In Jail or Out, the Campaign for Prisoner of Zion Pollard Is Never-ending

The Israeli spy as Jewish martyr narrative reached full fruition under Obama, down to the GPS ankle-bracelet he now needs to wear.

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Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York, November 20, 2015.
Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York, November 20, 2015.Credit: AP

Defenders and champions of Jonathan Pollard, along with most of Israel, have apparently become addicted to his image as a Prisoner of Zion. Only a few short hours after his release from prison on Friday, a new campaign for Pollard swung into full gear, as if getting out of jail after 30 years was trivial. The restrictions placed on Pollard the parolee, including a five-year ban on traveling to Israel or anywhere else, are now the proof of the inherent malice if not outright anti-Semitism of the U.S. administration and justice system.

In this respect, the Pollard affair mirrors the changes in Israel’s view of itself and of its relations with the U.S. occurred that since FBI agents arrested him outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington exactly 30 years ago. Israel and American Jewry tried at first to disown Pollard, to describe his espionage as a rogue operation, to apologize, try to make amends and acknowledge the damage done to the foundations of the special relationship between the two countries. As time went by, however, perspectives changed. Instead of a spy who betrayed his country for money, Pollard became a symbol of Jewish victimhood, if not another Dreyfus; instead of viewing his apprehension and conviction as a regrettable mishap that requires urgent fixing, the affair came to embody Israel’s eternal solitude, a nation that dwells so alone that its best friends are also dead set on doing it harm.

Like it does in many other arenas, Israel succeeded in convincing itself, but only itself, that it should play offense instead of defense, that it should accuse rather than excuse. Instead of calming the situation and relegating it to the back burner of the dialogue between the two countries, L’Affaire Pollard became a constant irritant that overshadowed each and every meeting between the leaders from both sides.

The federal prison in Butner, North Carolina where Convicted Israel spy Jonathan Pollard served a 30-year sentence.Credit: AFP

Pollard was apprehended and sentenced during Ronald Reagan’s time in office and was kept in jail by both George Bush’s as well as Bill Clinton, but it was only during Obama’s tenure that the religious-right’s narrative of Pollard as Jewish martyr reached full fruition. No longer were the refusals of presidents to release Pollard excused by their deference to objections raised by their intelligence chiefs – as it was during the Wye River talks when George Tenet’s threats of resignation prevented Clinton from surrendering Pollard as a sweetener for Netanyahu. Now there was a president in the White House who embodied the kind of malicious intent that Pollard was prescient enough to fight three decades ago already.

So what if the Obama administration didn’t object to Pollard’s release, as it might have, and what difference does it make if intelligence sharing with Israel is at an all-time high – the crucial element is that Pollard will need to have an electronic monitor attached to his ankle, that he will have to present himself to his parole officer and that he is barred from using the Internet. These are the new edicts that remind his supporters of darker times in Jewish history, the “cruel and vindictive” punishment that his lawyers describe in their appeal, another manifestation of the “postponement of justice” that Minister Ayelet Shaked referred to in her comments.

Poster advocating the release of Jonathan Pollard, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Israel, March 13, 2013.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Reactions in the U.S. were understated in comparison, with public attention focused on the ongoing aftermath of the Paris terror attacks and the virulent political debate over Syrian refugees. Some Jewish organizations issued laconic public statements welcoming Pollards release, though Orthodox groups joined the Israeli festivities as well as the concurrent wailing against his inhumane parole.

For American Jews, Pollard’s release came full circle: when he was apprehended in 1985 there was widespread concern bordering on hysteria that they would all be suspected henceforth of harboring “dual loyalties." In Israel the term “Israeli spy” is associated with a spy like Eli Cohen, who died a hero’s death after being executed in Syria in 1964, but in America the connotation could very well be someone like Julius Rosenberg, electrocuted to death along with his wife Ethel at Sing Sing in New York in 1953. When most Americans didn’t go that way, however, American Jewish leaders were free to eventually join the campaign for Pollard’s freedom while most Jews forgot he ever existed. HIs release in 2015, however, comes only a short time after the “dual loyalty” charge was reinjected into public discourse in the wake of Netanyahu’s decision to enlist the Jews in his war against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

One way or another, by now there are two distinctly separate Pollards: Pollard A risked his life in order to defend Israel while doing his best not to harm America in what Alan Dershowitz described this week as a case of “civil disobedience”. Pollard B sold out his country for many fistfuls of dollars by giving Israel enormous quantities of top secret intelligence information “90% of which had nothing to do with Israel”, as his much maligned prosecutor Joseph DiGenova told the BBC this week. If it were up to him, then as now, Pollard would have been sentenced to death.

The only thing not in dispute is the success of Pollard’s PR efforts. After craftily giving the slip to the reporters who waited in vain for him to emerge from his North Carolina prison, his PR gurus released pictures of Pollard as everyone’s Jewish grandfather with his loyal wife beaming behind him, in a pose tailor-made for an eventual run for the Jewish Home party’s Knesset list. As Scott Simon noted on NPR “To see the images of a pale, pudgy man with long white hair and a beard might remind us that real spycraft rarely involves Aston-Martins and martinis.” Instead of Daniel Craig as the master spy who rocked U.S. Israel relations to the core, we got Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof.