Two things happened on Nov. 21, 1985. The first produced sensational headlines in a few major newspapers: Jonathan Jay Pollard, a young civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy, was arrested on charges of spying for Israel after he was turned away from the Israeli embassy in Washington, where he had sought asylum.
The date signaled the start of Pollard’s personal descent into a seemingly bottomless pit of confinement, abandonment and bitterness. But something else happened that produced no headlines. When Jonathan Pollard went to jail, American Jewry began a traumatic odyssey that revealed much about the lingering insecurities and divisions that continue to shadow the community, despite its great achievements.
image2goeshere The communal reaction to Pollard’s crime and punishment highlights “debates that have been going on
in the Jewish community for several decades,” said Jerome Chanes, a New York sociologist who once headed a Jewish interagency task force on Pollard. “The reaction reflects deep ambivalence about the Jewish place in American life.”
A loose-knit movement to win Pollard’s release, with an ever-shifting blend of motives and goals, slowly pushed mainstream Jewish groups to soften their positions — if not on Pollard’s deeds, then at least on what many saw as his excessive punishment. But the leaders of those groups, deeply conflicted and in some cases resentful about the pressure on them to take on the case, didn’t try very hard, according to most accounts. Many argue that the movement, tainted by the bitterness Pollard feels and the political agendas of many of his supporters, has nourished the seeds of its own failure.
One Jewish activist who agrees Pollard should be freed called the pro-Pollard movement a “cult” that speaks to an ever-narrowing segment of the Jewish community. “Pollard has become a flag of convenience,” said David Luchins, once a top aide to former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). “He’s become a cause that is picked up by other people and used for their own purposes.”
Even strong supporters of commutation concede that efforts on Pollard’s behalf have produced progress but no results.
Many claim the Pollard movement defeated itself by embracing activists who regarded Pollard as a Hero of Zion and the U.S. government as a betrayer of Israel. But in the end, it may have been doomed from the outset by the early decision to wage a public campaign for commutation, and to press a deeply unsure, resentful Jewish leadership to use its influence to win his release.
The impact of his trial and long incarceration are obvious on Jonathan Pollard, now a middle-aged man tormented by his belief that he was abandoned by the country that used him. The impact on the Jewish community itself is deep and traumatic, but harder to define than the haunted look on Pollard’s face.
Family In Distress
At the beginning, the Jonathan Pollard movement wasn’t movement at all, just a family in distress reaching out to fellow Jews around the country. And from the outset they faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Within hours of the first news bulletins about his arrest, Jewish and pro-Israel groups were holding frantic meetings — not about the young spy’s fate, but about how to limit the damage to the community and to U.S.-Israel relations.
For American Jews, “the Pollard case seemed to be their worst nightmare come true,” according to a 1998 analysis by the World Jewish Congress. “Many reacted with shock and even fear. Charges of dual loyalty were nothing new, but seemingly in one stroke Pollard had legitimized all those who had long suggested that when push came to shove American Jews were primarily loyal to Israel and only later to the United States.”
Not since the arrest, trial and execution of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s, the group reported, “had American Jewry felt so compromised.”
Hyman Bookbinder, who represented the American Jewish Committee in Washington during the 1980s, said that when Pollard was arrested “we wanted to wash our hands of him. There was no more sympathy for him than for any other criminal.”
“To put it crudely … if it wasn’t Israel he was working for, some of us might have been more sympathetic,” he said. “But it was, and we felt a special responsibility not to give the wrong impression that American Jews are willing to do anything and everything that seems to be beneficial to Israel.”
Bookbinder said there was also widespread anger at his Israeli handlers for their “irresponsibility,” and deep concern that the incident would “have a very damaging effect on the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
That reaction was widespread in Jewish circles; it remains a powerful undertow to efforts to win his release almost two decades later. Bookbinder said his own views have not softened. The commutation movement, he said, “is an unfortunate waste of Jewish resources. And it’s the extremists who have pushed it. Sometimes they are able to push major groups to make gestures of support.” But some groups express support “just to get [Pollard activists] out of their hair.”
Some of the earliest support for Pollard came from the Orthodox community, with its emotional and ideological connections to Israel and belief in the redemption of captives.
But a more potent factor was a family that wouldn’t give up.
Morris Pollard is a quiet, unassuming scientist at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., where his son Jonathan grew up with an acute sense of being a Jew in a Christian world, and — according to the leading book on the subject, by journalist Wolf Blitzer — delusions about heroism in the service of Israel. The senior Pollard credits his daughter Carol, who left her job in a New Haven hospital to launch Citizens For Justice, with starting the move to free Jonathan.
Carol Pollard, who now works in the bioethics program at Yale, traveled all over the country, speaking to Jewish groups and anybody else who would listen, Morris Pollard said. So did he and his wife. “We struck up cadres of people who were very indignant about what happened to Jonathan. It was very encouraging.” He also credits Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who helped the family as an adviser, for “bringing the case a lot of attention, challenging the government for what it had done.”
But Jewish groups resisted their efforts, he said, especially the national “defense agencies” such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. “They were violently opposed to finding out what could be done to help Jonathan,” he said. “They accepted the word of Caspar Weinberger [the former Defense Secretary whose secret memo is said to have played a key role in Judge Aubrey Robinson’s decision to impose a life sentence] that Jonathan had committed treason. This word — ‘treason’ — became a byword; there were many who accepted it without question.”
Despite such opposition, he said, the family-driven movement made a decision not to directly confront a balky Jewish leadership, or to attack the government officials who were unrelenting in their insistence that Pollard’s release would jeopardize national security.
“We always tried to have a positive attitude,” Morris Pollard said. “We never burned bridges; we tried never to antagonize people, unless there was a real cause for it. As a result, people took us very seriously. They felt I represented a position of responsibility, which I was trying to maintain.”
A leading Jewish activist said that was true — up to a point.
“From the beginning they sometimes seemed to justify what [Jonathan Pollard] did,” this activist said. “It wasn’t a major theme, but there was enough of it to make many in the Jewish community very uneasy about their efforts.”
But other observers say that two issues in particular seemed to generate a positive response: the question of the comparative severity of Pollard’s sentence and a simple humanitarian appeal for a young man who, through misguided idealism, had committed a tragic mistake.
Kenneth Lasson, a University of Baltimore law professor and commutation supporter who is working with Pollard’s current lawyers to reopen the case based on claims he was poorly represented, said he was first attracted to the case by the details of Pollard’s plea bargain and sentencing. “The more I looked at the facts, the more uneasy I felt as an American citizen and as a lawyer with an interest in seeing that the American system of justice was being applied fairly.”
It was the issue of fairness and proportionality in sentencing, Lasson said, that began to open the hearts and minds of Jews and some prominent non-Jews around the country. Gradually, the movement began to use that grass-roots interest to nudge the big Jewish organizations in the direction of supporting commutation.
“The early strategy was to get mainstream Jewish organizations to move toward supporting clemency, even if it was just a little,” said Seymour Reich, a New York lawyer. As president of B’nai B’rith at the time of Pollard’s sentencing, Reich convinced that group to weigh in for clemency on humanitarian grounds. In 1988 he became chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, but said he was unable to convince other conference leaders to reexamine the Pollard matter. When his term ended in 1990, Reich ratcheted up his activism on behalf of Pollard.
“I saw Carol and Morris out there, and they created a network of people throughout the United States and Canada who would petition, inveigle, plead with organizations to take positions, hold rallies,” he said. “Morris was thoughtful and restrained. His plea was very personal. Carol had the passion.”
