Ease His Pain

July 7, 1995 - Samuel Heilman - The Jewish Week

American Jews, forget dual loyalty charges - stand up for Pollard.

From about the late 1920s through much of the 1950s, American Jews, though far better off than their European cousins who suffered pogroms, persecutions, the Holocaust and its aftermath, experienced an abiding anxiety about whether or not they were truly at home in America.

During these years, as they tried to acculturate - to be as America as anyone - they often encountered what historian Henry Feingold, in his fine book about those times, "A Time for Searching," called the unmistakable "signals of unwelcome." These signals ranged from the lingering and, in light of the Holocaust, deadly effects of the restrictive immigration laws passed by Congress, quotas on Jewish admission to elite colleges, and exclusion from certain neighborhoods and communities. Also, the anti-Semitic diatribes of Henry Ford's newspaper The Dearborn Independent, as well as those emanating later from the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin and activities of the German-American Bund.

American Jewish anxieties were engendered, too, by the fact that during the Nazi era, only 10 percent of those who could have been allowed to enter this country as refugees were permitted to enter. (A poll taken during the war showed that 78 percent of Americans thought that such refugees should not be allowed in even after the war.) Also, that the United States, with the full support of the State Department, refused to bomb Auschwitz or take any steps to end the slaughter when it first received conclusive evidence of the Jewish death camps in 1942.

Even as late as 1948 when the world knew about the horrors of the Holocaust and the Displaced Persons Act was being implemented, while 53 percent of Americans polled said they would limit the number of German immigrants into this country, 60 percent said they would limit the number of Jews allowed to immigrate here. After the war, the red-lining that kept Jews out of certain clubs and towns, as well as the subtle slurs they encountered, all added to American Jewish insecurities.

With the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel, coupled with the massive American Zionist support for it, the Jewish anxieties of many non-Zionists focused on the matter of dual loyalties. As if responding to their concerns, and probably in the effort to lay them to rest, an American rabbi, Morris Kertzer, writing in 1952 in Look magazine and later the Reader's Digest, told the masses of American readers:

"The only loyalty of an American Jew is to the United States of America without any ifs, and or buts. The State of Israel is the ancestral home of his forefathers, the birthplace of his faith. As a haven for over a million Jews after the agonies of the past 20 years, it has special meaning for Jews all over the world. But spiritual bonds and emotional ties are quiet different from political loyalty."

While the nativism and xenophobia which spawned these American Jewish anxieties were behind Rabbi Kertzer's assertions have risen and fallen throughout the century, there is no doubt they have left a deep scar on the American Jewish psyche. They have engendered at least among some American Jews abiding feelings of cultural insecurity and ambivalence and excessive cultural self-consciousness. That is why American Jews for generations have wanted to do nothing that would either demonstrate they did not belong here or arouse anti-Semitism.

For many of these anxious Jews, the tragic case of Jonathan Pollard has sparked all the old insecurities and sometimes engendered the old responses. The facts of the Pollard case are by now familiar: A native American Jew who worked for the U.S. government admitted passing state secrets to Israel. His admission came as a result of a plea bargain in which the Justice Department promised him

less than a life sentence.

But following a secret memorandum from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to the sentencing judge, Pollard was in fact given a

life sentence

, and after 10 years remains imprisoned under extraordinarily harsh circumstances.

That he turned over information to an


, that the information proved

critical in protecting Israel

and the rest of the world from the menace of a nuclear Iraq, and that

others who have been caught spying for American allies have never been so harshly sentenced

are irrelevant for those who continue to see in him and his actions unwelcome reminders of American accusations of Jewish dual loyalty and the anxieties of anti-Semitism.

These Jews, still insecure about their citizenship in this country, want to forget about Pollard. They want their silent acquiescence in the face of his extreme punishment - nearly a year in a ward for the

criminally insane

with "no need for treatment" stamped on his papers,

more than five years in solitary confinement

in a federal penitentiary - to be a sign of their loyalty to America, a way of keeping the questions of dual loyalty and the American xenophobic tendencies and anti-Semitism at bay.

With Pollard in prison, these Jews think they need not feel culturally insecure or self-conscious.

Other American Jews, who carry no doubts about their American loyalties and remain convinced that in a multiethnic and pluralist America it is all right to support Israel without raising questions about loyalties or fomenting anti-Semitism, see Jonathan Pollard differently: Not as some symbolic scapegoat whose continued pain ensures that the rest of us will not feel any, but simply as someone all too human who made a mistake, paid mightily for it and ought not to be made to suffer any longer.

These Jews note with irony that Caspar Weinberger, a man who knows what it is to commit a crime and be pardoned for it, whose own heritage resonates with anxieties about dual-loyalty and echoes of anti-Semitism, remains Pollard's greatest accuser.

These are Jews who on humanitarian grounds call, as I do, for Pollard's immediate parole in November.

Indeed, if Pollard


to be any sort of symbol, let him be one of American Jewry's unwillingness to give in to the anxieties about and spurious accusations (spoken or assumed) of dual loyalty or the fear of anti-Semitism. It is only a culturally self-assured Jewish America that dares ask that the American Jew Jonathan Pollard, having paid a debt for his folly, be given a chance to build a new life.

Samuel Heilman is the Harold M. Proshansky Professor of Jewish Studies and Sociology at the Graduate Center of Queens College and CUNY.