A Spy Left Out in the Cold

June 16, 1997 - Jerold S. Auerbach - The Boston Globe

The phone rings. My ten-year-old daughter, usually the first to answer, hands it to me and says with a knowing smile, "It's Jonathan." His voice, by now familiar, is always strong. His speech is articulate, his range of knowledge impressive, his humor sharp, and his preoccupation with his plight understandably all-encompassing.

Our conversations, which he must initiate, rarely last longer than a few minutes. Mostly I listen, sometimes without fully comprehending the intricacies of his story. He spins an elaborate web of expectations and frustrations, entwined around his unfailing hope that some new tactic, meeting, petition, or, perhaps, miracle will finally end his nightmare.

At first, my daughter was mystified by this unfamiliar "Jonathan" who, for no apparent reason, became a regular caller. I tried to explain. He is Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew who spied for Israel. He was caught, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Where is he now, she wanted to know. How big is his cell? Is he all alone? Can he watch TV? What does he eat? When will he leave prison? Why does he call? North Carolina, I respond. Otherwise, I have no answers to her questions, or to mine.

Jonathan Pollard ranks high among the most notorious spies in American history. A naval intelligence analyst, he realized during the early Eighties that the American government was intentionally withholding essential military intelligence information from Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East. He betrayed his own country for the Jewish state he loved, whose national security he feared was in serious jeopardy.

For his betrayal, Pollard is now a man without two countries, betrayed in turn both by Israel and the United States. Not only did Israel recklessly run an American Jew as a spy, but it callously ignored his desperate pleas and closed its embassy gates in Washington when Pollard sought asylum. Indeed, it has yet to admit that Pollard was its own paid agent although Pollard's recently filed legal petition may force it to do exacly that.

Israeli indifference was matched by American mendacity. In a plea-bargain, Pollard agreed to forego a jury trial, which the United States government desperately wished to avoid. In return for relinquishing his Constitutional right, Pollard was promised sentencing leniency.

But the government broke its pledge. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger (whose father was born a Jew) sent a secret letter to the presiding judge, its exact contents still undisclosed. Weinberger evidently argued that Pollard's perfidy was so heinous, and his knowledge of classified information so vast, that only imprisonment for life would adequately protect American security interests.

On appeal, a federal judge condemned the government's breach of its plea agreement as "a fundamental miscarriage of justice." But his two Jewish colleagues (including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court), wrapping themselves in the American flag, voted to deny Pollard's petition. Yet another betrayal of Pollard followed. The American Jewish community, so self-righteously proud of its own sensitivity to injustice, pointedly ignored him. The leaders of Jewish defense organizations rushed to distance themselves from Pollard, lest they become even more vulnerable than they already felt to allegations of dual loyalty. Not for the first time in modern history, American Jews demonstrated their aversion to criticizing the American government on a Jewish issue.

The Pollard case is a gross miscarriage of justice because it demonstrates that a Jew who spies for Israel is subjected to a double-standard of judgment. Just a few years ago, by contrast, an American naval officer who spied for Saudi Arabia was permitted to resign his commission without spending a day in prison. Meanwhile Pollard, incarcerated for twelve years, has already served a longer sentence than spies for America's most hostile enemies.

When Israel recently granted Pollard citizenship, in a belated gesture of responsibility and contrition, it seemed possible to imagine that he might finally be released to the Jewish state, where he intends to live. But Prime Minister Netanyahu, after claiming that Pollard's release was "long overdue," has displayed little eagerness to press the issue with President Clinton, who has adamantly refused to grant clemency.

By now, Pollard's espionage has tarnished the governments of Israel and the United States, the American justice system, and the American Jewish community. Urgent, but still unanswered, questions linger. Why did the American government withhold vital intelligence data from Israel about the chemical-weapons facilities of Iraq and Syria? Why was Defense Secretary Weinberger permitted to corrupt the legal process? Why do President Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu dance so delicately around the Pollard case? When will Israel finally take responsibility for one of its own citizens? Why do American Jews, so comfortably at home in America, still tremble with fear over disloyalty? How much longer will Jonathan Pollard be victimized by unequal justice?

Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Jacob's Voices, is professor of history at Wellesley College.