Jeff Rubin
A writer in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Farewell, Sheikh Daud

David Pollock, a 'kid from the Flatbush Yeshiva' who spoke fluent Arabic, informed and molded US views on the Middle East
David Pollock in Saudi Arabia, 2018
David Pollock in Saudi Arabia, 2018

A priest, an imam, and a former yeshiva bocher (student) walk into an interfaith dialogue.

The imam offers his thoughts on a delicate point of Mideast policy.

Taking issue, his Jewish interlocutor, steeped in the Hebrew canon, responds as only he can: by reciting passages from the Koran and the Muslim oral tradition. From memory. In perfect classical Arabic.

Stunned, the imam turns and asks, “If you are going to do that, what am I doing here? And why aren’t you called ‘Sheikh Daud?’”

Sheikh Daud,” aka Dr. David Pollock — the brilliant yeshiva graduate turned multilingual Mideast expert — always stunned his audiences at conferences, in the classrooms of Harvard and George Washington University, the halls of the State Department, and the offices of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy where he was the Bernstein Fellow.

David, my colleague and friend, left us last week after a long illness at age 73.

As a State Department official, he earned a commendation for alerting the U.S. government to the danger of al-Qaeda five months before the terrorist group perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, but he is remembered by friends and colleagues as a tireless advocate for justice and democracy, an intellectual giant, and a jovial mensch. David took his work seriously, but not himself.

David was the quintessential absent-minded professor. He mastered Hebrew, French, and several dialects of Arabic – not to mention the myriad details of Mideast history – but would forget where he left his overcoat. His office was a rabbit’s warren of memorabilia and documents. His two Harvard diplomas – bachelor’s and doctorate – were stashed in a corner.

As word of his passing spread, tributes poured in from around the globe and, particularly, from his vast network across the Middle East. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan wrote, “David’s enduring friendship with the people of Kurdistan leaves a lasting legacy.”

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani with Bernard-Henri Levy in 2017. David Pollock is on the right.

A standout student at the prestigious Flatbush Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY, David went on to Harvard where he earned his two degrees. He moved to Washington, DC, in 1978 to teach at George Washington University. In 1986, he left academia to begin his two-decade government career at the U.S. Information Agency and State Department. He traveled frequently to the Mideast and used his exquisite language skills to truly understand people at all levels of society.

At USIA, he supervised the first scientific attitudinal surveys in ten Arab countries. In May 2001, while a member of the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff, he wrote that the United States could no longer live with Taliban support for al-Qaeda and recommended specific steps to preempt that danger. History would be very different had anyone listened.

David brought his many talents and contacts to The Washington Institute in 2007 where he established the organization’s highly respected polling initiative. He remained deeply engaged in the work even as his health took a turn for the worse. In December 2023, a Pollock survey found that 96% of Saudis polled agreed that Arab countries should immediately break all contacts with Israel to protest the Gaza war. Countless media outlets reported these findings, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and even Iran’s PressTV. It would be David’s last poll.

The polls enabled him to hear the opinions of Arabs across the region. His expansion of the Institute’s Arabic-language program allowed him to give Arab dissidents a voice through Fikra Forum, a bilingual blog. In one remarkable case, he published anonymous columns from a Syrian official serving inside the Washington embassy, the most prestigious diplomatic post in the world, who dissented from his government’s repressive policies. David then helped the official obtain asylum in the United States. That diplomat, Bassam Barabandi, joined David on a public panel in October 2015 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to raise awareness about the brutal crackdown in Syria.

David took great pride in his frequent appearances on Arabic-language broadcasts where he went toe-to-toe, point-by-point, Koranic verse for Koranic verse, with critics of the United States and its allies. Not bad for a kid from the Flatbush Yeshiva.

From his days at the US Information Agency (USIA) to his work at The Washington Institute, David championed the rights of women and the oppressed. Today, his daughter carries on that work as a women’s empowerment advocate in Mexico City and his son is helping to improve the lives of citizens in inner-city Baltimore. David’s wife, meanwhile, is an award-winning artist. Despite his family’s accomplishments, David was reluctant to brag: I believe he didn’t want us mere mortals to feel inadequate by comparison.

A decade ago, Arabic social media exploded with the ludicrous rumor that American advisors were landing in Baghdad to form a “shadow Iraqi government.” David was listed among the would-be officials. When journalist Ali Al Zobaidy asked him about it, he erupted in laughter: “Don’t tell my wife! She might actually believe it!”

Shifting gears, David added, “You know, sometimes, even a fake story can spark a real flicker of hope. If people see me as a symbol of positive change, even in that fictional narrative, maybe it plants a seed of possibility.”

Salam, shalom, farewell, Sheikh Daud. You will be missed.

About the Author
Jeff Rubin is a writer in the Baltimore-Washington area.