“I was involved in the campaign for Jonathan Pollard until I understood that it wasn’t helping him,” says a former Soviet prisoner, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, who for decades was a leading campaigner for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. “Esther [Pollard] would invite me to the events she organized in Israel against the government. I said to her it’s true there were a lot of mistakes made by Israel in Jonathan’s case, but there are limits, and at the end of the day he was incarcerated in the United States, and the Israeli government can’t pressure them.”
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Some campaigners for Pollard’s release called him an asir tzion – a Prisoner of Zion – the title given to Jews imprisoned for activities related to Judaism and Zionism in their home countries. Originally the term was coined for Zionists working underground, teaching Hebrew and promoting emigration to Israel in the former Soviet Union.
In 1992, they were recognized by a law passed in the Knesset and awarded a special pension. Zionist activists in other places including Ethiopia and Arab countries have also been recognized, but needless to say the Israeli government has never described Pollard as an asir tzion, though it won’t be surprising if his supporters at some stage demand that it does.
Rabbi Mendelevitch is a bona fide Prisoner of Zion. In the ‘60s, as a young man in Riga, Latvia, then in the Soviet Union, he was deeply involved in Zionist activism and the teaching of Judaism and Hebrew. In 1970, he was part of a group of Jews who planned to hijack an Aeroflot plane to Sweden to draw international attention to Soviet Jews’ struggle to leave for Israel. The KGB detected the plot and Mendelevitch was sentenced to 15 years in the gulag.
He was released in 1981 and deported to Israel, where he continued lobbying for Soviet Jews until the fall of the Iron Curtain. While no one questions his status, he believes that Pollard should receive the same level of support from Israelis and Jews.
Fear of the Soviets
His views on the subject won’t make easy reading for the Israeli or American-Jewish establishments. He also thinks campaigners for Pollard’s release took the wrong track and may have had a chance to secure his freedom earlier.
“For every cause there’s the possibility of winning over public opinion, and they could have gained much wider Jewish support in the U.S.,” he says. Mendelevitch believes that the strategy of Pollard’s supporters – to pressure the Israeli government to more vigorously petition Washington on Pollard’s behalf – was never going to work.
“How did it help to pressure [Shimon] Peres and [Benjamin] Netanyahu?” he says. “They all said they would try, and I’m sure they did what they could, but they couldn’t do much to begin with. Esther should have been active in the U.S.”
Mendelevitch is of course aware of the difficulty of U.S. Jewish leaders to lobby for an American convicted of spying on his own country. “Naturally this contradicted the Jewish establishment’s interests – it was difficult to explain to the American public Pollard’s disloyalty, but public opinion could have been aroused over the injustice done to Pollard, the only man who served a life sentence for spying for a friendly nation,” Mendelevitch says. “It happened because no one even tried doing that.”
While Mendelevitch and other released Prisoners of Zion received a hero’s welcome in Israel and the United States, meeting President Ronald Reagan and senior senators and members of Congress, Mendelevitch says there was a reluctance, both in Washington and Jerusalem, to act more forcibly and pressure the Soviets diplomatically and financially. The fear was repercussions from the Kremlin.
He says that in the ‘80s Israel even discreetly suggested that the U.S. deport Avital Sharansky, wife of the then-imprisoned human-rights campaigner and current Jewish Agency chairman, Natan Sharansky. Avital was noisily campaigning in the United States for her husband’s release.
Vital strategic intelligence
Mendelevitch recalls that Senator Henry Jackson, cosponsor of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment linking normal trade relations with Washington to countries’ human-rights records, told him the Israeli government had asked him to exempt the Soviet Union in the hope that it would improve Israel’s relations with the Kremlin.
“There’s always the tendency by the establishment to lower their profile,” he says. “That’s why you always also need to create public pressure on governments through nonestablishment means. That was true with Soviet Jewry, who were helped in this way, and it was true with Pollard.”
Contrary to the Israeli consensus today that it was a grave mistake to jeopardize Israel’s relationship with the Americans and the U.S. Jewish community by using an American Jew to spy on the United States, Mendelevitch is far from certain it was the wrong thing to do.
“Israel’s security must be at the top of the priority list for the prime minister. It was crucial to find out whether the administration was hiding strategic intelligence,” he says.
“I don’t think it was an adventurous move, and they weighed up the value of the information Pollard could provide. They didn’t assess the damage that was caused because they expected the Americans to admit their guilt in hiding strategically important issues from Israel.”
Mendelevitch, who already became religious back in the Soviet Union, was a high-profile figure in the ‘80s following his release and enjoyed free access to prime ministers. Today he’s mainly active in the religious-Zionist community and works as a rabbi at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
This weekend he was in Toronto, speaking at a conference of Limmud FSU, an Israel-based organization that facilitates events of Jewish learning and culture for Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world. He’s sorry that in Israel, only yeshivas and religious academies invite him to talk nowadays.
“It’s a big pity that helping Jews in the Diaspora is becoming now the preserve of the right wing,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a political issue, and neither should the campaign for Pollard.”