By Larry Gordon
Our last-minute headline in the past week’s issue used the word “euphoria” to describe the emotion that swept through the Jewish and right-thinking communities as news emerged and was quickly disseminated that Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin’s 27-year-long sentence was being commuted by President Trump to time served.
And indeed that was the reaction—joy, elation, and ecstasy upon hearing the news that this 57-year-old man who was imprisoned in a medium-security facility in upstate New York and kept away from his wife and ten children for more than eight years was suddenly free. What an exciting and exhilarating turn of events! In a world shrouded with setbacks, there we were, on a moment’s notice, giddy with a quick sense of Jewish unity and a heretofore rare type of communal surging forward.
The injustice perpetrated against Mr. Rubashkin and by extension against his family is truly unforgiveable and still needs to be dealt with in a legal and proper manner. Yes, there was an unfortunate white-collar crime committed that he was convicted of, but the sentence dispensed by Judge Linda Reade was unprecedented and left Sholom Mordechai staring at 27 years behind bars, a virtual life sentence.
Though attorneys and former justice and elected officials joined together to assail the sentence as wildly disproportionate and unfair, there was no desire, it seems, at the higher levels of the justice system, to adjust or correct this colossal wrong.
It is difficult to say and just as tough to write, but it seems that there was an unusually harsh punishment that the court system in Iowa was comfortable with, directing such a punitive punishment at Mr. Rubashkin. And it was just as difficult to delude ourselves into thinking that the harshness of the sentence was not something reserved for Mr. Rubashkin as a Jew—and, in particular, as an Orthodox Jew.
While we are in the process of placing this ordeal behind us, there are many aspects of what transpired here that should be dealt with over the weeks and months ahead.
First of all, with the approach of 2018, and the advanced times that we live in, how can we as Jews sit idly by while a separate and particularly exacting brand of justice is directed at us as Jews? Granted that this is an onerous accusation to make, but the facts of the situation unfortunately support this contention.
Somehow there was a cool detachment to the plight of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. And though the cases were starkly different, there were consistent comparisons being made to the case of long-ago-convicted spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard, who was released from federal prison last year after serving a full 30 years.
What do the two cases have in common? Both involve Jews who were imprisoned or sentenced to incarceration for far too long for no obvious reason other than it was a twisted way to send a message to Jewish communities around the country and even the world.
Let it be clear that I’m not suggesting that Pollard or Rubashkin didn’t commit a crime and were just jailed for no reason. Both indulged in activities that they should not have been involved in. That said, let’s focus on the length of the sentences. In the Pollard case, many arrested and convicted over the years for spying for unfriendly countries were usually released after a relatively short sentence. But time and again, Mr. Pollard was denied parole even after pleading guilty to spying for Israel. The plea agreement included the stipulation that he would not be sentenced to life in prison.
In the Rubashkin case, one of his most serious offenses was one that no one in this country had been charged with in almost 100 years—the matter of the timeframe that livestock needed to be paid for after acquisition.
It is uncomfortable to state, but it just might be healthier to push the matter out into the open. Former New York State governor David Paterson said the other day that he had intervened on Mr. Rubashkin’s behalf with former president Barack Obama. Mr. Paterson said on a New York radio station that when he reached out to the Obama administration about the wildly excessive sentence dispensed in this case, the response he received was that the administration was not interested in getting involved.
The other day, on our Saturday-night radio broadcast on AM970, famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, who played a pivotal role in the Trump commutation of Rubashkin, said that he had also reached out on several occasions to Mr. Obama about the unfairness of the Rubashkin sentence but there was obviously no interest in acting. And the non-action has to be contrasted with the fact that Mr. Obama granted clemency to more convicted felons than any previous president.
What forced him to look the other way on the Rubashkin matter? Well, someday, someone will hopefully ascertain the answer to that question, but it does not look like there is a pleasing or satisfying explanation.
Interestingly, the other night on the radio, Mr. Dershowitz said that he had received the same answer when he would attempt to address the matter of Mr. Pollard with former President Clinton in the mid-1990s. Mr. Dershowitz said that when he would approach Clinton at whatever occasion or opportunity, Mr. Clinton would preempt whatever the attorney had to say by stating, “Alan, if you’re talking to me about Pollard, I’m not listening.” Professor Dershowitz responded, “Mr. President, I’m gonna talk. You decide whether to listen. But I’m not gonna not talk about Jonathan Pollard.” It appears that there is quite a dichotomy in the thought process of a seasoned politician versus that of a person who did not previously hold an elected position, like President Trump. Trump saw a tragic situation that he had the ability to change, without considering sending moralizing messages to segments of the U.S. population, in these cases the American Jewish community.
Donald Trump apparently does not think that way and we are all fortunate that this is the case. Whether it was the issue of the long-overdue recognition by the U.S. of Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital city or the differing matter of an excessive and unbalanced sentence of a family man, we can say that Mr. Trump possesses a clarity and, yes, a humanity that his more articulate predecessors just did not have.
And then there is the matter of the absence of our own New York senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, from Mr. Rubashkin’s case despite widespread interest in the matter from their constituents in the New York Jewish communities.
Both senators have a right to their ideas and beliefs no matter how off base they may be. But the defense of Senator Schumer’s silence on the Rubashkin matter is really in and of itself indefensible. I am referring to a widely published piece by my good friend and political consultant Ezra Friedlander, who said that while he does not agree with the Schumer silence on Rubashkin over all these years, we should not be critical of the senator because the community needs him for other things now and in the future.
That assertion is as absurd as it is wrong-headed. Others in defense of Mr. Schumer say that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi signed on to the request to commute the Rubashkin sentence and that Ms. Pelosi does not do anything without getting permission to do so from Minority Leader Schumer.
That might be the case, and might even be fine and good on the surface. But that also begs the question: was Schumer invisible here because he did not want to be seen as a political leader who is Jewish advocating for leniency for another Jew? While this event has traces of that kind of dynamic at play, it would be both disappointing and disgraceful if that were the case.
The important thing for now is that Mr. Rubashkin is back where he belongs, with his family. He paid his debt to society plus some. Now all we need is an explanation from Senator Schumer explaining his silence throughout the process to right a terrible wrong.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.