Historian and journalist Gil Troy has some hits and misses in his important Tablet essay on the Jonathan Pollard case and what he believes is a nascent mainstream effort in the Jewish community to win his freedom.
Troy is more on target than most analysts when he writes that “Pollard’s situation rests on a contradiction: He was guilty of a reprehensible crime, and yet he has been treated abominably.” But I disagree with his next statement – that Pollard is “the victim of the worst act of official American anti-Semitism in our lifetimes,” a conclusion I find inconsistent with the rest of the essay.
He’s right when he talks about the American Jewish leadership’s decades-old “allergy to defending Pollard," which he argues “says more about our communal fears and the price we are willing to pay for social and political acceptance than it does about Pollard and his crimes.”
Troy goes on to say something you rarely see in print or on the Web: “While the right’s support has sustained Pollard emotionally, it may have made his get-out-of-jail card even harder to get. The Israeli right is unpopular with both the American Jewish community and the American political establishment, making Pollard even more unappealing.”
At the time of his arrest in 1985, American Jews were “unsettled” by his crime and the possibility of an anti-Semitic backlash; making matters “excruciating” was Pollard’s defense strategy.
“Minimizing the thousands of dollars he earned, the diamond-and-sapphire ring the Israelis gave him, and his efforts to shop American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan, too, Pollard portrayed himself as a Zionist idealist. Anti-Semites bullied him as a child, he recalled. He claimed that the documents he smuggled out, so crucial to Israeli security, should have been shared freely. And, using a most obnoxious and threatening term, he said a ‘racial obligation’ compelled him, as a Jew, to defend the Jewish state.”
And that set the stage for what I believe to be the biggest reason for Pollard’s continued incarceration.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again: as long as Pollard’s so-called friends continue to venerate him as a hero of Zion, and as long as Pollard doesn’t firmly, unequivocally and consistently reject those comments, he is likely to stay in jail.
Regardless of all the other facts in the case and the complex tangle of factors in his continued imprisonment, no president will commute the sentence of a spy who seems to support – directly or by simply not rejecting the accolades of supporters– the idea that spying against your own country is sometimes justified.
I have no idea what’s in Jonathan Pollard’s head and heart; maybe he does genuinely regret what he did back in the 1980s, when he was grievously misused by an out-of-control Israel intelligence establishment. I think I understand the psychology of a man who has spent virtually his entire adult life behind bars for a bad mistake and who rightly feels anger at the people who recruited and then abandoned him and gratitude for those who believe what he did was right.
But I also know that every time a supporter writes about how Pollard saved Israel from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction or provided vital intelligence improperly denied to the Jewish state, it’s another factor keeping Obama – or any other president – from commuting his sentence.
Pollard needs to decide if he wants to be a jailed hero or a free man who tells his supporters they’re not doing him any good, even if their admiration feels good after a wretched 25 years behind bars.
I’m not arguing that Pollard should stay in jail; on the contrary, I believe his continued incarceration serves absolutely no legal or national security purpose.
Yes, there is undoubtedly some anti-Semitism in the fact that he’s still there. Yes, Israel treated him abominably. Yes, he has sometimes been a pawn in Middle East diplomatic games that have nothing to do with the merits of his case. Yes, Pollard’s sentence was harsher than that of many other spies.
None of that changes the reality that the only way out of jail – short of parole, which he refuses to seek – is by disavowing the people who say they are his supporters but often seem like they’re just as happy to see him rot in jail as a suffering symbol of their belief that America is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
Read Troy’s column; it an unusually clearheaded analysis of an issue that is rarely discussed in sober, reasonable terms.