Free Sholom Now
"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," Richard Nixon said bitterly at his "last press conference" after losing his 1962 race for governor of California. Nixon proved a poor prophet; Six years later, he was elected president, and Watergate still lay in the future.
Barack Obama made no promises about going quietly into the night upon leaving office. He and his family intend to stay in Washington D.C., and he has served notice that he will not hesitate to speak out on the questions of the day.
Still, as an ex-president, his words will not require my attention, at least until Michelle decides to run for president. I have searched my heart and find no ambivalence about the loss of a frequent subject. My relief at no longer having to write the words "President Obama" is pure.
Before leaving office, however, President Obama provided plenty of last minute material by ordering his U.N. ambassador to abstain on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, and by virtue of his exercise of his power to pardon and commute sentences.
He commuted the life sentences of 214 individuals, most convicted drug traffickers, and that of unrepentant Puerto Rican FALN terrorist Oscar Lopez-Rivera, who was responsible for dozens of bombings, at least one fatal. Most notably, Obama commuted the 35-year sentence of Bradley/Chelsea Manning, who turned over to 500,000 military reports and 250,000 State Department documents to Wikileaks, after seven years in prison.
Fox News quoted intelligence sources saying that the "Taliban went on a killing spree" of locals in Afghanistan who matched the descriptions of sources mentioned in the documents passed to Wikileaks. By letting Manning off from 80% of his sentence, writes Andrew McCarthy, the lead prosecutor of the first World Trade Center bombing, the United States has sent a message to all would be intelligence sources that the U.S. treats the reckless endangerment of their lives as a minor crime.
Edward Lucas, author of The Snowden Operation: Inside the West's Greatest Intelligence Disaster, describes how intelligence services go into panic mode whenever a breach is discovered and shut down any operation whose cover may have been blown. Multiple breaches increase the problem exponentially, as every piece of data must be assessed in terms of its utility with other data in enemy hands. Accordingly, the massive amount of data handed Wikileaks by Manning wrought havoc with U.S. intelligence.
The leniency shown to Manning immediately invites comparison to the treatment of Jonathan Pollard, who served thirty years for spying for Israel. When Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger submitted his secret impact statement at Pollard's sentencing hearing, he likely believed that documents provided by Pollard had resulted in the exposure of Soviet sources. It has been known for decades, however, that CIA official Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen sold the names of the American agents to the Soviets, and deflected suspicion to Pollard. Ames was not arrested until 1994, eight years after Pollard's sentencing, and Hanssen until 2001.
Jonathan Pollard committed serious crimes and was punished far more severely than any operative ever convicted of transferring information to an American ally. Even today, after his release from jail, he remains subject to onerous conditions, including that he wear an electronic transmitter around his wrist and that any computer he uses be subject to continuous government monitoring (a condition that prevented him from securing employment.)
Jonathan Pollard has long since ceased to constitute a security risk, according to former CIA Director James Woolsey; unlike Manning, he did not act to harm the U.S. military; he did not cost the United States valuable human intelligence assets, as did Manning; and he paid a price over four times greater than Manning.
President Obama should have removed the onerous restrictions remaining on Jonathan Pollard, as he did for Manning. President Trump should do so today.
The commutations issued by Obama call to mind another federal prisoner as well: Sholom Mordechai Rubaskin. Obama believes that the statutes under which the convicted drug traffickers were sentenced – sentences legislated in large part at the insistence of the Black Congressional Caucus alarmed by the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods – were too onerous.
But the 27-year sentence handed down to Rubaskin for fraud on a bank loan application was almost entirely the result of prosecutorial abuse. Under federal sentencing guidelines the sentence was based on the financial damage to the bank in question.
Federal prosecutors told the trustee in bankruptcy that they would nix the sale of Agriprocessors to any entity with a connection to Rubaskin family members. As a consequence, one potential offer of $40 million for the bankrupt business, which would have been adequate to pay off the entirety of the bank losses, was withdrawn, and the business eventually sold for less than a quarter of that amount. Those same prosecutors then suborned false testimony from counsel for the trustee in bankruptcy to cover up what they had done.
Four former U.S. attorneys-general, two former FBI directors, and dozens of law professors and former justice department officials have written to the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa calling upon him to remove the effect of the fraud perpetrated by prosecutors in his office. In the absence of that fraud, Rubashkin would have been sentenced to under four years: He has already served more than seven.
