“Not with a bang but a whimper”: A final look at the Pollard affair

“Not with a bang but a whimper.”

T.S. Elliot’s famous phrase, in its original context, describes the end of the world. I’m not particularly apocalypse-oriented, so I won’t venture an opinion on that prediction. It’s an accurate description, however, of many events or circumstances that capture public attention for some period time and then gradually fade from public view.

The long overdue end to the incarceration of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy analyst who spent thirty years in federal prison for giving highly classified documents to Israeli operatives, seems to be following that pattern. Over the three decades since Pollard’s arrest, a growing cadre of supporters sought to use all available means — political, legal and diplomatic — to obtain his freedom, but all of these attempts failed. Pollard’s recent release from prison on parole did not result from any of the efforts on his behalf but rather from the mere passage of time and standard federal parole practice. Apparently, those who had insisted on denying him freedom for three decades ran out of excuses.

Pollard hopes to move to Israel, where he would probably be warmly received. Federal authorities, however, have so far refused to waive the prohibition against his leaving the country for the first five years after his release. His lawyers will ask the court to permit the move, but that’s a long shot, at best.

In the meantime, Pollard seems eager to avoid inflaming the situation any further, so his exit from prison was a low-key affair. It was duly noted in the general media, and received somewhat more substantial coverage in the Jewish press, but considering the strong emotions the case raised up in earlier years, the news accounts of Pollard’s release seemed anticlimactic. The timing of the release, moreover, made Pollard ‘s fate seem even less consequential, as it was overshadowed by the continued escalation of the violence in Israel, the aftermath of the horrendous terrorist attack in Paris, the increasingly unpredictable ripple effects of the civil war in and around Syria and the terrorist slaughter in San Bernardino, California.

Before we allow the Pollard affair to fade completely from memory, it’s worth pondering whether there is anything of value to be learned from this sorry spectacle. For the benefit of those who do not remember — or were not yet born — when the Pollard affair began, Pollard was a Navy analyst who spied for Israel, turning over large quantities of classified documents to Israeli intelligence operatives. He was caught in 1985, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit espionage and cooperated with the government’s efforts to assess the extent of the compromised documents.
Despite his plea and cooperation, Pollard received the maximum sentence of life in prison (which made him eligible for parole in thirty years). The prosecution submitted to the sentencing judge ex parte a sworn statement of Caspar Weinberger, then the Secretary of Defense, who claimed that ” [i]t is difficult … to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel.” That Israel is an ally, not an enemy, of the United States, apparently did not enter into the calculations of either Secretary Weinberger or the sentencing court.

Pollard has consistently asserted that the documents he gave to Israel were those that Israel was supposed to receive under prior intelligence-sharing agreements. He has acknowledged, however, that he had no right to make that decision and that he was wrong to disclose classified information to a foreign government, regardless of the circumstances. He received some money from the Israelis for his services, although, contrary to the claims of some critics, it does not appear that money was his primary motivation.

There are no heroes in this story. The Israeli government acted recklessly in recruiting a Diaspora Jew to commit espionage against his own country and then acted dishonorably in repudiating him when he was caught. It took years before the Israelis made even a half-hearted attempt to obtain his release through diplomatic channels, and he was never high enough on their priority list for his early release to become a serious possibility.

The American government’s unbending insistence on keeping Pollard in prison at all costs has bordered on the pathological. The New York Times article reporting on Pollard’s release quoted Joseph E. diGenova, the US attorney who prosecuted him: “I’m delighted he served 30 years. I wish he would have served more.” The prosecution gained the benefit of Pollard’s guilty plea while violating its agreement not to seek the maximum penalty. That the courts allowed the government to get away with this duplicitous behavior does not speak well of our legal system.

The American Jewish establishment was mostly AWOL in Pollard’s case. Over the years, lone voices of prominent American Jews have sometimes been raised in protest against the harshness of Pollard’s sentence, considering the indisputable fact that he spied on behalf of an ally of the United States, not an enemy. No one has denied that his actions were criminal or that he deserved punishment. The length of his sentence, however, unprecedented for spying on an ally, should have provoked more concern among American Jewish leaders than it did. As years passed and the length of his incarceration grew accordingly, the number of prominent American Jews — and eventually even some Jewish organizations — willing to speak out against the obvious injustice of his sentence also continued to grow. But their best efforts to free him never made any headway.

Reasonable people may differ as to precisely when the harshness of Pollard’s sentence exceeded any conceivable justification, but that Pollard’s sentence passed that point years ago is hard to deny. For the most part, however, the leadership of American Jewry allowed its fears of dual loyalty accusations to overcome its sense of justice.
Over the years, whenever the possibility of releasing Pollard seemed real, the American intelligence services would voice their fierce opposition. The closest that Pollard’s supporters ever came to obtaining his early release came in1998 when Israel almost persuaded President Bill Clinton to release him as a sweetener for his Mideast diplomacy. That possibility ended when CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign, and Clinton backed down.
Since Pollard’s release on parole happens to coincide with the early stages of a Presidential election campaign, it is all but inevitable that someone will try to turn the Pollard case into a partisan issue. In fact, however, it is a bipartisan disgrace. Five Presidents, of both parties, refused to intervene, mostly, it appears, because they were afraid to stand up to the intelligence services — so much for high-minded notions of civilian control.

Some will continue to defend the government’s actions by arguing that the general public still does not know all the facts. That’s no doubt true, because most of the relevant documents have not yet been declassified and some will probably remain secret for many years to come. The text of the Weinberger letter, in particular, which is still classified, may hold the key to understanding the government’s irrational persistence.

Five years down the road, assuming he remains healthy, Jonathan Pollard will presumably move to Israel. The news media will no doubt cover that homecoming, mostly as a human interest story. Unless it occurs during an exceptionally slow news period, however, it is unlikely to hold anyone’s interest for very long. Eventually, at some unknown point in the future, the remaining documents will be declassified, making it possible for future historians to gain some insight as to what happened and why. By then, hardly anybody will remember who Pollard was.

There will probably never be a consensus as to why Pollard was treated so harshly. Some suspect that anti-Semitism played a role, though there is no evidence that it did. Some attribute it in part to Pollard’s personality, which enabled him to turn allies into adversaries with impressive rapidity. Some blame his original lawyers, who failed to take the steps necessary to protect their client. All these may have played a role, along with other factors too numerous to mention.

Whatever the factors that led the American government to treat Pollard with unprecedented harshness, there is little room for doubt as to why the American Jewish establishment was so reluctant to intervene on his behalf. Throughout the centuries of our exile, in every corner of the globe, Jews have been accused — almost always falsely — of disloyalty to the countries in which we live. The Zionist movement from its inception and the State of Israel from its establishment have inadvertently given a superficial plausibility to that canard, and Israel’s readiness to utilize an American Jew with a high-level security clearance for espionage further enhanced the credibility of dual loyalty suspicions.

Pollard’s criminal conduct should not serve as a pretext to impugn the loyalty of the thousands of American Jews who have served or continue to serve their country in public office, in the armed forces, in the diplomatic and consular services and in many other public roles. That surely would have been the reaction of the rulers of most countries in which Jews have lived throughout the centuries of their exile — but the United States, we have loudly proclaimed, is different.

But do we believe it? American Jewry’s reaction to .the Pollard affair suggest that we are not as confident of that difference as we like to think. At the inception of the case, the Jewish community’s non-reaction was understandable. He had, after all, broken the law and was deserving of punishment. But at some point in the thirty years that followed, the severity of that punishment exceeded any rational notion of justice. As the years passed, some American Jews recognized the excessiveness of Pollard’s punishment and began to advocate for clemency. But far too many, even after decades, refused.

It’s all moot now. Pollard’s parole ends his incarceration with a whimper, not a bang. But even as the Pollard affair slips into history, its anticlimactic finale provides us with an opportunity to ponder what our actions — or lack of action — tell us about ourselves and our confidence in the democratic promise of America.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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