Lessons from the Pollard saga

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Even before the dust settled on last Friday’s happy headlines proclaiming that after 30 years in federal prison, Jonathan Pollard was being released, we discovered that his release wasn’t the end of his sad saga.


Pollard’s parole conditions are draconian. For the next five years he will be under curfew, barred from stepping outside his apartment after 7 pm. He is prohibited from surfing the internet. Anyone hiring him will be required to allow law enforcement authorities full access to their computers. Pollard already lost one job to this condition.


Pollard is prohibited from leaving the US, or even from leaving New York.


Even the smallest infraction on his parole conditions is liable to send him back to the slammer.


In other words, Pollard moved from a federal prison to house arrest.


The injustice screaming out from Pollard’s parole conditions force us to recall the long injustice he has suffered at the hands of very specific parts of the American establishment.


The story that everyone wishes to put behind us, remains excruciatingly familiar.


From 1983 until his arrest in 1985, as a US naval analyst, Pollard served as an Israeli agent and unlawfully transferred classified information to Israel, a US ally. The normal prison sentence for Pollard’s offense is 2-5 years.


Pollard was sentenced to life in prison.


Generally speaking, convicted agents of allied nations serve their prison sentences in minimum-security prisons under relatively easy conditions.


Pollard spent ten years in solitary confinement at a maximum security prison.


Generally, prisoners receive early parole for good behavior and if they express sincere regret for their crimes.


Pollard was denied early parole despite the fact that he was a consistently exemplary prisoner and repeatedly, indeed continuously expressed his sincere remorse for his offense.


Despite the fact that Israel is the US’s closest ally in the Middle East, none of the five presidents who served while Pollard sat in jail agreed to grant him clemency.


And today, President Barack Obama has made clear that he will not intervene with federal prison authorities to ease Pollard’s parole conditions or allow him to move to Israel.


The American Jewish community’s response to Pollard’s self-evidently discriminatory parole terms has been muted. Only Pollard’s lawyers and a handful of other voices have spoken out publically against them. This is not in the least surprising.


For the past thirty years and still today, the Pollard affair has served as a warning to American Jewry. The Pollard case taught them that their acceptance as full Americans is conditional. In many ways, as Pollard, American Jewry has been on parole. The same forces that railroaded Pollard into a life sentence, and the same forces that are keeping him under house arrest today – can turn on a dime. Speak out too forcefully on Israel’s behalf, and you will be crushed like a bug.


If the message wasn’t clear enough, in 2004 we had the phony AIPAC spy scandal to drive it home.


The so-called spy scandal wrecked the careers and reputations of three innocent men – DIA analyst Lawrence Franklin, AIPAC policy director Steve Rosen and AIPAC’s senior Iran analyst Keith Weissman. It besmirched the institutional standing and reputation of the largest American Jewish pro-Israel organization. It harmed the Israeli embassy. And it intimidated all Jewish Americans who supported Israel and served in the national security community.


The bottom line of the scandal, which unfolded over the course of five years, was that the FBI attempted to criminalize normal activities carried out by law abiding, patriotic Americans who supported Israel.


Franklin transferred information to Rosen and Weissman just as federal officials trade information with lobbyists in Washington every day. He met with Israeli diplomat Naor Gillon, because dealing with Israeli embassy officials was part of his job. There was no criminal intent on the part of any of the people involved. The charges against Rosen and Weissman were thrown out. And Franklin, who agreed to a plea bargain after his family was threatened, and was initially sentenced to 1 years in prison, had his term reduced to ten months of house arrest.


Pollard’s name lurked in the air throughout the sordid affair. The underlying message of the probe and the subsequent criminal trials was that as far as the powers that be in Washington are concerned, Jews who supported Israel while working on national security issues were inherently untrustworthy.


Outside Franklin, Rosen and Weissman, the primary victims of the fake spy case were the Jews in the Bush administration’s national security apparatus, who found themselves under around the clock surveillance, and AIPAC, which was tarred as the agent of a foreign government with nefarious motivations.


Not surprisingly, Pollard is the object of intense hatred by many Jews in Washington who blame him for their suffering. But of course, his punishment was far greater than his crime. The forces that tried to criminalize AIPAC and the Jews of Washington in 2004 were the same ones that sent Pollard to prison for life for an offense that should have landed him 2-5 years in the big house.


