ONE CAN FEEL SORRY for someone who served a very long prison sentence—some say a disproportionately long sentence—and additional years of restricted movement after parole. It is more difficult to work up empathy for the released convict when his crime, for which the defendant entered a guilty plea in court, was the despicable offense of espionage against the elected government of his own country—a robust democracy, not a repressive totalitarian regime.
When that crime seems to have been motivated at least in part by a desire for personal profit, the criminal’s actions reach the level of heinous.
What is there to celebrate, then, about Jonathan Pollard’s intent to move to Israel now that he has been released from his parole restrictions 35 years after he was caught selling top secret documents? He apparently spied at least as much for the money as for Israel. Multiple reports based on the statements of US government investigators said that Israeli intelligence operatives paid Pollard $50,000 for his work at the time. Even discounting the unconfirmed reports of additional large sums put aside for Pollard in a Swiss bank account, which are denied by Pollard’s lawyers, it is difficult to claim that his motive was solely to help an American ally, Israel, that was being deprived of important information.
The American television network NBC reported in 2014 that the Pentagon official tasked with investigating Pollard’s actions claimed that Pollard “offered highly classified materials to at least three other countries and provided such material to two of them.” Press reports cite US intelligence officials as saying that Pollard also sold documents to Pakistan, South Africa, and two other countries they declined to identify. As one former Israeli prime minister said this week, “He was an American spy who worked for a lot of money. This was not some Zionist volunteer who sacrificed his life.”
Pollard modeled treasonous behavior toward a democratic country, and in doing so he also caused grievous harm to the status of American Jews in the eyes of American public officials and the American public. As someone who lived and worked in the Washington Jewish community at the time, I can tell you of multiple reports that in November 1985 it suddenly became much harder for American Jews with ties to Israel to get jobs that required access to sensitive security information.
The damage caused by Pollard to the relationship between the American Jewish community and the host society was more pervasive and long-lasting than just the security clearances denied and the careers thus sidetracked. America’s Jews had spent centuries trying to put to rest accusation of dual loyalty. After an American Jew admitted to offering to spy for Israel and did what the US Defense Department described as enormous damage to American national security, those who questioned the loyalty of America’s Jews were provided with ample arguments. Donald Trump’s assumption, revealed in various statements during his presidency, that American Jews’ loyalty is first of all to Israel is just one echo of that damage, decades later.
Let Jonathan Pollard arrive quietly in Israel and live out his days here. It is his right. He served his time, and no one should deprive him of further rights. But neither should his arrival become a festival. President Rivlin’s statement of warm anticipation was ill-considered. Pollard is not another Sharansky, not a refusenik whose brave defense of human rights and Zionist commitment led to his persecution by a tyrannical regime. Israel’s attempt to spy on the United States was an embarrassment, and much worse: it meant lasting damage to America, to Israel’s relations with its allies, and to the American Jewish community. What is there to celebrate?