Quayle, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, and President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz. Korb went so far as to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formally call for Pollard’s release, which Nyer says is a key gain in the effort to free Pollard.
“It’s not really hard,” Nyer said of his ability to get powerful or once-powerful officials on the phone. “I myself was very surprised by all of this. I guess that’s the great thing about living in a democracy. The average citizen can reach a former vice president.”
Along with Nyer, the team includes University of Baltimore law professor Kenneth Lasson, Phoenix attorney Farley Weiss and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a longtime Pollard advocate and executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Weiss is a second vice president of the council and the president of a Young Israel synagogue in Arizona, as well as a national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America.
The four activists say they are in near daily contact, bouncing around ideas and names of prominent individuals to solicit for support.
Lasson has a long track record of involvement with Pollard, having penned more than a dozen articles in the past two decades calling for his release. Weiss, a trademark attorney, has a history of activism on issues related to Israel. Weiss was instrumental in reversing the views of former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who long had opposed Pollard’s release.
Lerner has tended to Pollard’s personal needs, acting as his rabbi and paying him visits at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.
It is Nyer, however, who has done much of the legwork in recent months.
His start on the Pollard case came in graduate school, when Carlos Salinas, a former Amnesty International official, presented a lecture at the school and Nyer pushed Salinas to review the case. Salinas went on to join 500 signatories, most of them clergymen, in a separate letter to Obama on Pollard’s behalf.
Among the letter’s signatories were Pastor John Hagee, the Texas minister who founded Christians United for Israel, and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and now president of the conservative nonprofit American Values.
Nyer and company have been strategic in picking their targets.
They have recruited former officials who, like DeConcini, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had access to classified material and can speak authoritatively on the appropriateness of Pollard’s sentence. The biggest score on that front was James Woolsey, the former Central Intelligence Agency director, who called on Obama in January to release Pollard.
DeConcini was a longtime opponent of clemency for Pollard, but he told JTA that he changed his mind at the repeated urging of his finance chairman, the late Earl Katz. He wrote to both Obama and former President George W. Bush on Pollard’s behalf at the behest of Weiss, whose credibility Katz had vouched for.
“He has been on my case for a couple of years,” DeConcini said of Weiss.
The group also has targeted those with particular influence on Obama, such as Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a mentor to the president, who wrote to the White House in January. Several sources said the group is seeking support from others who are personally close to the president.
The activists hope that all the letter writing will give Obama the political cover he needs to take the potentially controversial step of freeing the spy. The fight for Pollard’s release typically has been spearheaded by the pro-Israel right wing in America, but the congressional letter was signed entirely by Democrats.
Nyer suggested that a pardon could boost Obama’s standing with American Jews and Israelis in advance of the 2012 election.
“The first thing we wanted to do was to create a political climate which would be easy to grant clemency,” Nyer said. “It would be very easy for Obama to do it. He has all the cover.”
Neither Nyer, Weiss nor Lasson were eager to speak about their efforts on Pollard’s behalf. Separately they emphasized that the injustice of the case speaks for itself.
Pollard has served 25 years of a life sentence for passing classified materials to Israel—a longer sentence than anyone else convicted of espionage on behalf of a U.S. ally.
While the activists would prefer that their names stay out of the media glare, they say their efforts have raised hopes that Pollard’s life sentence might soon be commuted.
“In 25 years,” Lasson told JTA, “I’ve never seen this degree of momentum or widespread support from both within and outside the Jewish community, both nationally and internationally.”
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