Should we blame it all on Leon Uris? More than 62 years after the publication of his bestselling novel dramatizing Israel's founding, "Exodus" still seems to be influencing the way some Jews think about heroism. The latest sign of its lingering cultural resonance came in released spy Jonathan Pollard’s first interview since arriving in Israel last fall.
During the course of a fascinating and sometimes gobsmackingly tone deaf 17,000-word article, Pollard said he was "raised on stories about Ari ben Canaan and ‘Exodus,’" referring to the novel’s larger than life hero played in the movie adaptation by actor Paul Newman.
The character, supposedly loosely based on, among others, Yitzhak Rabin, was the sabra ideal, and everything that a stereotypically unheroic mid-20th century Diaspora Jew was not.
Uris’s book has been much abused by literary critics, as well as those who lament the way it distorted the real story of the eponymous refugee ship and other aspects of the struggle for Israel's independence.
But whatever its faults, it also inspired a generation of American Jews to become activists for the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry and to support the Jewish state. Inside the Soviet Union, copies of its text, banned by the Communist state, were passed secretly via the samizdat network to Jews who were equally inspired by the story to reclaim their heritage.
But when Pollard, then an American intelligence analyst, met a real-life Israeli hero in 1984 – pilot Aviem Sella, who had led the mission to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq – the downside of hero worship was demonstrated.
The two had been brought together by a friend of Pollard, who had heard Sella give an inspirational speech about his exploits and thought someone who was fascinated by Israel, like Pollard, should get to know him. When they did finally meet, Pollard saw Sella as the embodiment of everything he admired.
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There and then he volunteered to spy for Israel, and from that meeting sprang what was arguably Israel’s greatest intelligence blunder, as well as an incident that cast a shadow over both the U.S.-Israel relationship and over American Jewry.
The story of Pollard’s egregious conduct, his exploitation by his handlers who abandoned him to his fate and the subsequent duplicitous attempts by the Israeli government to portray the caper as a rogue operation, has been told and retold.
So has that of his prosecution and how, through a combination of his own hubristic desire to portray himself as a hero and incompetent legal advice as well as the hostility of a vengeful and allegedly antisemitic U.S. security establishment, he wound up being sentenced to life in prison, a far more severe punishment than any other person who had committed espionage for a friendly country had received.
Despite a campaign carried on by those who saw him as a hero and others who rightly thought his punishment was disproportionate, he remained in federal prison for 30 years before being paroled in 2015.
Last fall, almost 35 years to the day in November 1985 that he was turned away from the Israeli embassy in Washington where he sought asylum once the authorities caught on to him, he was allowed to leave the United States and realize his dream of making aliyah. Greeted on arrival by Prime Minister Netanyahu, he had kept quiet in the intervening months. But on the eve of Passover, Pollard finally broke his long silence.
Pollard’s interview contains some gripping accounts of prison life and justified complaints about Israeli super-spy Rafi Eitan, who had ruthlessly exploited his naivete. It also included some tall tales that strain credulity about unnamed Israeli officials telling him to commit suicide and a Reagan administration plot to murder him.
But throughout his whole long ordeal, Pollard appears never to have undertaken any introspection about his actions. In his own mind, he was still right to betray the United States, because his superiors were withholding intelligence from Israel. In his telling, and that of his wife Esther – a Canadian woman who married him while he was in prison – he had saved the Jews from Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and from other threats.
At no point had he realized that he might have done more to help Israel by resigning and speaking out about American intelligence sharing with its ally, or lack of it. Nor had he come to grips with the damage he had done to that alliance. He was also oblivious to the fact that his actions placed countless loyal Jews working in the armed forces and the U.S. defense apparatus under suspicion, and gave antisemites talking points that would surface again and again over the years.
To the contrary, in his Israel Hayom interview, Pollard expressed absolutely no regrets for his conduct. Even worse, he described the United States as an incorrigibly antisemitic country that was no true home for Jews, and he excoriated Jewish organizations for being insufficiently ardent in seeking his freedom.
His astonishing advice to any Jews serving in official American positions was that they should emulate his behavior, since their first loyalty should be to Israel and saving their fellow Jews.
The truckload of material he gave to the Israelis was likely useful to them as well as being so extensive that, despite his assertions to the contrary, it did great damage to the United States, since among things, he gave them the U.S. Radio and Signal Intelligence Manual which cost American taxpayers billions to replace.
But, like Pollard's story about Saddam’s poison gas stores (which is undermined by the likelihood that the Mossad knew more about what was going on in Iraq than the CIA) the notion that he had personally saved Israel from peril still seems more like a self-dramatizing justification for a crime than anything else.
His spying came just at the time that the Reagan administration was upgrading the relationship with Israel to a genuine security alliance, and did more to hinder that effort than anything opponents of the Jewish state did.
But as the adulation he still receives from many Israelis and American Jews indicates, there are a lot of people who share Pollard’s view of himself.
Israelis were right to regard ending Pollard’s imprisonment as a national responsibility. American Jews were likewise correct to advocate for clemency to curtail his excessive sentence.
But what explains the willingness of so many people to still accept his claims of heroism, rather than to regard him as a deeply foolish person who paid a heavy price for a crime that, whatever his motivations, did far more harm than good?
For the generation of Americans who, like Pollard, grew up with "Exodus" and other Zionist literature, the challenge was how to justify living comfortably while other Jews were either persecuted, as in the Soviet Union, or, like the Israelis, fighting for their lives.
Reading about the Holocaust, young Jews imagined themselves as the Warsaw Ghetto fighters in Uris’ "Mila 18." While the memory of American Jewish silence during the Holocaust motivated a generation of Soviet Jewry activists, it also bred a willingness among some to see every issue as another life and death struggle just like the battles fought in Uris’ novels.
Antisemitism still exists in the United States, with Jew hatred on the far right and left becoming more commonplace. But the notion that it is no different from other times and places where Jews were viewed as alien wayfarers targeted for serial expulsion or worse is risible.
There is a difference between instilling pride in young Jews and wishing for them to be inspired by Israel, and the sort of play-acting that sometimes attempt to pass for Zionist activism in circumstances that were nothing like the Warsaw Ghetto or 1947 Palestine.
That must equally be the verdict on Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League. Though its supporters were recruited to defend poor Jews against urban violence, support Soviet Jewry and Zionism, it inevitably led them to bloody consequences in both the United States and Israel. The same must be said for Pollard’s desire to elect himself as the Jewish people’s savior by betraying his oath to the United States.
The hero-worship still directed toward Pollard taps into the same theatrical impulse that has little to do with the hard work of defending Israel against its enemies, or navigating the problem of maintaining relations with a U.S. ally that doesn’t always behave as Israelis or their American supporters would like.
To the extent that Pollard is still lauded rather than pitied for his catastrophic decisions, it shows that some remain stuck in their Leon Uris-inspired fantasies rather than acknowledging the infinitely more complex real world in which the Jewish state and the Jews must live.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for Newsweek. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin