J'Accuse: American Jews and L'Affaire Pollard

1987 - David Biale - Tikkun Magazine - Vol. 2, No. 2

The scenario is not new: A Jew in a high place is convicted of espionage for a foreign country and the fact that he is a Jew becomes central to the case. From Dreyfus to the Rosenbergs, the theme of the Jewish spy, more loyal to a foreign power (any foreign power) has been a staple of the anti-Semitic diet.

But now a new wrinkle appears in this hoary paradigm: The allegiance of the Jewish spy is not to any foreign country but to


. What could be more satisfying to the xenophobia of the anti-Semites than to discover that the Jew, whose innate disloyalty was always obvious, had finally revealed his true colors by spying for the Jewish state.

How, then, should an American Jew respond to the affair of Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment? Is the true issue for Jews the old accusation of double loyalty, as anti-Semites might contend? There is no doubt a widespread unease, a fear, that the Pollard case may be turned against American Jews as a collectivity, as a whetting stone for the knives of those who harbor no love for either Israel or the Jewish people.

Perhaps this is the reason that some American Jews who hitherto considered public criticism of Israel to be nothing less than Jewish heresy have suddenly started voicing their critical views in public. It is ironic that they have suddenly discovered that it is appropriate for them to criticize Israel on moral grounds when it comes to their perception of American Jewish interests. Would that they had displayed such moral sensitivity in questioning the invasion of Lebanon or the continuing occupation of the West Bank or Gaza.

Yet, the proper response should not be fear of anti-Semitic aspersions on Jewish loyalties. Jews understand that their enemies do not need a Jonathan Pollard on whom to base their accusations. Neither does the American Jewish response have anything to do with a "galut mentality" as Shlomo Avineri has gratuitously charged. The identities of American Jews and the politics of Jewish self-assertion are too deeply rooted to be torn up by the behaviour of one member of this Jewish community.

No, the proper response should not be fear, but outrage - outrage in full and equal measure

against the government of Israel and the government of the United States

. For it was Israel, or agents of the Israeli government, that exploited Pollard's nave and perhaps boastful Zionism and then

abandoned him to his fate after he was caught


That Pollard would inevitably be caught does not seem surprising from everything known about him. He was exactly the type a good spymaster would know was doomed to give himself away. While Pollard is responsible for his own actions, he could never have committed them without the encouragement, support and, some even say, temptation of his Israeli paymasters. In this sense,

Israel betrayed Jonathan Pollard

, for it never should have exploited his desire to help Israel by asking him to commit a crime.

Throughout Jewish history, the most fundamental crime a Jew could commit was to betray another Jew to the Gentile kingdom. For such betrayal, Jewish communities would not infrequently seek to put the informer to death. What a irony that the first Jewish state in two thousand years should find itself the betrayer of a Jew in the Diaspora. For this betrayal, the State of Israel owes an apology to the Jewish people, not because it has revived the problem of double loyalty, but because the illegitimate exploitation of an individual Jew is an offense against the Jewish polity as a whole.

But Israel owes more than an apology. If those who recruited Pollard were operating on their own (Israeli versions of Oliver North and John Poindexter), then instead of being promoted,

they should stand trial

. On the other hand, as seems much more likely, if their operation was approved by members of the Israeli cabinet, then those politicians should take

the full responsibility

and pay the full political price.

It would, however, be insufficient to level an accusation only at Israel. The behavior of the American government is no less egregious. If, as Pollard insists and as the evidence has yet to contradict, he revealed intelligence only about foreign governments such as Libya and the Soviet Union,

why was the case prosecuted so vigorously? Why such a draconian sentence?

Why did Caspar Weinberger say that Pollard deserved execution (unless the shades of the Rosenbergs still haunt the Pentagon)? Where is the crime for which this is the punishment? Surely spying for the government of a friend and ally, crime that it is,

is not commensurate with spying for an outright enemy


Moreover, if Senator Durenberger, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee, is correct that the United States planted a spy in the Israeli military in the early 1980s, then all the American outrage at Pollard appears hypocritical in the extreme. Allies spy on allies, but they don't typically make a public scandal of it when they catch each other doing it.

Until and unless we are provided with much more persuasive evidence, we can only assume that

another agenda lies behind Pollard's extraordinarily harsh and thoroughly unexpected sentence

. That agenda may well have something to do with the Iranian arms scandal, for it would be no surprise if the likes of Caspar Weinberger and Edwin Meese regard Israel as the main culprit in dragging Ronald Reagan's presidency to the brink of disaster. For the real and imagined crimes of Israel, Jonathan Pollard may well have been seen as a likely sacrificial scapegoat,

a way of sending a message to Israel and perhaps to the American Jews not to step out of place again


If this is the message, then instead of cowering in fear of dual loyalty accusations, Jews need to hurl the accusations back on the doorstep from which they came. As misguided and mistaken as Israel's actions in the Iranian-Contra disaster may have been, the Reagan administration bears the full measure of responsibility for its illegal behavior. And Jews will not be silenced by the Pollard affair in their opposition to this regime, which has sown terror abroad and hunger and homelessness at home.

David Biale is the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.


In the ensuing decade since this article was published, the American Jewish leadership have never made any meaningful effort to resolve a case that has such dire implications not only for the American Jewish community but for the State of Israel as well.