Once again, in the wake of revelations about NSA spying on Israel's leaders and the release of convicted Palestinian prisoners, comes the cry for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Indeed freedom for the spy is a cause which enjoys very broad support amongst the Israeli public; of itself a very legitimate and humane demand. Yet beyond the three decades of languishing in a prison cell, Pollard's sorry saga illuminates the Jewish state’s attitude towards Diaspora Jewry and the priority it accords to Israel’s interests over those of its brethren overseas.
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On a very basic level, the Pollard affair demonstrates how Israel crassly discriminates between its native-born citizens and foreign-born Jewish patriots devoted to its cause. Thus, on the night of Pollard’s arrest, Israel rewarded its spy by ejecting him from its Washington D.C. embassy, denying any direct involvement in handling him, and returning the information he had provided it, almost ensuring the life sentenced he received. Concurrently, Israel assisted the spy’s handlers in evading the American authorities, promoted the main players involved (despite the fierce objections of the U.S. administration), and allowed Raphael Eitan to enjoy his senior years as a respected minister. In contradistinction it took ten years for Israel to grant Pollard citizenship, and a further two years to officially recognize him as their agent. That's before Israel's failure to free him.
Yet there is a wider and deeper level of harm perpetrated by Israel that spreads much further than a few individuals. As news continued to break about the breadth and depth of this espionage operation many American Jews, some staunchly Zionist, failed to understand how Israel could use one of their own to spy on an ally. Did Israel not realize that many Americans would equate its actions with those of the Jewish community? Did the Jewish state not realize that it was opening the organized Jewry to the charge of dual loyalty? Many were furious at what they viewed as a betrayal by Jerusalem and publicized their anger in American and Israeli broadsheets and in meetings with Israeli officials.
Israel was now forced to respond, and, one would hope, to sincerely apologize. Indeed, politicians – such as Teddy Kollek and Yossi Sarid - castigated their government for placing American Jewry in such a predicament. Unfortunately most of Israel’s government was not quite so contrite. Then Prime Minster Yitzhak Shamir announced that, “Pollard was not a problem the State of Israel should be concerned with.”
This was mild in comparison with the reaction of academic and one-time director general of the Foreign Ministry, Shlomo Avineri. Instead of empathizing with his American co-religionists he accused them of “reacting with a degree of nervousness, insecurity, and even cringing like trembling Israelites in the shtetl." Israel, he argued had no reason to regret their actions, rather it was the American Jews who “had to be free from Galut." Thus like a guilty school bully who had just beaten up his weaker classmate Israel reprimanded its closest ally in the Diaspora for being hypersensitive.
To those who may argue that a rehashing of the Pollard saga will do nothing to secure his release, and is thus a futile exercise, there are at least two reasons why it bears retelling. Were Avineri’s attitudes exceptional there would be little gain in reproducing them. For all we know he may now regret them. However his words did not come in a vacuum; they were the product of an unrepentant "Israel First" Zionism, which blames the Diaspora for problems that it itself inflicted. Indeed for the Jewish state there is only one interest that counts, and that is its own. Many decades ago, David Ben-Gurion was asked whether he took into consideration the sentiments of the Diaspora communities. This was his response:
It was always my view that we have always to consider the interests of Diaspora Jewry, any Jewish community that was concerned. But, there is one critical distinction - not what they think are their interests, but what we regarded as their interests.
If it was a case vital for Israel, and the interest of the Jews concerned were different, the vital interests of Israel come first - because Israel is vital for world Jewry.
Unfortunately this superiority complex still persists, and brings us to the second reason why it is necessary to remember the lessons of Pollard. The Diaspora cannot forgive and forget when Israel has not even begun to apologize. Israel, on the other hand, cannot continue to take the Diaspora for granted while trampling on its rights whenever it feels the need.
Once again Israel is entering the unknown path of an uncertain peace and needs all the allies it can have. To secure the invaluable assistance of American Jewry, not only should it ask for Pollard the individual to be let go, but it should also beg the Jewish community to forgive its transgressions in perpetrating the Pollard affair. This may not bring us any closer to peace, but it is the right thing to do.
David Fachler has a Masters in Law from South Africa (LLM) and a Masters in Contemporary Jewry from Hebrew University, Jerusalem (MA). He is contactable at email@example.com.