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Who’s Afraid of Jonathan Pollard?

By David Hyatt –
The two mysteries, the two primal “Why’s?”, that surround the subject of Jonathan Pollard are why the American government has subjected him to a disturbingly disproportionate punishment and why the American Jewish community has not rallied to his cause? It is the opinion of the present writer that the rational explanations which have been offered to answer these questions have failed. We therefore have no recourse but to seek reasons which at first glance may seem irrational but in fact reveal a deeper, more abiding logic.
But let us not so quickly give up on reason. Pollard committed a serious crime—espionage–and therefore deserved to be punished. To this he readily admitted and cooperated fully with government agencies during his trial on the condition that he sign a plea agreement in which the government promised not to seek life imprisonment. The agreement was signed. Yet not only did Pollard receive life imprisonment—now in its 30th year—he was also subjected to various “supplementary” punishments including seven years of solitary confinement. One of the three court justices who heard Pollard’s petition, Stephen Williams, said that the government’s breaching of the plea bargain was a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Pollard’s sentence is unprecedented for someone spying for an ally. The closest is Steven Lallas who served 14 years for spying for Greece. Aldrich Aimes and Robert Hanseen were, like Pollard, also given life sentences. But they were double agents spying for an enemy country (Russia, during the cold war) and, in addition to the security intelligence they passed on, revealed the identities of dozens of American spies working in the former Soviet Union, most of whom were executed. Neither of these men were subjected to solitary confinement. Both of them acted for money while Pollard acted first out of an ideological commitment. He was and is a committed Zionist. Nobody was killed because of the information he passed on to Israel and one would be hard pressed to show how he compromised the security of American lives. On the other hand, it is outstandingly clear that the lives of Israelis were being risked by information that the U.S government was withholding. The U.S. accuses Pollard of betrayal. But when an “ally” withholds information that shows that that his friend is in danger, who is the first traitor?
I recently asked a group of American Jews why there has been such a feeble if not indifferent involvement with the Pollard case. One response that was shared by many particularly fascinated me. The point was made that even if his imprisonment is unfair, Pollard’s case is just one of countless miscarriages of justice. Up to 5% of people sitting in American prisons have also not received fair trails. These victims of injustice deserve our attention as much if not more than Pollard, since he admittedly was a “criminal”. This demand for an indiscriminating approach to human rights is praiseworthy and, incidentally, also reflects deeply ingrained Jewish values. The commitment to human rights is a heritage that we receive not from the Greeks but from the Bible. Locke’s (and thus Jefferson’s) bold declaration that all men are created equal and have the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness has its origin in several crucial biblical claims: that all humanity is “created in the image of God” that one must “love one’s neighbor as oneself” and dozens of laws which exhort us to care for the stranger. This is the universal chord in Jewish consciousness.
But there is another gift that the Jewish people have offered humanity: peoplehood. It is often misunderstood that the Jewish concept of chosenness and nation has also been a gift to humanity–for chosenness, a sense of vocation is a quality of which most nations partake. A nation’s vocation is formed by the vision expressed in its shared history, its laws and customs, its land and language. Together these create its complex dynamic of identity which it has to offer to itself and the rest of humanity. It seems to me that in the American psyche, despite its affirmations of pluralism and multi-culturalism, there is a deep ambivalence to this notion of peoplehood–and I base this on my own, still visceral memories, of feeling profoundly ambivalent about my Jewishness. As Virginia Woolf once said, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” The central message of the American vocation involves promoting principles of equality and universalism. In the U.S. cultural difference is promoted when it is on the level of the individual, not the nation. By this I mean that each individual is encouraged to adopt any of the plurality of American cultures (traditional, technological, new age, etc.) with which to identify. The beauty and awesome grandeur of American culture is that it gives its individuals the freedom to create and re-create themselves, to not be bound by the weight of their past.
How does all this fit in with Pollard? The Pollard case makes a claim on the American Jew, a claim of peoplehood that extends beyond culture and certainly beyond religion. American consciousness can absorb these levels of difference. Pollard poses the question of fidelity—whether one’s fidelity is to the American people or the people of Israel, the majority of whom now dwell in the State of Israel. This is an uncomfortable, indeed, disturbing demand, for Israel is not just another country. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the Moslem world has transformed Israel into one of the central bogeys of world politics. Whereas in the past the Jew felt the gentile’s tacit inculpation of being a Christ killer, or later, of being a communist or capitalist—now the liberal Jew, ever mindful of human rights, feels the guilt of being an oppressor of Palestinians. Or worse, of being the cause of instability in the Middle-East and thus dragging the entire world into jeopardy. For the comfortable, established American Jew the suggestion of sharing the accountability of the Jewish state is, well, scary. He or she does not want to be included in these accusations, however libelous they may be, and wishes to make a clear separation between the Jewish people and the people of Israel. But recall that Israel means the Children of Jacob and the American children are as much a part of that family.
And the American government? Why is it scared of Jonathan Pollard? Because it assumes that if there was one Pollard, there could be many more. Having exhausted the supposedly rational explanations, we are only left with this uncomfortable option. Nothing else explains his disproportionate and irreconcilable treatment. The American government emphatically wants to convey to the Jewish people of the USA, “Be wary of your assertion of peoplehood. Your loyalty must be with the United States and not with Israel.” This might sound absurd to the American Jew who feels quite at home in his or her American identity. It may also sound absurd to the cosmopolitan non-Jewish American who is quite fond of those funny Seinfelds or brilliant Einsteins. Neither of these groups wishes to acknowledge that there is a gentile fear and suspicion of the Jew which runs like a current, at times weak and at times strong, under a variety of American cultural landscapes. Of course one could say that about a whole range of cross-cultural prejudices that will exist in any society, multi-cultural or not. But again, the existence of Israel makes a difference.
This difference is not merely a reflection of the increasing power and influence that Israel exerts in world politics. There is a cultural difference between Israel and the USA which is brushed aside under the bravado of mutual declarations of “shared values”. The stress of American democracy is on universalism and, as mentioned, the question of peoplehood and historical identity is a matter for the individual to affirm or, like the survivors of history’s teeming shores yearning to breathe free, to negate. “History,” Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and America is an oasis for such souls. But in the non-American world, history, for better or worse, is not a choice; it is a reality into which one is thrust. Yet as much as this force of history—which at times manifests itself in the form of culture and in times also as religion—exerts itself, it is also affirmed and cherished. American democracy is not Danish, Spanish, French, Japanese, South Korean, Mexican or Israeli, i.e., Jewish democracy. To accede to the current “stumbling block” of the peace talks and erase Israel’s Jewish identity, would be equivalent to making Israel an American democracy, transforming it into a neutral structure guaranteeing individual liberties. Israel’s refusal to accede indicates that despite “our shared values”, Israeli and American values are also profoundly oppositional.
Having said all this, does Jonathan Pollard deserve the defense of American Jews, or even the American people? My response is yes and yes. He deserves the defense of the American Jews because—and I know this might sound shocking—he is Jewish. Although Jews have a responsibility to all humanity, it is a human value of the highest level of humanity to care for your own children first. What is the merit and basis for caring for the stranger if you neglect and despise your own? Pollard should also be defended by all the American people because it is a people who loves and pursues justice and knows that Jonathan Pollard has more than fully served his time.

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Posted by on March 31, 2014. Filed under Jewish News,Slider. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.