And their efforts, Reich said, struck a responsive chord in certain segments of the Jewish community, including hard-line supporters of Israel. The next big organization to take a stand, he said, was Hadassah. “Then it sort of mushroomed. Different organizations began to speak out on [Pollard’s] behalf.” The Reform movement took a stand, “though the Conservative movement was always a big impediment,” Reich said.
A landmark in that effort was the 1993 plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), an umbrella group of more than 100 local Jewish community relations groups and big national agencies. Reich and other backers of commutation had been pressing delegates to take a stand for Pollard’s release.
After a fierce battle at the convention, delegates rejected a proposal to send a letter to President Bill Clinton asking for a review of Pollard’s sentence. But in the end, it was only because the national Jewish agencies, which controlled a large bloc of votes, opposed the resolution, defeating it by a 162 to 147 margin. It was a loss for the Pollard movement, but also a sign of growing strength, and of the increasing gap between the grassroots and the major Jewish organizations.
Yet there were other forces that were starting to play a more prominent role in the movement, said Jerome Chanes, who served as NJCRAC’s director of domestic concerns and as the staffer responsible for the interagency Ad-Hoc Committee on the Pollard Case. “We made an absolutely critical decision early on that the matter should be treated as a purely domestic issue, that it would be a terrible mistake to put it on the Israel agenda,” he said. “We did not want to become embroiled in a debate over whether Pollard was a hero, whether he did the right thing.”
Instead, he said, the only issue the major groups would consider was whether there was evidence of anti-Semitism in his treatment. “The committee scrupulously and doggedly investigated every single allegation of anti-Semitism in this matter,” Chanes said. “And the bottom line is that there was none.”
The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress, he said, came to the same conclusion.
That set the stage for what Chanes described as a two-pronged approach by many Pollard advocates. “First, they tried to recast this as an issue of U.S. unfairness to Israel,” Chanes said. “And they tried to counter the evidence that anti-Semitism was not a factor.” Pollard’s case, he said, resonated among a “small but vocal proportion of Jews who felt that anti-Semitism in this country is widespread and that Jewish security is a myth. Pollard’s situation galvanized that group.”
According to Chanes, an increasingly vocal right wing in Israel and their Jewish supporters here saw in the Pollard affair confirmation of their belief that U.S. friendship for Israel was mostly a sham. Those arguments had enormous appeal to the Jewish right, but they just increased the unease of mainstream Jewish leaders — the ones with access to the centers of power in Washington.
There was also the complex question of Pollard’s remorse. Pollard, although he expressed remorse a number of times, sometimes seemed to say that what he did could be explained, if not legally justified, by a failure of U.S. authorities to hand over to Israel vital intelligence information they were obligated to provide.
In a 1991 letter to an unnamed rabbi, published in the Wall Street Journal, Pollard agreed that “I fully realize that I must be punished for my activities,” but argued that the threat to Israel from Iraqi chemical weapons facilities left him no choice.
“So what was I supposed to do?” he wrote. “Let Israel fend for herself? If you think that is what I should have done, then how can we condemn all those … who during the Second World War consciously participated in the abandonment of European Jewry?”
If Pollard seemed to flirt with the idea of justifying his crime, some supporters enthusiastically embraced it.
An early Pollard supporter was Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and a Jewish activist known for his aggressive and sometimes flamboyant tactics. Rabbi Weiss became Pollard’s “personal rabbi” in 1987. In 1989, he conducted a “Freedom Seder” in front of the federal prison at Marion, Ill., where Pollard was incarcerated, borrowing the idea from the Soviet Jewry movement. He gave the movement added visibility, but his high-profile involvement also increased the discomfort mainstream leaders felt with the Pollard effort.
Chanes, the former staffer for the NJCRAC Pollard committee, said that Rabbi Weiss’s involvement stemmed from “the view Avi has always had — which is not shared by the mainstream — that America is fundamentally not a safe place for American Jews. Jonathan Pollard became a natural vehicle for making that point.”
Rabbi Weiss, who most observers say genuinely wanted to help Pollard win his release, figured into one of the most controversial episodes in the Pollard campaign: the 1993 attempt by Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, a revered Orthodox leader, to broker a clemency deal.
According to David Luchins, the former staffer for Sen. Moynihan, a deal had been worked out: the White House, with newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton at the helm, was ready to commute his sentence to time served if Pollard wrote a letter expressing clear remorse.
“It was happening,” Luchins said. “Rabbi Soloveichik went to the prison with the letter, which was vetted by the White House. There was no problem.”
But then, Luchins said, “the Pollard people, the more intense members of the cult, heard about it. Jonathan was put under pressure to repudiate the statement. Avi Weiss went public with a statement saying that Jonathan didn’t read the letter, that the things that he did may have been legally wrong but morally heroic.” The result, according to Luchins: “The president ordered a full review, and walked the cat back.”
Luchins declined to criticize Rabbi Weiss’ motives, saying “he has incredible sympathy for the underdog, he loves to help people.” Rabbi Weiss was unavailable to comment on the episode.
But the result, Luchins said, was that what seemed like a firm deal to spring Pollard from prison fell apart. And once again, the issue of Pollard’s personal remorse was blurred, an obstacle to broadening the movement and convincing mainstream Jewish leaders to vigorously work for Pollard’s release, and not just go through the motions.
Pollard, contrary to charges by critics, has repeatedly expressed remorse. But his attempts to explain why he spied come across to many in the Jewish community as efforts to justify his spying, a perception that continues to keep many Jewish leaders from working hard for his release even when their organizations have endorsed the commutation effort.
A major turning point came in 1994, when Pollard, who had divorced his first wife after her release from prison, married Esther Zeitz, a Canadian woman who had taken an interest in his plight. Some of Pollard’s supporters say that Zeitz-Pollard was a lifeline for an embittered man who was increasingly frustrated by years worth of ineffective activism on his behalf by others.
Morris Pollard, Jonathan’s father, has a different view. “The movement began to change when Jonathan took on this woman,” Pollard said. “He changed his entire attitude. He cut off all contact with us. She has become a flashpoint of antagonism.”
More importantly, he said, an already narrowing movement “became warped because of the attitude it took toward people. If anybody said a word against Jonathan, it created a vicious attack in response.”
Jonathan and Esther cut ties to longtime supporters and with Pollard’s family. Their communiqués took on a harder edge, especially those directed at the Israeli officials they say were more than willing to let Pollard die in prison, a list that includes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
A longtime commutation supporter said that “the Pollards do themselves harm by these highly emotional, inflammatory statements. If you were the Israeli or the American government, would you help someone who puts out press releases calling you gutless? On the other hand, you can understand Jonathan’s feelings. The quieter, less aggressive approach wasn’t getting him anywhere. If you come across as a meek victim, maybe you’re even worse off.”
A year after his marriage, the increasingly desperate prisoner decided to publicly press for Israeli citizenship, and for Israel to “bring home” the agent it had shamelessly abandoned. Israeli citizenship would “confer upon me the protection of the Israeli government and the rights of an Israeli citizen,” he wrote in a letter to his Israeli attorneys. Observers close to Pollard said that the fight for official acknowledgement by Israel, which he eventually won after taking it to that country’s Supreme Court, had become a psychological necessity for him. But it also may have had a damaging effort on a movement that always represented a tug of war between those whose motives were strictly humanitarian, and those who wanted at least a degree of vindication for Pollard.
“The talk about citizenship was a major break in the movement,” said Seymour Reich. “Pollard believed he should seek it. I, along with Carol and others, believed it would hurt him. It cut our ability to argue on humanitarian grounds. By taking citizenship, he was in effect saying, ‘I did it for my country, Israel.’ That undermined the remorse argument.”
It also undermined support among the mainstream Jewish leaders Pollard was counting on to make his case at the White House, he said.
