How the Iran Crisis Became a Test of American Jewish 'Loyalty'

What Jonathan Pollard's interminable incarceration and the Iran deal have in common is a warning to American Jews not to voice their support for Israel too loudly.

Amiel Ungar
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Last week Jonathan Pollard began his 29th year of incarceration. This somber anniversary was obscured by the debate over Iran - but is related to it.

Pollard was convicted of spying for Israel and transferring information that did not damage the United States. But he has been imprisoned far longer than any agent who spied for a friendly country. This vindictiveness also violates the terms of a domestic plea bargain and a bilateral U.S.-Israeli agreement. Pollard's former handler, Rafi Eitan, revealed last week that an agreement had been reached with the Americans that Pollard would serve no more than 10 years in jail and, in return for this pledge, Eitan had helped incriminate Pollard. It increasingly appears that this maximum ten-year sentence will be punitively transformed into a life sentence.

One cannot escape the impression that Pollard's religious identity lies at the heart of his draconian sentence, with its severity meant as a warning to American Jews. Former CIA director James Woolsey, who advocates for Pollard's release, and believes that his lengthy imprisonment is incommensurate with his crime, came to the same conclusion: "For those hung up for some reason on the fact that he’s an American Jew, pretend he’s a Greek- or Korean- or Filipino-American and fe him".

The hang up that singles out Jews and Israel for special opprobrium reappeared in rethe debate on a preliminary nuclear treaty with Iran; the innuendos injected into that debate recall darker eras. When in the 1930s, American Jewish leaders gently pressed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to take a more forceful position against the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, Roosevelt persuaded them not to go public. He warned them that they risked provoking anti-Semitism by appearing to press for war.

This week, an administration whose ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, still insists that the military option remains viable, accused those criticizing the contours of the deal with Khamenei of beating the drums for war. In other words, the Obama Administration has out-Roosevelted itself, spreading the charge that its opponents seek war for ulterior motives.

What was unusual this time around is that you didn't have to be Jewish to receive such a pounding - and some of the administration's most enthusiastic surrogates in raising the loyalty issue were Jewish. Republican Senator Mark Kirk, an architect of the previous sanctions package that was originally opposed by the administration but is now credited with forcing Iran to the negotiating table, questioned Secretary of State Kerry's assessment based on Israeli intelligence figures. “I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service,” Kirk responded to Kerry's remonstrance to disregard the Israelis.

Kirk thereby incurred the fury of one Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now. According to the Jewish Journal, Friedman claimed that Kirk's behavior was 'extraordinary', but in the pejorative sense, because the Senator was effectively telling Kerry: ‘You’re telling me to believe the U.S. officials, but Israeli officials [say something else], so I don’t buy it,' - preferring the assessment of a foreign nation to that of his own commander-in-chief.

I am certain that Ms. Friedman has the credentials to match Kirk, a highly decorated naval intelligence officer. I just wonder what her reaction would be if someone paraphrased her definition of 'extraordinary behavior' in an Israeli context to her colleagues in the Israeli branch of Peace Now. How can Peace Now in Israel prefer the assessments and pledges from John Kerry to those of their own prime minister? Who has been more accurate about Iran, the American intelligence bureaucracy (that in 2007 published the now infamous National Intelligence Estimate purporting that Iran had ceased its nuclear program) or Israel? Would it have been permissible for a U.S. Senator to second-guess his commander-in-chief had his name been George W. Bush, or is the assumption of infallibility reserved exclusively for Barack Obama?

Then we have another Friedman, the inimitable Thomas, who back in 2011 penned in the New York Times the following explanation for the repeated standing ovations that Netanyahu received in congress: "That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby." Under criticism, Friedman backed down a bit, but last week he showed that the retreat was only tactical. Friedman peddled the same poison in making sense of congressional hostility to the emerging deal, blaming it on "a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations." I find it difficult to believe that these lines could have been written by a Cyrus Sulzberger, Harrison Salisbury, or Max Frankel in the age that the New York Times was respected even by those who disagreed with its editorial policy. It is, however, appropriate to an era in American politics where inflammatory rhetoric drowns out reasoned debate.

The one consolation is that American Jewish organizations have so far refused to be intimidated, and still believe that they have the same right to voice their opinions as American Jews, and that they don't have to ventriloquize their words through more 'legitimate' Greek- or Korean- or Filipino-Americans.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

Demonstrator holds placard during a protest calling for the release of Jonathan PollardCredit: Reuters