Last week, the Knesset took up the issue of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who has been serving a life sentence for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel. Knesset Speaker Benjamin Ben-Eliezer praised the spy as a “true Zionist.” Many members joined the 100,000 Israelis who signed a petition calling for Pollard’s release. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed and said he would nominate Pollard for the prestigious Jerusalem Freedom Award. Pollard’s supporters are hoping this campaign on the eve of President Obama’s trip to Israel will bring attention to the case and lead to his freedom. But they are almost certainly mistaken.
In today’s Haaretz, the paper’s Barak Ravid quotes a “senior American official” as saying that the latest round of public advocacy in Israel on behalf of Pollard is having no impact on President Obama. Though the administration is resigned to being subjected to numerous appeals to release the former U.S. Navy analyst who has been in jail since 1985, none of it is likely to persuade the president to grant clemency to Pollard. Indeed, as the official makes clear, the more Israelis and some American Jews treat the spy like a hero, the less likely Obama or anyone else in a position of authority in Washington is to listen to their appeals. That’s a hard concept for those who are trying to free Pollard to understand but if they are to ever succeed, they must start trying.
As I wrote in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY in an in-depth analysis of the case on its 25th anniversary, both sides of the long running argument about Pollard have exaggerated their positions to the point of caricature. Those in the U.S. security establishment have wrongly tried to blame Pollard for American intelligence setbacks at the hands of the former Soviet Union in an effort to justify their desire to continue to make an example of him. But Pollard’s backers have also inflated the value of the espionage that he committed on behalf of Israel while also trying to ignore the far more serious damage he did to the Jewish state by souring relations with its sole superpower ally.
Irrespective of these exaggerations, Pollard committed a crime for which he deserved serious punishment. But after more than 27 years in jail the case for mercy for the spy is stronger than ever. As I wrote two years ago, his sentence was disproportionate to that given any other person who spied for an ally as opposed to an enemy or rival nation. Nor is there any conceivable security justification for his continued imprisonment. But the biggest mistake that his supporters have continually made over the years is to think that his freedom will ever be won by efforts that cast him as a martyr. It was Pollard’s own foolish boasts along those lines in a “60 Minutes” interview and in discussions with Wolf Blitzer (the CNN star was then a Jerusalem Post reporter) that caused the government to trash the plea bargain agreement with the spy and led to his draconian sentence to life in prison.
Praise from the Knesset and awards from the city of Jerusalem merely repeat these mistakes.
What Pollard’s fans don’t understand is that lionizing the spy merely increases the desire of the U.S. security establishment to keep him in prison to set an example that spies are punished, not set free to play the hero. The vengeful attitude toward Pollard may stem in part from hostility to Israel by some in Washington. But it’s hard to blame them for resenting a campaign that treats a U.S. Navy employee who broke his oath and did real damage to the United States as somehow deserving praise.
But the pro-Pollard Jews just can’t seem to help themselves. One of the main lessons of 20th century history for Jews was that they couldn’t afford to be silent in the face of a threat or injustice. Such silence or a reliance on traditional modes of quiet diplomacy failed them in the greatest crisis of modern Jewish history during the Holocaust. A desire not to make the same mistake helped inspire the movements to free Soviet Jewry and to support Israel. It inspired in many Jews an understandable contempt for behind-the-scenes diplomacy or reticence on any issue. But it was that discredited strategy of quiet outreach rather than aggressive advocacy that was always the only formula to help free Pollard.
Had the issue been framed solely on the concept that Pollard was a misguided soul who erred but deserved mercy, he probably would have been out of jail a long time ago. But the attempt to cast him as an American “prisoner of Zion” merely strengthened the hands of those U.S. officials who have always been the roadblock to clemency.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine any circumstance in the immediate future that will lead Obama or his successor to free Pollard. But if there is to be any hope, it must begin with the spy’s supporters dropping any mention of anything but a desire for mercy for a man who has already been severely punished. If they ever want to see him freed, there must be an end to awards or rhetoric about his commitment to Zionism.