Public Campaign A Mistake?
One more question nags at the edges of the Pollard effort: Was the first and fatal mistake making this a public movement? Some Jewish leaders insist that in seeking a pardon or commutation, it is best to act quietly rather than going public and arousing controversy and opposition, making it difficult for a president to act. Going public, they say, was a tragic mistake.
But Pollard never had rich political insiders working on his behalf, others argue. Activists say they had little choice but to take their campaign to the Jewish public, and to try to get politically powerful Jewish groups to weigh in on his behalf.
“The fact is that for the first 10 years of Jonathan’s incarceration, there was no public campaign, and there was absolutely no progress on Jonathan’s case,” said Esther Zeitz-Pollard, now Jonathan’s partner in leading the commutation effort. “After 10 years of so-called quiet diplomacy, Jonathan was no closer to being released. That was mainly because quiet diplomacy is simply a facade to cover up inaction.”
But the evidence suggests that from the beginning, public efforts succeeded mostly in arousing the wrath of the defense and intelligence community, whose leaders remain the most strident opponents of Pollard’s release. George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, threatened to resign when President Clinton seemed about to release Pollard as part of the 1998 Wye River negotiations. At that summit, there were reports Clinton and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reached an agreement to release Pollard as part of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but that Clinton reneged.
Marshall Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University of America and a White House liaison to the Jewish community during the Reagan administration, said the public strategy was bound to backfire. “What was the result? The military and intelligence against his release fought it even more actively,” he said. “Every Israeli connection is a negative for Pollard, every claim of persecution is a negative, every attack on the military-intelligence agencies is a negative.”
Ultimately, other observers say, the movement began to come unglued for a confluence of reasons, starting with the fact that mainstream American Jews who were starting to sympathize with Pollard’s plight were simply too ambivalent about his crime and punishment, too afraid of the consequences of more aggressive advocacy.
That uncertainty was reinforced by those who sought to exploit his cause, by actions and statements that seemed to some like justifying the crime and by the wild conspiracy theories and inaccurate claims of some supporters — such as the claim Pollard supplied Israel with information that helped its air force destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. In fact, Pollard began working for Israel several years later, but the claim has worked its way into the fabric of urban legends surrounding the case.
The ambivalence of politically powerful Jewish leaders was conveyed — over and over again — to the only person who could free Pollard, unless he decides to seek parole instead of commutation: the president of the United States.
That sense of doubt also kept mainstream Jewish leaders from demanding public release of the secret government documents that reportedly were responsible for Pollard’s life sentence, and for the strong opposition to his release in defense and intelligence circles. If the documents contain damning information about how U.S. interests were harmed by Pollard’s spying, Jewish leaders fear, it would just put a harsh spotlight on the uncomfortable issues of dual loyalty and Israel’s behavior as a U.S. ally.
If they point to unfair treatment of the languishing convict, the discomfort could be of a different sort — of Jewish leaders who should have jumped to Pollard’s defense.
Jewish leaders are not eager to see the long-withheld information for another reason, according to Breger, who said they want to avoid anything that might puncture the illusion that U.S. and Israeli interests are, by definition, identical.
“One of Pollard’s claims is that the U.S. wasn’t delivering information to Israel that he believed they had promised,” he said. “But that opens up the whole issue of whether U.S. and Israeli interests are sometimes different, and whether there may be reasons they are different. The American Jewish leadership simply doesn’t want to confront the issue of divergence.”
In fact, Pollard and his wife seem to recognize the failures of political efforts to win his release. While they continue to periodically issue harsh blasts at those who have not supported their goals, they have refocused much of their energy into legal efforts to reopen his sentencing.
That, perhaps more than any public movement, may be Pollard’s last best hope for ending his agonizing personal odyssey. For the organized Jewish community — sympathetic to his plight as a fellow Jew in trouble, unsympathetic to many of the arguments that have been made in his name — the controversy will go on.