As I turn 40, I have begun to realize that there are very few ideals that I find worth going to jail for, and the principles that I would willing die for are fewer still. Through a mix of luck, cowardice, and apathy, I’ve managed to avoid situations which challenge me to take a stand in any form more risky that the cost of a few Facebook friends, or a relatively brief internet flame war. And, to my knowledge, none of my friends or acquaintances have faced a dilemma where they needed to choose between their personal ethics and higher level negative consequences.
I am occasionally sent an online request to sign petitions asking for clemency for Jonathan Pollard. Pollard provided Israel (and depending on who you ask, other nations) with classified documents regarding the American intelligence network. He was given a life sentence, which was the most severe punishment ever meted out to an American convicted of spying on behalf of an ally. He will become eligible for parole 30 years after his sentencing, in 2015. However, his supporters urge that he be released now, as he has serious health problems, and might die before this time.
I never sign these petitions, primarily because it reminds me that even spies are undergoing a general deterioration in their levels of commitment. When I was in elementary school, we heard about the trials that America’s founding fathers were willing to undergo. I was inspired by stories like that of Patrick Henry, who gave a speech stating, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
And what American can forget Nathan Hale, who, when caught for espionage by the British, stoically faced the noose, and proclaimed “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” From what I can tell, the man didn’t even get any information. That’s dedication for you. You get disguised, you cross over into enemy territory, you get a beer, and you get hanged, and you wish you could have more chances to do it all over again.
Spies today aren’t like that anymore. Got caught bringing over truckloads of classified documents to another country? Well, I guess it’s time to complain about how unfairly you’re being treated. I doubt that I would ever be willing to sell secrets from either of my countries of citizenship to, say, Canada or the Swiss. Let’s put aside that I am probably far from the typical person who would be recruited, despite my love for Swiss chocolate and poutine (wait, does spying for Quebec count as spying for an ally or not? Oh man, I may have committed treason in my heart). But if I were ever to find myself in that situation, I would hope that I would be doing it to combat some unspeakable evil worth facing some pretty severe consequences, because spying on your own country is a horrible breach of trust.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve also seen huge groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in both Israel and America demonstrating against new legislation that would attach criminal punishments for failure to serve in the Israeli Army if drafted. While I think that putting people in jail for draft dodging might be overkill, it shows that the Haredim are also losing some of their idealism. Where is that zeal that led dozens of Haredi parents from Immanuel to go to jail instead of letting Sephardi girls attend their school? Segregation is worth going to jail for, but not Torah study?
If I were more of a “glass half-full” kind of person, I would be grateful that life for Jews in America and Israel rarely means facing jail or death for your beliefs. On the other hand, if we ever have to face another watershed moment where that might become necessary, I worry that many of us will no longer have the inner drive to follow through on taking a stand. I’m working on drafting some neo-revolutionary slogans to fit with the modern zeitgeist. “Give me liberty or give me probation” is kind of catchy, don’t you think?