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Netanyahu Must Not Hail Pollard as Israel’s Spy Hero

It would be a serious miscalculation for Israel to call attention right now to one of the most damaging sagas in both the history of the American-Israeli alliance, and in U.S. Jews’ relations with Israel

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>> UPDATE: Former Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard lands in Israel

Will the Jonathan Pollard case unsettle relations between Israel and America, and between Israel and American Jews, as it has done for over 35 years?

With Pollard and his wife likely to fly to Israel in the coming weeks, with plans to settle there, are we about to undergo another round of the tensions associated with this unfortunate affair?

Perhaps. 

Mostly it will depend on whether or not the Netanyahu government chooses to act with sensitivity and restraint, setting aside what it might see as political gain and opting instead for sensible geopolitics.

So far, so good, it must be said. A government not known for its self-control has, so far, not leapt into the abyss.  

When the U.S. Parole Commission ended Pollard’s parole, permitting him to leave the U.S. and live in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin issued statements that were guarded and appropriate, welcoming the former spy but without celebrating him as one of their country’s great heroes.

But the real test will come in the weeks ahead, when the Pollards actually land on Israeli soil. Netanyahu, vulnerable because of his upcoming trial and desperate for a political victory, might be sorely tempted to organize a high-profile welcome and communal embrace for the Pollard family.  

Perhaps a televised appearance with a fawning prime minister?Perhaps a Pollard speech to the Knesset with Bibi at his side? Perhaps a string of media appearances with Bibi’s ministers as cheerleaders?

Israelis hold placards depicting Jonathan Pollard during a protest calling for his release from a U.S. prison.Credit: Reuters

After all, most Israelis see Pollard as someone who has sacrificed much for their country’s security. Hailing him as a hero would cater to public sentiment and probably raise Bibi’s poll numbers by a few points at least.

The problem, of course, is that the American government — and not only the incoming Democrats — sees these matters very differently. 

Pollard’s actions violated American law and had the potential to undermine American security; the extent to which they did so remains unclear, but, even today, Pollard has virtually no defenders in the intelligence or foreign-affairs establishment. 

And remember, he was not filching suitcases of documents from a hostile administration that was secretly trying to undermine Israel. He was stealing from a government headed by Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon and a good and reliable friend of the Jewish state.

And in this instance, there is no gap between the American people and their leaders. Some Israelis may feel that Evangelicals and the Trump "base" will support their country, no matter its actions, but this is a misread of current realities.

The blustering Jacksonian nationalism of the Trump years, with its "America First" war cry, makes no allowances for American allies that exploit their favored position and take advantage of America’s good will. In this regard, Republicans and Democrats are exactly alike.

To be sure, Pollard’s crimes were long ago, he has served his time, and anger has waned in American government circles. Officials in both parties are mostly ready to move on, thank goodness, and few average Americans are even aware of Pollard’s existence.  

But all of this is precisely the reason why it would be folly to highlight Pollard’s exploits in any official way at this time.

Jonathan Pollard during an interview at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, North Carolina, May 15, 1998.Credit: AP

What could be more absurd than a self-serving Israeli government feting an American spy, convicted of infiltrating U.S. Navy intelligence? The American people would see this as a grave and intentional affront, and so too would the American government. And the result would be an immediate orgy of media coverage, including every detail of Pollard’s spying and trial, and their aftermath.

By what conceivable calculation is it in Israel’s interest for all of us to relive every detail of the Pollard affair?

Jonathan Pollard is an ill and broken man, with a sick wife; he says he wants to rebuild his life in the Jewish state and live out his remaining years there. Why not permit him to do so in peace, far from the glare of the media spotlight?

And what do American Jews think of Pollard’s impending arrival in Israel? There is no data on this matter that I am aware of, but American Jews have always been conflicted on Pollard, and that surely remains the case now.

When Pollard was first arrested, Americans Jews were mostly furious, not at Pollard but at Israel. How, they wondered, could Pollard’s handlers have been so foolish and destructive, with actions that threatened to seriously compromise Israel’s relations with its most important ally? They were dismayed, as well, by the absence of an appropriate public apology by Israel’s government and by Israel’s failure to discipline his handlers.  

All in all, the Pollard affair seemed like pure idiocy, and surely injurious to Israel’s well-being.

As for Pollard himself, his image has evolved over the years. After his arrest and in the early years following his trial, he was definitely not seen as an innocent idealist. Critics pointed out that he was well paid for his actions, may have offered his services to other countries, treated his first wife — Anne Henderson Pollard, who went to prison for complicity in his crimes — shabbily, and was slow to show remorse.  

Still, with the passage of time, American Jews across the religious and political spectrum came together to call for his release, especially once he became eligible for parole. These efforts gathered momentum until they encompassed virtually the entire American Jewish community.  

A 2011 file photo shows activists during a protest calling for Pollard's release in Jerusalem.Credit: AFP

Speaking with more or less a single voice, American Jews noted that Pollard was ill; that he had served much longer in prison than others who had committed comparable crimes; that he had eventually expressed remorse; and that he had been acting on behalf of an ally and not an enemy state.

To be sure, American Jews, with the exception of a small number of apologists, made no attempt to justify or excuse his actions. He was never a hero to the American Jewish masses; he had violated their values and their trust. Nonetheless, his commitment to Israel was deep and sincere, and he was generally viewed more as an as an unstable victim of unscrupulous spymasters than as an evildoer.

It should be noted that in 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden played a role in this drama. That year, Biden had made a public statement indicating opposition to Pollard’s release. He told a Florida Jewish audience that, "President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life."

In response, Jewish leadership asked for a meeting with the Vice President on the Pollard matter, and he agreed. I was one of a half-dozen Jewish leaders who sat with him.

A long-time, devoted supporter of Israel, Biden listened carefully to our concerns, and the meeting was friendly. He expressed no personal animus toward Pollard and no criticism of Israel’s government.

We emphasized what we believed to be our strongest arguments for clemency or pardon: Pollard’s illness, and the harshness of his sentence compared with those given to others for similar offenses. 

But it was not a one-way meeting, and the Vice President responded at length and in detail to the two issues that we raised. His presentation was sobering, and I left with a much better sense of why five administrations, Republican and Democratic, had resisted calls for clemency.

Because the meeting was off the record, none of the details can be shared. But it is fair to say, I believe, that the concerns expressed were significant and serious. 

A demonstration in Jerusalem advocating the release from prison of Jonathan Pollard, March 21, 2013.Credit: Oren Nachshon

Still, despite the gravity of Pollard’s actions, I and the others in the room remained convinced that Pollards’s poor health and decades of imprisonment provided compelling reasons for his release. Enough was enough, we thought. And we joined with the great majority of American Jews in greeting with satisfaction and relief his release from prison on parole in 2015.  

Where do American Jews stand on Pollard now? They stand, I believe, more or less where they have always stood.

They are appalled by Pollard’s crimes, and even more appalled by Israel’s decision to involve him in these crimes, resulting in severe and unnecessary damage to Israel’s standing as an American ally.  

They are relieved that the wounds of the Pollard affair appear, finally, to have mostly healed.  

Now that Pollard has paid for his crimes, they are pleased to see him a free man, and wish him well in his new life in Israel.

And this above all: They understand the admiration that Israelis have for Pollard, but they believe that his arrival in the Jewish state should be greeted with silence and respectful restraint rather than grand celebrations in his honor.  

At a delicate and unsettled time for Israel, America, and the Middle East, they have no desire to call attention to a deeply unfortunate incident in the history of the American-Israeli alliance. They believe, in other words, that for the sake of all parties, it is best to put the Pollard affair behind us, and move on.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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