Obama's Lost Jewish Votes on Pollard

Are Obama and Clinton taking a risky gamble in betting that mainstream U.S. Jews don't care about the ongoing detention of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard?

David Landau
David Landau
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David Landau
David Landau

If U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's swing through Israel this week, on the back of a visit to Egypt, was intended to help the Obama re-election campaign, then, like everything else the Obama administration has done with Israel, it belly-flopped.

From the point of view of Obama's hopes for the Jewish vote, she'd have done better not to come.

The headline across virtually the entire Israeli media was, in variations, 'Clinton: Pollard Will Rot in Prison Forever'.

Ms. Clinton's main purpose in visiting Israel, presumably – as that of the National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, who preceded her, and of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who will shortly follow her – was to reassure the Israeli public that America is firm in its commitment to stop Iran getting the Bomb and to re-admonish the Israeli government not to attack Teheran's nuclear sites unilaterally.

She may have achieved this purpose. Certainly her categorical assertion that Washington would use "all elements of its power" to prevent Iran going nuclear and was working in "close consultation" with Israel over how to do so, was duly noted in the local media, and, one hopes, in Teheran too.

But it did not sweeten the sour taste left by her public rebuff – yes, yet another demeaning rebuff of his persistent if mealy-mouthed efforts – of President Shimon Peres's appeal for clemency. Pollard is serving a life sentence, and she had "no expectation this is going to change,” the Secretary of State declared stoneheartedly.

There is no need here to go over the pros and cons of releasing Pollard. There are no cons. His continued incarceration after 25 years, however heinous his offense, is a blatant deviation from America's own norms with regard to jailed spies.

What is less clear is how much American Jews care. Obama's aides may believe not much. But they may be mistaken.

On the face of it, much of the pro-Pollard activism is confined within the U.S. orthodox Jewish community. Seasoned observers say they have no sense of this cause catching on with the masses of non-Orthodox American Jews the way – to take a very different example – the demand to free Natan (then Anatoly) Sharansky did.

But that could be deceptive.

American Jews, naturally, are conflicted, embarrassed and ambivalent about Pollard. He (and his Israeli handlers) did them deep damage. His espionage for Israel gravely jarred their triumphant process of acceptance and integration into all sectors of American society. That ambivalence naturally makes for discomfort among many Jews with the high-profile Free Pollard campaign.

But that doesn't mean that deep down they don't sympathize with it. They can hardly feel differently from the former CIA director, James Woolsey, who, in a frank interview on Israel's Channel 10 News last week, said, "I cannot see at the present time any reasonable rationale for keeping him in prison longer. I don’t know whether some people have a reason, because of Pollard being Jewish, to think that they need to be tougher on him. I would feel the same way about a South Korean, Greek or Filipino spy if he had been in prison for a quarter of a century or more. I would’ve said, ‘Why in the world is that taking place?’"

The crude, cruel injustice of Pollard's situation may well make itself felt when Jewish Americans commune with themselves behind the voting curtain in November. Despite the semantics, such communing is something members of a community do in private.

If Mitt Romney, also due in Israel shortly, chooses to make positive noises about freeing – freeing, not pardoning – Pollard if he becomes President, that might affect many Jews' communings. If I were an American Jew, it would mine.

Protesters calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard near the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, 2011.Credit: Nir Keidar

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