It never fails. Almost every Shabbat, I get riled up when it is time to pray for various people in need. It is then not uncommon to hear the name, Yonatan ben Malka (Jonathan J. Pollard), mentioned as the one and only prisoner of Zion and it is more than I can handle. Remembering the days when we only prayed for Russian or Syrian Jews at that spot, it is hard not to catch the irony that the singular object of our prayers is being held by the United States of America. That same United States which has admittedly gone above and beyond national interest in support of Israel, and that has been an unusually tolerant home for so many Jews since its founding.
I will avoid talking about the facts of the actual case. Many have already done so and, for our purposes, let us even assume that the sentence was fair. What requires analysis is the almost inexplicable disregard for the feelings of a supposedly close ally, in refusing one plea after another from what the New York Times recently referred to as an Israeli “coalition of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, retired generals, celebrated authors and dovish politicians” among others, all requesting Pollard’s release. But even more troubling is the lack of sensitivity to the unique predicament that loyal American Jews find themselves, when seeing Pollard’s treatment. While many gentile Americans have shown more sympathy — and some have even strongly argued for Pollard’s release — there are enough Americans (and tragically many Jewish Americans among them) who feel that Pollard must be treated as an example — an example to show that Jews may not even entertain the least thought of dual loyalty.
But what does this supposed double loyalty actually mean? When an American Jew breaks American law in order to save the state of Israel, he is following the dictates of his conscience (Pollard felt he was doing just that and that no commensurate damage would have been caused to the United States). In such a case, he is not doing so to act against the Unites States or any other country, but rather following what he feels to be a first order imperative. His motivation is not disregard for his country of citizenship but to prevent the destruction of his people. Like anyone else who chooses such a path, he understands that he may incur the penalties imposed by law. He does so, nonetheless, because he cannot, in good conscience, do otherwise.
Not having extraterritorial loyalties connected with following his conscience, a Christian American is automatically privileged. (Nor does it hurt to be from the founding majority.) Hence, a Christian is more easily able to declare that his religion is, in fact, more important than the demands of the state. As only one example, as prominent and respected a scholar as Robert Bellah wrote about finally coming to the realization that the demands of the Church come before the dictates of the state, giving in on this point to his equally prominent colleague and renowned Christian pacifist, Stanley Hauerwas (A Robert Bellah Reader, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 357). As far as I am concerned, they are both correct. For someone who takes religion seriously, there can be no other way.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect the Unites States to simply look away at Pollard’s crime. Make no mistake about it, a liberal nation demands adherence to its norms no less than any medieval Christian state. The norms are generally much more palatable and their enforcement usually more gentle. But any political system expects its own ideological understandings to be the final determinant of policy and law. So no one ever expected Pollard to simply go free. But I do expect the same understanding shown to other Americans who evade the draft or pose any other risk to the nation for reasons of conscience.(And, to anticipate the inevitable challenges on that score: if successful, promotion of Christian pacifism can be much more dangerous to the United States than the secrets that Pollard leaked.)
Yet somehow, the Jew seems to continue to be more suspect. And the harsh treatment shown Pollard reveals that — even in the Unites States — we have not gotten much further than Napoleon’s formal demand that French Jewry must first be citizens of the state, and only then Jews. Moreover, the way Pollard has been handled is not so different than what brought Theodore Herzl to question the place of the Jew in the most liberal of states in the first place. When he saw the mob’s angry reaction against French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus as he was convicted for treason, it was not the verdict that upset him — for at the time, it was not yet known that he had been framed. Rather, it was that Jews continued to be treated as somehow more suspect and disloyal.
It is true that one generally has to go to the internet to find today’s anti-Pollard mob. Still, when the Vice President can express the wish that Pollard “rot in jail,” we get a vivid and very painful display that there is something else rotten besides Pollard. And if my claims seem overblown, look at the proceedings of Jewish students running for student body offices, who have most recently been questioned along these very lines at top universities like Stanford and UCLA. When was the last time a pacifist Quaker was so questioned?
So what is a Jew to do? Now that there is a Jewish state, it could be that one who wants to live unabashedly as a Jew has no choice but to live there. Sure, one can demand the rights of Bellah and Hauerwas for Jews as well. But that is the longer, harder road. A longer, harder road with no end in sight. For it is has become eminently clear that the United States still has a long way to go with its race problem. Though Jews are in a much better place than Blacks, Pollard has shown that American society has not worked out its Jewish problem either.