Pollard committed a serious offense. But he didn’t commit the original sin.


At any rate, the Pollard affair and the so-called AIPAC spy scandal both taught us that there are powerful forces in the American national security bureaucracy who do not like Israel and who believe that American Jews who support Israel are inherently disloyal. For these forces, who seem to comprise a permanent anti-Israel lobby in the State Department, FBI, CIA and Pentagon, unlike Italian or Irish Americans who support their mother countries, Jewish Americans who support Israel are suspect.


This then brings us to Israel.


The Pollard affair’s lessons for Israel relate both to our relations with the American Jewish community and to the US government.


Israelis have always had a childlike tendency to view the American Jewish community as all-powerful. While it is true that the American Jewish community is more powerful than any other Diaspora community, it is far from all powerful. The pressures exerted on the community in everything related to US Jewish support for the Jewish state require Israel to be careful about involving American Jews in serious disputes between Jerusalem and Washington.


This past summer we saw how hard it is for the US Jewish establishment to stand up for Israel, when doing so is the least bit controversial. Although most major Jewish American organizations eventually announced their opposition to Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with Iran, it took a long time for them to do so. And even after they announced they opposed it, they bent over backwards to make clear that they harbored no hard feelings towards ostensibly pro-Israel lawmakers who decided to support a deal that guarantees Iran will acquire nuclear weapons.  AIPAC’s decision to host an event last month for Senator Chris Coons, a key supporter of the deal, showed just how eager American Jews are to move on and not hold anyone to account.


So too, the Jewish community’s failure to reject out of hand the mendacious claims that Israel is persecuting the Palestinians, stem from a discomfort with an issue on which Israel and the administration are openly at odds.


As for the US government, generations of Israeli leaders have taken American declarations of ironclad devotion to Israel’s security at face value. When American leaders, like former president Bill Clinton or former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice raided the possibility of signing a mutual defense treaty with Israel if we gave up the Jordan Valley or Jerusalem, or the Golan Heights, many Israeli leaders – particularly on the Left – thought that it would be a good trade off. After all, we can trust America.


And in many ways, we can trust America. For instance, the US is Israel’s largest military supplier. Many of our military platforms are made in the US. US military aid to Israel has been more or less steady for decades.


The US is Israel’s only defender at the UN. Because of the US, Israel has avoided becoming subject to economic sanctions and even military actions that would in all likelihood pass through the Security Council in the absence of a US veto.


Having the US as a strategic ally has enhanced Israel’s deterrent power in the region. As the US withdrawal from the region under Obama has shown, the vacuum formed by the US retreat from Iraq and from the Persian Gulf more generally has enabled the rise of forces from the Muslim Brotherhood to Iran to IS that are all dedicated to the annihilation of Israel.


While Israel’s alliance with the US is real and significant, Pollard’s story exposes its limitations. It warns us that while secretaries of state proclaim their eternal concern and friendship for Israel, there are officials whispering in their ears that Israel is the source of instability in the Middle East and that due to the support Israel enjoys from American Jewry, America’s ability to secure its interests in the Middle East is impaired. The weaker both US Jewry and Israel are, the better off America will be, they are told.


Unfortunately, more often than not, when Israelis aren’t pretending that these forces don’t exist, they tend to view them as all powerful. So it is, that the same Israeli officials – again, predominately on the Left – who insist that Israel can trust US security guarantees because the US will never waver in its commitment to Israel, also insist that Israel must never act in opposition to the US. So long as the US opposes destroying Iran’s nuclear installations, Israel, they insist, must not raise a finger against them.


So long as the US supports a Palestinian state, they insist that Israel must carry on as if the so-called two-state solution is possible, let along good for Israel.


Obviously, both positions are simplistic and wrong. For the past thirty years, as Pollard suffered in prison, and Israel’s position in the US remained under constant assault by its opponents in the bureaucracy, Israel’s relations with the US expanded and deepened. The level of US popular support for Israel has grown from year to year.


Pollard’s story tells us that we need to grow up. The US is a great ally, but our alliance with America is no substitute for national power.


As an ally, we should take US concerns into account where we can, and act independently where we must. Pollard’s case was a great victory for our enemies in Washington. And they will score additional ones in the future. But so will our friends. And so will we.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

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