Coward-in-Chief “We’re going to a special place,” said my friend Daniel. Since we weren’t using a map, I had no sense of our direction. Everything was similar; we drove through hilly terrain, semi-arid and sparsely populated. We were driving in Israel’s West Bank. Our special place was the University at Ariel.
What struck me about the campus other than its clean air and paucity of automobiles was its simple beauty and its peacefulness. Students there were Israeli Arabs and Jews. I didn’t want to leave; indeed, I wanted to stay and teach there.
Of course, that was a dream. Besides, we had to return to Daniel’s home in Kedumim, a West Bank Eden that is disparagingly referred to as an Israeli settlement. Palestinians work there with stucco and concrete; they are paid well. Even so, they are not trusted to work without being guarded; there have been frightening incidents. The ‘settlers’ have learned to care for themselves. Out of necessity, retired Army personnel bring rifles to the synagogue.
But the people of Kedumim are joyful; they are mostly safe there. In Daniel’s home, with his wife and children, also lived his enfeebled mother-in-law. That late afternoon, she chose me to sit with her. I couldn’t refuse; she wouldn’t have understood. For almost two hours, she told me, in what sounded like a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish and German, what happened to her in Auschwitz, one of Hitler’s many concentration camps.
Her jumble of words began to sound familiar. I realized she repeated her story over and over. Each telling was illustrated with a small group of old pictures of that dreaded place. Again and again, her wrinkled hands held the images of its infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate and the camp’s interior within inches of my eyes.
I could tell she was recounting scenes of friends and relatives whose lives had ended tragically. Now, at Kedumin, her mind was locked as her days were spent recycling those memories. Although I knew she wouldn’t remember our ‘conversation,’ I was honored to have been chosen to be part of it.
That was almost eight years ago. Since then, my friendship with another Holocaust survivor, Solly Ganor, has deepened. After forty years of battling brutal nightmares, Solly wrote Light One Candle, his profoundly important memoir of his childhood circumscribed by the Nazis. Now living in Israel, Solly and I communicate on the Net a number of times each week.
After I land in Tel Aviv this Sunday, my younger daughter and I will meet Solly and his wife, Pola. That will mark the third time Solly and I have met in Israel. This time, just after president Obama’s visit, promises to be different. We’ll talk about the work we’re doing that may result in a movie or a miniseries based on Light One Candle.
Or we may discuss some of the stark realities that made his book so unforgettable. If so, I will be cautious, protective perhaps. In my possession will be two pictures that were just given to me by my friend, Jim.
Neither he nor his friend who found them wanted to keep them. Their images were too upsetting. On the back of each of those small black and white photos is the same message: “Belgique, French, and Polish prisoners of war killed by the Germans and left laying at Buchenwald.”
Should I share them with Solly? What purpose would that serve?
Answering those questions is necessary. Unlike Daniel’s mother-in-law, I am cognizant of their potential impact. Yet, I feel they serve a purpose. Indeed, that’s why I took my partner with me to see Yad Vashem the last time I was in Israel.
Often, each of us stopped while on its zig zag route through revelatory photos about the horrors of the Holocaust and its innocent victims. When my partner shook with tears while saying, “I just didn’t know,” I held her as I cried too. Our tears honored those who were not alive to see them.
Pictures like the ones Jim gave me serve the same purpose. They remind me that my work with and for Solly remains undone; I’m sure he will feel the same.
Many times, Solly and I have summed up our reflections and conversations with the question that seems eternal: Why? Why are Jews persecuted? After his visit to Yad Vashem, I would have liked to pose that question to our President. Sadly, it remains pertinent.
After his (Obama’s) response to more than 200,000 signatories to a petition for the release of Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish prisoner held for twenty-eight years in American prisons, it’s past time to ask Obama that same question: Why?
Details are clear; Obama is not. He has given a coward’s answer to the question. I wish that surprised me.
Please see for yourself at The Jerusalem Post - Editorial - March 21, 2013
http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/The-buck-stops-here-307173 ( an excerpt from the editorial is included as a postscript…)
B. Koplen 3/21/13
…In the US, 30 national Jewish organizations have issued a pre-Passover
appeal to President Obama led by Conference of Presidents leaders Richard
Stone and Malcolm Hoenlein, requesting that Obama release Pollard prior to
his 10,000th day of imprisonment, on April 8, 2013.
After wishing Obama a successful trip to the Middle East, they respectfully
and urgently requested that the president “act on the commutation of his
sentence to time served before this milestone is reached. Mr. Pollard, whose
health has deteriorated, has expressed remorse and regret repeatedly.”
Obama’s answer to a question about Pollard in an interview with Channel 2
television last week was troubling and insensitive. He did not seem to be
aware of the concern among the Israeli public and US Jewry over the
injustice of Pollard’s life sentence, nor of the fear that Pollard’s failing
health threatens to end his life after 28 years in prison.
On the contrary, Obama responded by reducing Pollard’s plight to that of a
common criminal who just wants to get out of jail early. He implied that
Pollard was trying to jump the line without following proper procedure.
The president’s response distanced himself from any direct responsibility
for Pollard’s fate: He suggested that Pollard should avail himself of the
procedures offered by the US justice system which may have “the potential to
ultimately release him.”
Obama stated that his own involvement is limited by law to observing from a
distance to ensure that all prisoners are treated equally, including
The truth of the matter is quite at odds with Obama’s take.
Pollard’s petition for executive clemency landed on the president’s desk on
October 15, 2010. It was presented after Pollard had been in prison for 25
years and had exhausted all legal remedies and procedures.
Nine supplemental filings have been added to Pollard’s petition for clemency
over the past two years. Each additional filing contained copies of letters
from high-ranking American officials urging Obama to commute Pollard’s
disproportionate sentence to time served as a matter of justice.
Among those calling for Pollard’s release are those who have first-hand
knowledge of the case and are familiar with the secret files. They include
former CIA director R. James Woolsey, former White House counsel Bernard
Nussbaum, former senator and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee
Dennis DeConcini, former US assistant secretary of defense Lawrence J. Korb,
and former attorney-general Michael Muckasey. In their opinion, keeping
Pollard in prison any longer is intolerable and unjust.
Former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger have declared
in letters to the president that the people who are best informed about the
classified material Pollard passed to Israel favor his release.
Pollard’s clemency file contains numerous petitions by American congressmen
and senators, public officials, religious leaders, retired judges, law
professors and a host of other notable individuals and groups calling for
his release as a matter of justice.
Bolstering the outpouring of support for Pollard’s release, a recently
declassified 1987 CIA damage assessment puts the lie to American allegations
that have been used for over a quarter of a century to justify Pollard’s
Now in Israel on his first official visit, President Obama owes a formal
response to official appeals by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu for Pollard’s release.
But more important, Pollard is owed a response to his petition for clemency,
and not a brush-off.
Pollard did as the president suggested. He followed procedure. That
procedure, once exhausted, led to the petition that is sitting on the
It is not only the president’s constitutional right to set Pollard free from
his grossly disproportionate life sentence. It is his duty.
Pollard is not an ordinary prisoner. He is an Israeli citizen and the victim
of a grave injustice that has gone on far too long.
Only Obama can set Pollard free and with the same stroke of his pen repair
the American system of justice and restore Israel’s confidence in our
closest ally. Mr. President, the buck stops with you and the time is now.