Who remembers Jonathan Pollard?
He spied on the US for Israel. Despite insinuations to the contrary, he did not cause the exposure and murder of American agents in Russia (spy Aldrich Ames, now serving a life sentence, cast suspicion on Pollard to protect himself). Most of his espionage was aimed at information about Israel’s enemies that the US didn’t share. When he was about to be arrested, he fled to the Israeli embassy, which handed him over to the FBI.
Pollard was offered and accepted a plea bargain in light of his cooperation. But the court, after receiving a still-secret memo from then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, sentenced him to life imprisonment, despite the fact that the median sentence for espionage on behalf of an ally has been 2-4 years. There was no trial, and due to errors by his lawyers, no appeal. No US citizen besides Pollard has ever received a life sentence for this crime.
Pollard served 30 years in federal prisons, seven of them in solitary confinement. He was consistently refused parole until 2015, when it was finally granted. But the conditions of his parole, which prevent him from leaving the country and make it very difficult for him to work (any computer that he uses is subject to government monitoring) are onerous. He is in poor health – who wouldn’t be after 30 years in prison? – and is being supported by some generous American Jews, led by Rabbi Pesach Lerner, former executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox movement comprised of about 175 synagogues.
In 1995, Israel made Pollard a citizen in recognition of the fact that he had indeed performed a service for her. He has certainly paid for his crime several times over, considering the extreme severity of his sentence in comparison with what he actually did. Now aged 66, it would only be just to allow him to come to Israel as he greatly desires.
On numerous occasions, the release of Pollard was used as a bargaining chip to get Israel to make concessions to the PLO as part of the ever-failing “peace process.” But in each case, at the last moment something always scuttled the arrangement, and Pollard stayed in prison. Several presidents promised to help him, but did not. Even Donald Trump, who moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan, exited the JCPOA, and broke the Palestinian veto over Israel-Arab peace agreements, has not acted. Supposedly PM Netanyahu was going to arrange his aliyah before the last election, but as always it didn’t happen.
In the early years, efforts to get Pollard freed were scuttled by Caspar Weinberger, who died in 2009 after saying that the case was “a very minor matter that was made very important.” Later, it was thought that elements of the intelligence community opposed his release. There was speculation that he “knew something,” perhaps about the Iran-Contra operation, that important people didn’t want to come out, although with the passage of time this becomes less and less likely.
One obvious reason for his treatment is that it constitutes a lesson to America’s Jews. Although “dual loyalty” is considered an “antisemitic trope,” it’s much more complicated than that. Many American Jews, particularly Reform Jews, are adamant about being Americans first and foremost. Although they may (or may not) have some affection for Israel, it is ultimately “another foreign country” for them. Some of the most vehement denunciations of Jonathan Pollard that I’ve heard come from such Jews. They are furious, because they believe that Pollard’s actions besmirch all American Jews as possible “traitors” (note that espionage and treason are different things, and that even the worst accusations against Pollard do not make him a traitor). “He should be executed,” one Jewish friend said to me.
But Jews who see themselves as members of a people and who feel loyalty to their people – and therefore to its homeland – might find themselves facing a conflict of obligations, especially if, as Pollard claimed, the US was withholding information about Israel’s enemies that might be critical to her survival.
Before you say, like my friend, that it is never right for an American Jew to violate US law to help Israel, remember the period before and during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, when many Jews (and non-Jews like Frank Sinatra) violated an embargo to smuggle arms and ammunition to Israel. Were they “traitors?” As I said before, it can be complicated. One of the psychic benefits of aliyah is that it eliminates any feeling of conflicted loyalty.
I think that US officials might have wanted to ensure that any Jew in a position to choose the interest of Israel over that of the US would expect the most severe consequences for doing so. Pollard’s sentence was a clear message.
Another reason is the paternalistic and borderline antisemitic attitude that Israel, as a less-than-sovereign client state, “has no right” to spy on the US. It is essential for Israel’s survival to spy on any and every state that can have an influence on its security; and I might add that the US considers Israel a “key target” for its own spying, something I find strange.
Some say that Pollard ought not to be treated as a Jewish hero. It’s not clear if his motives were entirely ideological, as he says, or if to some extent he did it for money. Some say that he behaved childishly and endangered Israeli interests. I wouldn’t call him a hero, though his actions on our behalf had definite value to the state and came at a high personal price.
There is a commandment to redeem captives (pidyon shvuyim). It has been applied to paying ransom for Jews held captive by bandits or princes who wish to extort money from Jews; it was one of the reasons for rescuing Soviet Jews that were not allowed to emigrate. There are limitations on how much can be paid (lest bandits or terrorists be encouraged to kidnap more Jews). Most authorities say it does not apply to criminals that are legitimately and fairly imprisoned, unless their lives are in danger. But the disproportionate sentence received by Pollard, the fact that his plea bargain was reneged and he did not receive a trial, and the possible antisemitic motivations for his treatment, argue for its applicability.
You can donate to Rabbi Lerner’s fund for Pollard’s support in the US if you wish. But at the end of the day, he is a Jew who, while he is not in federal prison anymore, is still a captive, and wants to join his people in their mutual homeland. The US should let him go, and Israel should welcome him.