The drug traffickers were sentenced under the mandatory sentencing requirements in place at the time of their convictions. Sholom Rubaskin was sentenced so harshly solely because of prosecutorial fraud.
President Trump should commute the rest of his sentence immediately and remove the stain on American justice.
On the Passing of the Generation of the Holocaust
Two shivah calls last Motzaei Shabbos put into clear relief what is lost with the passing of the last survivors of the Holocaust. Most obviously there is the loss of eyewitness testimony of the barbarity of the Nazis and their collaborators. Also lost is the memory of European Jewish life prior to the Holocaust. (Sometimes that memory takes the form of a corrective to idealization of pre-Holocaust life.)
I only had about five minutes to speak to Rabbi Shimon Winegarten, rav of the Bridge Lane shul in Golders Green, about his mother-in-law Rebbetzin Shoshana Privalsky, a"h. The family was preparing to leave for hespedim at Yeshiva Kiryas Hameleh, at the conclusion of shivah.
He told me that his mother-in-law had been in 27 different hiding places during the war, after escaping from Telshe together with her older sister. She lost her shoe in the snow while fleeing Telshe. Her foot was fast becoming frost-bitten, when a huge, vicious-looking dog approached the two terrified teenagers, and began licking the foot of the shoeless teenager. The dog led them to a farm house. The dog's peasant owner was astounded that his dog had not attacked the girls and ripped them to shreds, much less that he had saved Shoshana's foot.
Later, the older sister was taken to a convent. The younger sister, Shoshana, hid in a closet in a duchess' mansion, which had been requisitioned by the SS and used as their local headquarters. She emerged from her hiding place only at night. She wrote a sefer Tehillim for her older sister from a siddur she had taken with her from Telshe. When the ink ran out, she pricked her finger and wrote in blood. Rav Chaim Kanievsky has recited Tehillim from that original sefer Tehillim written in blood.
There was much, much more to learn about Rebbetzin Privalsky's life, as attested to by the renowned talmidei chachamim speaking at the end of shiva, but at least the family generously gave me her memoir of her wartime experiences.
A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER, I was listening to Rabbi Shlomo Klagsbald, rav of the shul in which I daven, speak of his father Reb Moshe Klagsbald, zt"l. During the half hour or so I was there, he told only one story of the Holocaust years.
Reb Moshe was in four different camps after being taken from his native Chebin. He later told his children that had liberation been delayed by even a day, he would not have survived. On the day of liberation, he and his fellow prisoners lacked the strength to get out of the wooden bunks in which they were piled. Only after being fed for three days did they have sufficient strength to climb down.
What Rabbi Klagsbald spoke of instead was the great lesson that his father internalized from his Holocaust experiences: How trivial are all those things about which people allow themselves to become upset, particularly money, after you have spent years on the brink of death at any moment. "We [i.e., my siblings and I] thought we knew my father," Rabbi Klagsbald told me, "but we kept learning all week how little we really knew."
For over four decades, Mr. Klagsbald ran the va'ad habayis in his building in Bnei Brak. Once he saw an avreich cleaning a building nearby, and asked him whether he would also have time to clean the stairwells in his building. The avreich said that he did, and after viewing the building asked for 200 shekels a week. Mr. Klagsbald suggested they compromise on 250 shekels a week. He later explained to his shocked wife that the young avreich's wife and children were likely embarrassed by the way he supported them, but if he at least brought home more money, it would give him greater honor in their eyes.
Another neighbor of many decades related how when he moved into the building as a newlywed, Mr. Klagsbald had introduced himself and mentioned that as a newlywed couple they probably had little money and would therefore be free of vaad dues for two years.
A customer at the bank where he worked for decades described how he had once come after the doors were already locked. Mr. Klagsbald saw him and asked him through the locked door what he needed.
The man replied that he was scheduled for surgery and needed 200 shekels to get to the hospital. Mr. Klagsbald took the money from his wallet and slipped it under the door. When the man offered to do the same with an IOU, he waved him away and told him to just get to the hospital immediately. And so it went, the entire week of shivah.
Not only are we losing one by one eyewitnesses to horror and great heroes. We are also losing those formed by the Holocaust into Jews of exceptional sensitivity to others and purged of all self-centeredness. At least that last quality has been passed down to my rav by his father.