After years of major efforts by both Israeli leaders and American Jews to make it happen sooner, it was revealed this week that Jonathan Pollard, the American Jewish naval analyst who spied on America for Israel, would be released on November 20, as he completes the full thirty years of his original sentence.
There is, needless to say, much speculation as to whether Pollard’s imminent release is tied in some way to the current rift between Israel and America on Iran. The timing is, to say the least, curious, but I am inclined to take both sides at their words, and believe that it is merely a coincidence. Had Israel and America not been at loggerheads over the proposed nuclear pact, I can’t imagine that America would have declined to release Pollard after he had completed his term, regardless of how much the leadership of the intelligence community had protested. Bottom line? None of us know, and none of us ever will.
But insofar as I am concerned, the timing of Pollard’s release is not the issue right now. I am much more focused on how Pollard is greeted upon his release, both here in the American Jewish community, and also in Israel.
Without a doubt, Caspar Weinberger’s animus towards Israel thirty years ago figured heavily in the harshness of Pollard’s sentence, and the lingering sense of betrayal felt within the leadership cadres of America’s intelligence communities, triggered by Weinberger’s harsh words at the sentencing, contributed to the sense that anti-Semitism played a role in the “Pollard affair.” The sentence that he received seemed then, as it seems now, to have been disproportionate to the crime committed, particularly as regards sharing information with an ally.
That said, in my heart of hearts, I cannot help but believe that Pollard, in a larger sense, got what he deserved. When all is said and done, he was a spy, and he betrayed the trust of his country, the United States, in a criminal and premeditated way. Likewise, the State of Israel shares a full measure of blame for recruiting him, and running such an operation against a crucial ally- arguably, the only reliable ally that Israel has.
Over these past years, as Pollard’s health deteriorated, the understandable and arguably justifiable desire to see him paroled too often morphed into a portrayal of him as some kind of Jewish hero. After all, the thinking went, he was spying for Israel, and we all love Israel, don’t we? America was said to have been withholding information that was vital to Israel’s defense, and the service that he rendered was critical to Israel’s security.
I have no doubt that Israel was more than happy to receive the information that Pollard shared, and maybe even more secure because he shared it. But Pollard was recruited by an Israeli serving in the Washington embassy, he was paid handsomely for the information that he turned over, and he and his wife enjoyed vacations and other benefits well beyond their means because of the “service he was rendering Israel.” This was hardly a case of passionate, genuinely altruistic Zionism. Pollard was well rewarded for what he did. How does one weigh the damage that he did to Israel’s image in this country against the information that he was paid to share? To me, what he did was hardly heroic. It was much more of a chillul hashem than an act of heroism.
As I’ve written about before, my son-in-law, Lt. Yonatan Warren, is currently serving active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy, at the Naval Academy in Annapolis after three years in Okinawa. If you have any doubts about the damage that Pollard did to Jews serving in the American military, ask him about the layers of distrust that he, as a Jew, has had to navigate because of what was done by Pollard, with Israel’s active encouragement. Ask him what it’s like to see an iPad (not his) literally nailed to a bulletin board because it had been innocently plugged into a Navy computer to transfer some music. Ask any Jew in the military, and there are more than you think, how difficult it is in general to be in that environment, and how much more difficult Pollard made it. Yes, it may be unfair for one Jew’s crime to taint all Jews in the service. But that’s the reality. And once the fragile structure of trust is abused, it takes years to repair.
Jonathan Pollard served his time, and maybe it was more time than his offense merited. But he was guilty of spying against his country, and both he and Israel have paid a heavy price. I’m grateful for the fact that he is being released, but he should not be greeted as a Scharansky-like hero, because he isn’t. He knew that what he was doing ran this risk, and he was paid to take that risk. I’m glad he lived to see his release, and be re-united with his wife. But both he, and the Jewish community here and in Israel, should move on.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.