Pollard Saga Pollutes American Jewish Identity

We need to escape the 'Pollard logic' which equates American Jewish Zionism with defending Israel at any cost - with the true traitors being those that criticize Israel.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn
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Holding placards with Pollard's picture, activists protest for his release.Credit: Yuri Blecherov
Sara Yael Hirschhorn

“A man is being sacrificed, but what for?” asked Carol Pollard. “Where is the truth?” 

Last week, Jonathan Pollard’s estranged sister addressed a small and somewhat skeptical Western Massachusetts synagogue crowd after over a decade of silence. She was appealing to American Jewry, having acknowledged that she had exhausted her government allies.

Little did she know that two days later Jonathan would be back in the news, with an off-on deal to swap him for Palestinian prisoners (a deal that currently the Palestinian Authority, Israeli ministers and Pollard himself have rejected.) One more twist of the 28-year saga of spycraft, servitude, and symbolism. But the critical question is whether raising the Pollard issue again does any good for American Jews or Israel.

Carol recalled a “brilliant” and creative boy raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, and a foreshadowing: A childhood imbued with the knowledge that 72 relatives had perished in Auschwitz where “we were taught that we were carrying these other children on our backs” that, one assumes, may have inspired her brother’s actions, as “it taught us and him a lot about never again.”

Carol never denied or condoned her brother’s guilt in crimes of espionage, suggesting “he did something he thought was good, but he did it in the wrong way,” yet, accused the legal and political system of engaging in a kind of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist (terms she conflated) government conspiracy led by then-defense secretary Casper Weinberger to persecute, not just prosecute her brother as a political prisoner , as “the methods he used were totally wrong, he broke the law, but the sentence he received was not proportionate to what he did.”

If many of these arguments are not new, the American Jewish consensus in support of Jonathan Pollard that has emerged over the past three decades bears re-examination. The shift is already underway: My mother observed a stark contrast with the last time Pollard’s family had spoken at our synagogue almost three decades ago - I was a toddler sitting on her lap - a battle cry to an overflow, energized crowd of many of the same individuals as in Sunday’s diminished and muted audience.

When Pollard went to jail in 1986, the American Jewish landscape looked quite different from how it look today. As scholar Jonathan Sarna observed in American Judaism, the 1980s was part of a “late twentieth century awakening” for an American Jewry newly confident in facing challenges both within and without - openly and vigorously discussing the Holocaust, standing with Israel in the wake of the Yom Kippur and Lebanon Wars, advocating on behalf of Soviet Jewry (Pollard would later fill the post-Cold War void of prisoner of conscience,) and combating anti-Semitism across the world. Jonathan Pollard was the decade's cause célèbre, who perfectly fitted the agenda of the age in American Jewish life.

Today, the idea that “all American Jews are Jonathan Pollards,” is one that we can’t abide. Three decades of debates over dual loyalty (regarding which Pollard supporters have shamelessly stirred the pot in order to secure his release) have damaged a generation of young American Jewish patriots who want to serve their country and sustain Israel at the same time. It has revived anti-Semitic conspiracy canards about the community as a whole. The new “Pollard logic” created a culture that defending Israel at any cost should be condoned by American Jewish Zionists and that the true traitors are those that criticize Israel.

Most troubling, the strident tones of the Pollard saga accelerate the young demographic’s decision to opt out of the Jewish identity and pro-Israel camps. When Carol Pollard pleads “for all our sakes,” that to “set him free, [we] set ourselves free at the same time,” it is hard to see the logic, not least for the younger skeptics. These days, American Jewry cannot afford to pay the price for Pollard’s sins.

Further, the injection of the Pollard issue into the Kerry process has not only exacerbated Diaspora-Israel relations, but harms the future of Israel itself. While both Netanyahu and Abbas continue to exploit Kerry’s energies to extort their own interests (settlements and prisoners, respectively), neither side are willing to make tough compromises in the interest of peace. In fact, the only side making a real concession after months of negotiations would have been the U.S. - by agreeing to release Pollard. Taking Pollard out of the equation, even if it means letting peace talks fail (which appear to be the case,) is the only way to change the dynamic so that Israelis and Palestinians show they want and need to achieve a real peace themselves.

Carol Pollard stated that “all American Jews have a role to play in his release.” But there is no automatic equation between an American Jewish identity, Zionism and membership of the "Release Jonathan" lobby. We can urge Pollard’s parole on humanitarian rather than political grounds. Only by acknowledging the true consequences of the Pollard affair in American Jewish life, can we set both him and ourselves free.

Sara Hirshhorn is a University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow at Oxford University. She is writing a forthcoming book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement. Follow her on Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1.

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