Most of the big stories that grab that the daily news headlines are unexpected events; and unfortunately, many of these are “bad news” instead of “good news”. We are always a little bit shocked, but never completely surprised, to learn about new disasters, displays of violence, or political and corporate malfeasance — such is the regular content of the news cycle in today’s world.
Of course, there are also the “expected big events”: elections, sports competitions, and large-scale planned festivals, rallies, demonstrations, and the like. What makes the news coverage of these anticipated events different from those “surprise headlines” is the level of analysis. Whether the topic is the viability of different presidential candidates, or the prospects of a team to win its championship tournament, you can be assured that a broad range of pundits, analysts, experts, and assorted other “talking heads” will appear to express their opinion on the topic at hand.
What’s true for the world as a whole certainly holds true for the Jewish world as well. Before and after an election, a major communal gathering, a political or diplomatic summit, or any other anticipated event of significance, you can be sure that the opinion sections and blogs of every Jewish periodical and website (including this one) will be filled with articles across the imaginable range of opinions, looking at the topic from every plausible angle.
However, we currently stand on the cusp of a truly major Jewish event — an event that is certainly foreseen, but has of late received remarkably little discussion or analysis. I am referring to the planned release, this month, of Jonathan Pollard after he has completed 30 years in US prison for providing Israel with classified intelligence information.
Of course, Jonathan Pollard’s case — and the campaign for his release — were certainly not “forgotten news stories” during the past several years. Indeed, when we all learned on July 28 that Pollard would be paroled this November 20, it was the major story of the day across the world. However, since the story broke there has been little follow-up coverage or commentary in either the Jewish or the mainstream press — and this personally baffles me.
Some personal background: I lived in Israel in 1985-86, both when the Pollard scandal initially broke as well as when Natan Sharansky was released after nine years of imprisonment in the Soviet Union on false espionage charges. I remember the headline on the television news when Pollard’s arrest was announced: “esek bish” (a shameful affair). Likewise, I stood in the crowd with hundreds, if not thousands, of other supporters who arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport to see Natan Sharansky take his first steps in the Jewish homeland. I remember him describing to the crowd how his Psalm book helped him overcome the ordeals of the gulag, and then joined him as he spontaneously led us all to sing “Heini Mah Tov” — how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.
At this point, I am sure that some readers will jump to protest any comparisons made between Sharansky and Pollard — the former falsely accused of spying, while the latter having confessed to illegally passing documents to his handlers. However, I don’t intend to discuss the merits of Jonathan Pollard’s case in this article. Whether fair and reasonable or not, the linkage in my mind between Sharansky and Pollard has been ingrained for almost 30 years, based on what I saw and felt at Ben Gurion Airport on that evening of February 11, 1986.
Perhaps unlike most members of the community, I never thought that whatever Jonathan Pollard did (or didn’t do) was the “big Pollard story”. Even the extremely long length of his sentence, which many (if not most) members of the Jewish community would now assert was unduly harsh (and disproportionate compared with the sentences that others, convicted of similar crimes, received from American courts) — this too is not the “big Pollard story”. The genuinely truly “big Pollard story” hasn’t occurred yet — but it will begin soon, on November 20, when he is scheduled to walk out of prison for the first time in three decades.
When Sharansky arrived in Israel that night 29 years ago, it brought a successful end to the international campaign for his freedom — yet it most certainly did not end the impact that Natan Sharansky would have on the Jewish world, as well as the world at large. His writings and activism continue, to this day, to provide a guiding force in the Jewish world. Sharansky is a brilliant man, and passionately supports Zionist causes; yet we can all acknowledge that much of his fame and moral stature derived from the harsh fact that he was forced to sacrifice most of a decade of his life in the gulag, on behalf of the beliefs he holds dear.
What then, do we think will happen when someone who sacrificed three decades behind bars, due to services he provided to the Jewish state, finally gets released? Apparently, nobody else is thinking about this at the moment. I therefore wanted to publish just some of the questions rolling around in my mind in these last few days before Pollard’s release:
- Who will be there to greet him when he takes his first steps out of prison? Will this be a strictly low-key affair, or will any leaders of the community (from any denomination or affiliation) be there to escort him to his new life? Will any official representatives of the Israeli government (such as officials from the embassy) be available to meet with him?
- Which American and Israeli news outlets will Jonathan be speaking with upon his release? Will the content of those initial interviews create even more news coverage than the actual release itself?
- Will the controversy regarding his motivations – whether he spied for ideological or financial reasons – die down or re-emerge, now that Jonathan Pollard will soon be in a better position to directly confront his accusers and detractors? Will the terms of his parole prevent him from discussing, in greater detail, whether the information he provided actually could have harmed U.S. security interests?
- Under the terms of his parole, will Jonathan be permitted to publicly speak at communal institutions — ranging from synagogues and JCCs to Hillel Centers and Chabad Houses? As a former Hillel director, I can only imagine the intense impact his presence would have on any large American college campus. When I was a college student, G. Gordon Liddy’s college campus tours were in full swing, and collegiate audiences — filled with both supporters and detractors — would pack any auditorium he came to speak at. Young people gravitate to those who seem “genuine”, who have endured personal sacrifice (including imprisonment) for an issue or cause. I can’t even begin to predict how a lecture from Pollard at a major university would play out, but I imagine that we would all be discussing it the next day…
- Likewise, will mainstream Jewish organizations (Federations, community centers, etc.) embrace Mr. Pollard, or try to disassociate themselves from him? One possibility, in the back of my mind, is that Jonathan Pollard might be embraced by some segments of the community (i.e., traditional/Orthodox congregations, conservative Zionist organizations, etc.) while conspicuously ignored by other groups. If this scenario were to actually play out, Pollard would become a living symbol of the underlying tensions in the community — a “human Rorschach test” who challenges us to define what it means (or should mean) to be Jewish in today’s America.
- If the conditions of Pollard’s parole deny him the opportunity to leave the country, what would happen if he attempted (in spite of these terms) to depart the United States for Israel? Would the American government really attempt to re-arrest him at the risk of making him an even bigger martyr in the eyes of his supporters?
- If Jonathan Pollard does eventually arrive in Israel, who will be there to greet him? Besides Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin, who else would (or wouldn’t) appear? Will Shimon Peres, or Rafi Eitan, decline to meet with Pollard (and would Pollard agree to meet with them)?
- Will Jonathan Pollard start blogging or writing (perhaps here on TOI, or another Jewish website)? What will he want to say to us, and what will he want to say about all of us as a people? Despite the fact that his parole came during the Obama administration, what might he have to say regarding the current administration and its policies toward Israel?
- Jonathan’s release will come during the final weeks of presidential campaigning, prior to the start of the primaries. Will any of the candidates have anything to say about his release, after it occurs? Likewise, will Jonathan have anything to say about the current field of candidates (and will this be picked up by the press)?
- Along those same lines: will Jonathan provide any critiques, or provide a formal endorsement of any Israeli politician or political party, even if he is not allowed to leave US soil?
- Most of all: will Pollard’s impact on Jewish life, both in the US and in Israel, grow or diminish in the many days, months, and years ahead?
I don’t think that any of us can answer these questions yet, but I am almost certain that more of us will be asking these (and many other) questions in the coming days…