The Case of Jonathan Pollard: Ten Years Later

David Biale - Tikkun Magazine - May 3, 1997

Jonathan Pollard, sentenced ten years ago to life in prison for spying for Israel, continues to nag at the American Jewish conscience. For right-wing Jewish nationalists, Pollard presents no ambiguities. Having discovered that the United States was withholding information vital to Israel's security, Pollard sacrificed himself to save Jewish lives. Pollard is a true Jewish hero and one of the most important spies in Israel's history. It is no surprise that most of Pollard's vocal support has come from the right, both in the United States and Israel.

What should the rest of us, especially progressive Jews, think about this case? Ten years ago when Pollard was sentenced, I wrote an editorial in these pages implicitly comparing Pollard to the Dreyfus case. I now believe that any such comparisons are misleading. Pollard is rather more like Julius Rosenberg (his wife Ethel seems to have been framed), who evidently also spied for an ally (the soviet Union during World War II) but whose crimes were undoubtedly exaggerated by the government and whose sentence was likewise excessive.

Instead of black-and-white certainly, the case of Jonathan Pollard evokes the kind of moral ambiguity that makes us much more uneasy than confident. The ambiguity of the Pollard case lies in its messy details. On the one hand, Pollard claimed that he revealed material vital to Israel's security which the Americans had withheld. Anyone who cares about Israel must respond with some sympathy to this motive. On the other hand, Pollard himself also claims that he could not have known the kind of secrets which would have damaged U.S. security, and that the government has inflated its case in order to keep him in prison. Since the United States gave Israel enormous amounts of intelligence information in the 1980s, it is hard to reconcile these two claims. Either Pollard passed the kind of information which revealed U.S. "sources and methods" of espionage, and therefore caused real damage to U.S. intelligence or, conversely, the information he gave to Israel wasn't very important in terms of U.S. security, even if it did help Israel.

Interviews that I have conducted with a number of former intelligence officials tend to support the second hypotheses. These sources find it virtually incredible that Pollard, who held a relatively low level job, could have had access to the kind of information that would have either severely damaged U.S. security or that would still constitute a risk if he were released. Even if Pollard had passed potentially damaging material to the Israelis it is still unclear if any actual damage resulted from it.

Since Pollard was never formally tried, (he pled guilty and was sentenced without a trial), the facts of the case may never be fully known. But Pollard's treatment has been so anomalous that it seems only right to demand some kind of public accounting from the government. No one else who has spied for an ally, ever received such a long sentence and a number of recent cases were not even indicted - even some Soviet spies got off more lightly. Aldrich Ames, whose espionage led to the deaths of perhaps twenty American agents, is serving his life sentence in a minimum-security prison, while Pollard has spent many years in maximum security and is now in medium security.

There is, then, something very puzzling about this case. Even if one believes, as I do, that Pollard committed a grave offense and deserved a significant sentence, ten years of very hard time seems excessive. What reason could there be for keeping him imprisoned? In the absence of any credible government justification, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Pollard has become a pawn serving someone else's political game.

Last October, Steve Rodan reported in the Jerusalem Post that an informal group of officials, both active and retired from the Pentagon and the intelligence community, lobbied strenuously to keep Pollard in prison. Contrary to the belief of some, including Pollard himself, these people are not primarily hostile to Israel. Instead, many of them, such as Summer Shapiro, the former head of Naval Intelligence, are Jews who appear to be outraged by the shadow that Pollard cast over their own positions in intelligence agencies. Pollard was their worst paranoid nightmare, come true, something that only an anti-Semite could invent: an American Jew in the defense establishment more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

Given the large number of identifying and non-identifying Jews in high positions in the Pentagon and the intelligence community (John Deutsch, the last director of the C.I.A., is just one example), it is not surprising that Pollard is still a red flag. Pollard seems particularly dangerous to them because he was an ideological spy. Although he did accept some money from the Israelis, it seems to me less likely that he would have aroused such anger if his main motivation was greed. Indeed, Pollard stands out among the sorry crowd of spies of the last decade precisely because he is one of the few who truly had dual loyalties. But, is it just to keep him locked up for life because of this pervasive Jewish anxiety, however correct it may have been in his case?

Moreover, Israel - which so recklessly recruited Pollard - has evidently decided not to expend political capital on his behalf. Although the Israeli right has championed Pollard now that it is in power, it has bigger fish to fry. The feckless Netanyahu government might have used its concessions over Hebron or over the release o Palestinian security prisoners to ask for Pollard's release, but they appear more concerned with holding Israeli settlements in the territories than with freeing its own agent. Whatever one might think of Pollard, Israel's behavior toward him since his arrest has been nothing short of shameful.

Unfortunately Pollard has become a poster boy for the right-wing settler movement and their U.S. supporters. It was exactly this brew of ideological hubris that got Pollard in trouble to begin with. The ambivalence that the American Jewish establishment feels about Pollard owes much to the fact that he was motivated by an ideology which is quite remote from their own pragmatic, but essentially non-ideological, support for Israel. Yet, it is essential to distinguish between Pollard (and his most ardent supporters) and the case itself. One need not feel great sympathy for his ideology or his actions it sense that, on the human level, he has paid his price.

And, most importantly for American Jews, resolution of the Pollard case should be seen as part of a much needed re-evaluation of our relationship with Israel. Pollard was driven by unthinking hero worship of Israel, a Massada on the verge of another Holocaust. With the peace process and the profound changes in Israel itself, this ideology seems increasingly out of date. The peace process - as tenuous as it may seem today - means, above all, putting the past to rest. Even if Pollard and his supporters remain captives of the old ideology, progressive Jews ought to call for his release as one more way of contributing to fulfilling the progressive Zionist vision of a normal country at peace with its neighbors.