Letter To An American Friend: Soured Promise
March 10, 1997 - Shlomo Avineri - Jerusalem Post
1997 Prefacing Note:
Ten years ago this article caused a firestorm in both Israel and the USA. The author, Shlomo Avineri was excoriated for having the temerity to describe the cringing and fearful behaviour of the American Jewish leadership. Jonathan Pollard will soon be entering his 13th year of a life sentence with no end in sight.
Although Jewish 'leaders" here and in Israel now routinely acknowledge the injustice of the grossly disproportionate sentence that was meted out to Pollard, and the singularly harsh manner in which he was treated, neither group is willing to muster the courage or the integrity to do anything decisive to bring this travesty of justice to an end. What Avineri wrote is as true today as it was 10 years ago. The issue of is as blatant as ever and has yet to be addressed.
* * *
The Pollard Case is causing unprecedented unease and malaise among American Jews. Why?
I agree with you that we here in Israel have to clear up our own mess. There is no doubt that some branches of our intelligence apparatus have run wild and that some very senior officials and politicians will have to pay for the folly and irresponsibility involved in the affair.
As in the Iran-Contra Affair in the United States, it appears that both our countries have a penchant for letting cowboys run sensitive intelligence operations. A weak and rather uninformed president in your case, a divided government lacking central control in ours, seem to invite that kind of free-wheeling operators.
But in the Pollard Case, something more profound is now surfacing; a degree of nervousness, insecurity and even cringing on the part of the American Jewish community which runs counter to the conventional wisdom of American Jewry feeling free, secure, and unmolested in an open and pluralistic society.
Let me not mince words: some of the responses of American Jewish leaders after Pollard's sentencing remind me of the way in which Jewish leaders in Egypt under Nasser and in Iran under Khomeni ran for cover when members of their respective communities were caught spying for Israel.
I know these are harsh words; they are nonetheless true. American Jewry has prided itself on being a free community of fiercely proud Jews living in an open society, in which being Jewish was considered as American as apple pie, How many times have American leaders told me that America is not another Exile, that you do not live in Galut, that you can aspire to the highest office in the land, that you are not a minority but constitute an integral ingredient of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious tapestry that makes the American matrix such a unique historical experience for the Jews.
And what do we see now? A person who happens to be Jewish (isn't this your favorite phrase "happens to be Jewish"?) is caught spying for Israel. You would expect that in a free and open society no guilt by association should be presumed and that nobody except Pollard himself should
be held responsible for the deeds.
Instead we see some senior American Jewish leaders falling all over each other in condemning Pollard and distancing themselves - and the Jewish community - from him. When did American Jewish leaders lastly pontificate on matters of criminal justice?
Look for yourself: one American Jewish leader says that "Pollard pleaded guilty in an American court to a serious crime. He received due process and a just punishment." Another states that he is "disturbed" by some feelings of sympathy he finds among fellow Jews for Pollard and says there could be "no possible justification for Pollard's despicable crime." A third opines that not since the Rosenbergs' trial have American Jews been so severely compromised.
Don't you feel these gentlemen are protesting too much? I at least am reminded of some Jewish reactions in France during the Dreyfus affair: "HE is guilty - WE are not, WE are good French patriots".
Why do American Jews have to feel the need to distance themselves from Pollard? Shouldn't they be saying that the fact that one American Jewish person convicted of spying for Israel (or for that matter, for the Soviet Union) is no skin off their nose and that is that.
I do not know Colonel North's religious affiliation - but have any of his co-religionists distanced themselves from him? And did any WASP have to distance himself from Alger Hiss's perjury and presumed spying for the Soviet Union? Why are only Jews defensive and uneasy in such cases?
Yesterday, on the phone from Los Angeles, you told me "the consequences of the Pollard affair will remain with us for the rest of our lives". Is this what the American dream is about - guilt by association, collective responsibility?
I hear American Jews talking about being accused of "dual loyalty". Who, among non-Jews, has accused you of that? Only Jewish people have used this phrase in the context of the Pollard affair - because you, not the non-Jews, somehow feel, deep in your heart, that despite all of your material success and intellectual achievements, you may not be seen by non-Jews as being truly Americans.
This anxiety is deep in your soul, and it is in the soul - and not in external circumstances - that the Galut resides. Galut is ambivalence, alienation, homelessness. When the going is good - when being Jewish and supporting Israel go together with waving the American flag - who would be as stupid as not to wish to have the best of both worlds? But when the going gets tough, then the test arrives of being accepted, of being really equal, of being proud and not having to look over your shoulder.
When Gore Vidal said some months ago in his vituperative polemic Commentary that you are not really Americans, you all recoiled in horror. Today, American Jewish leaders by their protestations of over-zealous loyalty to the United States at a moment when no one is really questioning it, are saying that America in the long run is no different from France and Germany. When you have to over-identify, there is no other proof needed that you think that your non-Jewish neighbours are looking askance at your Americanism. You are condemned by your own protestations of loyalty and flag-waving.
Zionism grew out of the cruel realization that for all of their achievements and successes, when the chips are down Jews in the Diaspora become vulnerable and defenseless, are seen as aliens - and will always see themselves as such.
You always told us Israelis that America was different. Of course it is. But you still feel now as vulnerable as Soviet or Iranian Jews. Of course, no one will put you in jail or legislate against you; but you are afraid that Jews will not be able to get responsible positions in your bureaucracy, that Jewish employees in the defense and intelligence branches will be under some kind of handicap, that Jews will be denied access to sensitive positions. One Jewish spy - and look how deep you find yourself in Galut (Exile).
Don't misunderstand me: in no way an I condoning what Israel did in the Pollard affair. With other Israelis I support the call for an unequivocal investigation into our stupidities and lies, and let heads roll if necessary.
What we did was unforgivable - not because of its impact on American Jews, but because of the consequences for Israel-US relations. Neither is this letter written with schadenfreude, despite the fact that you may feel that it is. Like all Zionist analyses, it is written with grief and dismay about the ways of the world.
But the truth of the matter is simple: You in America are no different from French, German, Polish, Soviet and Egyptian Jews. Your Exile is different - comfortable, padded with success and renown. It is exile nonetheless.
The test of really belonging and real equality is when the going is tough. And when the going is tough, your leaders reacted like trembling Israelites in the shtetl, not like proud and mighty citizens of a free democratic society. It is very easy to clamour at elegant wine and cheese parties, for the freedom of Soviet Jews. But you too need to be freed from Galut (Exile), from the inner bond, from what the writer Ahad Ha'am called "servitude within freedom".
You too have to be emancipated from Galut and alienation; and for all its achievements and promise, America, it now evidently appears may not be your Promised Land.
Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a former director general of the Foreign Ministry.