Analysis |

Israel Still Owes American Jews an Apology for the Jonathan Pollard Affair

Israel’s actions forced American Jews to defend themselves against accusations of divided loyalties – and that type of blatant disregard continues to this very day

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Orthodox Jewish man walking past a banner in Jerusalem on March 13, 2013, calling on then-U.S. President Barack Obama to free Jonathan Pollard.
An Orthodox Jewish man walking past a banner in Jerusalem on March 13, 2013, calling on then-U.S. President Barack Obama to free Jonathan Pollard.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

>> UPDATE: Former Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard lands in Israel

Though nearly all the main players in the Israel-U.S. spy scandal of the mid-1980s are dead and the relationship between the two countries has long ago moved on, Jonathan Pollard still dominated headlines over the weekend, with the termination of his parole and removal of all restrictions on his movement.

The former naval spy, today an ill and broken man, will soon immigrate to Israel, where most of the country’s leaders will greet him as a returning son. A hero even. So it’s important to remind everyone that Pollard’s story is one of betrayal.

Not just the betrayal by Pollard of the country of his birth and of the U.S. Navy where he worked as an intelligence analyst. Not just Israel’s betrayal of its American allies and, after Pollard’s arrest, its initial betrayal of him and subsequent transformation by Benjamin Netanyahu into a political pawn, to be raised as a bargaining chip every time an American president tried to pressure him to make concessions to the Palestinians.

All those betrayals are by now history. There is a greater and enduring betrayal of which Pollard is just one example.

It’s naïve to assume that allies do not spy on one another. No matter the closeness and history of a strategic relationship, no two countries share exactly the same interests or are completely transparent in their affairs to each other. Collecting covert intelligence can be a way to keep the alliance stable, prevent undue surprises and confirm that neither country is seeing someone on the side. But it has to be done much more discreetly and with other means than those used to spy on a rival or enemy nation.

Given the particular circumstances of the Israel-U.S. relationship, recruiting an American Jew employed by one his country’s intelligence services (and it doesn’t matter that Pollard was the one who approached his Israeli handlers, not the other way around) constitutes a double betrayal of trust – to the U.S. government and to American Jews.

And while Israel profusely apologized to the Reagan administration and eventually went to extraordinary lengths to expiate that betrayal, it has never apologized to America’s Jews for putting them, as a collective and as individuals, in the invidious position of having to defend themselves from the suspicion of divided loyalties.

That betrayal is ongoing. Not because Israel is still spying on the United States (it claims it isn’t, but the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t believe these claims and is probably right) or because it still uses American Jews as spies (there has been one such allegation since, but it wasn’t substantiated), but because the betrayal goes much deeper than espionage and has been worsening in recent years.

Because of its massive political and diplomatic implications, the Pollard case may have been the most prominent and egregious example of Israel’s instrumental and callous use of Diaspora Jews. Whether or not Israel’s leaders in the 1980s – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres – were aware of how Lakam, Israel’s Bureau of Scientific Liaisons (which was closed after the Pollard scandal), was using an American Jew to spy on his own government, is immaterial. And given Shamir and Peres’ backgrounds in intelligence and military technology, it’s hard to imagine they were unaware.

Jonathan Pollard following a hearing at the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York City, May 17, 2017.Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/ REUTERS

Even if Lakam chief Rafi Eitan and Pollard’s handler, Israel Air Force Col. Aviem Sella, were operating rogue (and they probably were not), they were still operating out of the traditional Israeli mind-set that sees Diaspora Jews as useful only if they’re serving Israel’s purposes.

It is a mind-set that goes back to the 1930s, when the leaders of both the left and right wings of the Zionist movement, David Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky, saw the salvation of European Jews from the rise of Nazi Germany only through their potential as emigrants to the future Jewish state.

And while Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky can at least be partially excused by the fact that there wasn’t any other country willing to accept Jewish refugees in large numbers at that time, it is a mind-set that has persisted to this day when Jews in nearly every country of the world (with the major exception of Iran) live as free and equal citizens.

It continued throughout the ’70s and ’80s when Israel sought to stall Jews leaving the Soviet Union from exercising free choice and emigrating anywhere else, and can be seen most recently in the outlandish predictions made by government ministers of a massive surge of Jews about to come to Israel in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a betrayal inherent to Netanyahu’s foreign policy in recent years – a policy that has totally disregarded the concerns of Jewish communities and embraced and endorsed far-right governments, parties and politicians, ignoring the blatant way they have enabled the cause of antisemitic nationalists and supremacists. A policy whereby an agreement with progressive Jewish movements for use of a tiny, far-flung section of the Western Wall is thrown by the wayside but leaders of ultra-conservative evangelical churches, spouting beliefs that are abhorrent to the overwhelming majority of American Jews, are greeted in Jerusalem as the saviors of Zion.

Israel continues to see the Jews of the world as nothing more than a potential demographic crutch, a target for fundraising and a source of unquestioning support and lobbying – no matter what the costs are for Diaspora Jews or what their views are on Israel’s policies.

Pollard has paid a high price for his deeds, higher than most spies captured by the United States, and he should be allowed to live out his days wherever he chooses. He will receive the hero’s welcome that is not his just due when he arrives in Israel, which will anger many in America. But the main damage of Israel’s use of an American-Jewish spy was done over three decades ago. The ongoing damage of Israel’s self-centered, grasping ungratefulness toward the Diaspora continues – and no one is planning an apology.

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