Jonathan Pollard: A Jewish and American Perspective

We work so hard to establish ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up . . . and then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me…”

– Adm. Sumner Shapiro, U.S. Office of Navy Intelligence (1926-2006)

So I was flipping through the channels the other day, when I came across a local public access station, something called Brooklyn Free Speech TV. On it, a man with a black hat and a beard was telling (not asking, but telling) his viewers, in very specific terms, to call the White House and demand the release of “Jewish-American hero Jonathan Pollard.” He said to repeat the phrase three times, in case the operator didn’t catch the name the first two times, or in case they thought you were referring to a Jonathan Pollard other than the Jewish hero, having been caught committing heroic acts of espionage, and presently serving a life sentence in federal prison…heroically. And I am telling you, for the 30 seconds that I could stand to watch this guy on the TV before changing channels again, my blood was boiling.

Allow me to make something abundantly clear: From an American perspective, Jonathan Pollard is a criminal. He committed a crime. He betrayed his country by giving its secrets to another nation, albeit a friendly one. The fact that the punishment was ridiculously disproportionate to the offense (the average sentence for passing classified information to a U.S. ally is seven years) doesn’t make him a hero. A victim, perhaps, but no hero.

The last thing we need is American Jewish leaders (self-styled or publicly recognized) shouting from the rooftops that this guy is a hero. He’s not! Not to us! Perhaps there are folks in Israel who think so, and that’s their right. Let’s not kid ourselves, our two great nations are allies, but I have no doubt that, as I write this, there are Mossad intelligence officers conducting operations on U.S. soil. I also have no doubt that the CIA maintains some kind of intelligence network in Israel. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t friends – that’s just how the game is played. Everybody keeps tabs on everybody else. But that doesn’t negate the seriousness of what Pollard did. Perhaps he felt that disclosing the information that he had was morally justified. Perhaps he felt that his superiors had an obligation to share this information with Israel based on a memorandum of understanding the U.S. and Israel had signed jointly. But it was not his call to make!

Having established how not to make a case for Jonathan Pollard’s release, let’s look at some of the legitimate reasons:

  • Pollard was not convicted of treason (a capital offense, where one provides some form of assistance to an enemy of his country), but of one count of passing classified information to an ally, without intent to harm the United States.
  • What Pollard did, though unlawful, did not betray any of the CIA’s sources or methods. Nor were any human assets compromised as a result of his actions.
  • Although he cooperated fully with the authorities as part of a plea bargain, the judge later chose to disregard the terms of the agreement. Although the plea bargain involves a recommendation by the prosecutors which is not binding upon the judge, it is extremely rare for a judge to deviate so drastically from such an agreement, and doing so rather defeats the purpose of having them at all.
  • Pollard has repeatedly expressed remorse for his deeds. If one of the purposes of incarceration is to rehabilitate the offender, Pollard is as rehabilitated as he will ever be. If another purpose is to neutralize the threat the offender poses to society, Pollard can no longer be considered a threat, due to both the obsolescence of whatever information he may have retained, and his frail health.

The above are legitimate reasons to lobby in support of clemency for Jonathan Pollard. These reasons do not make American Jewry into the fifth column that those who support his continued imprisonment think we are. Lionizing Pollard ultimately harms him and us.

Pollard’s supporters portray him as an altruistically-driven hero of the Jewish people, whose sole intent with his actions was to save lives. His detractors paint him as a greedy turncoat, motivated by profit. Human nature being what it is, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Bottom line: a Jew should not become a hero to his people by disregarding the Talmudic injunction that dina d’malchusa dina (“the law of the land is the law”). An affinity among Diaspora Jews for Israel is perfectly understandable. For many of us, the people of Israel are family (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally). But the Torah commands us to be loyal citizens to the lands in which we find ourselves. This dictum may not apply to the totalitarian regimes of old, places that made it a crime to practice Judaism, or where simply being a Jew is punishable by death–the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany are the most obvious recent historical examples, but far from the only ones. But in a benevolent nation like the United States, this concept is legally and ethically binding. America gives us the freedom to live as Jews. We, in turn, are obligated by the Torah itself to live as loyal Americans. To do otherwise constitutes a grave chillul Hashem, a public desecration of G-d’s name.

I pray for Jonathan Pollard’s speedy recovery and release, just as I do for all of my Jewish brothers and sisters being unjustly incarcerated. No, Pollard’s not a hero. But he has done his time, and then some. His continued captivity does nothing to protect the American people, and nothing to advance the cause of justice.

May our President have the wisdom to heed the recommendations of former CIA Director James Woolsey, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dennis DeConcini (who was on the committee at the time of Pollard’s arrest), and more members of Congress than I can count, and finally show mercy to Jonathan Pollard.

About the Author
Daniel Perez is a freelance writer and media consultant based in New York City. He can be reached at, and you can follow him on Twitter: @PerezFreelance.