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Time To Put the Pollard Case to Rest—by Demanding He Be Set Free

A newly clear aspect of the case reveals evidence of a deeper injustice—which must now be addressed

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A woman holds a placard during a protest calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard (who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the United States) during a protest outside Secretary of State John Kerry’s hotel in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sadly, however, there are plenty of people in America, as well as the rest of the world, who strongly disagree with the characterization of American Jews, or Jews in general, as being no more and no less likely to turn on their country and sell out their neighbors. The common and proper term for such beliefs is “anti-Semitism.” Allowing the American national security establishment to play on classic anti-Semitic stereotypes in order to keep a man in prison as a “lesson” to other members of his group or race is contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the U.S. Constitution—and would surely and rightly never be tolerated by Muslims, gays, blacks, Chinese-Americans, or any other group.

American Jews may want to ignore the intended message of the Pollard case—that we are second-class citizens because of our inherent political untrustworthiness—but there is ample evidence that America’s enemies around the world have by now received that message, loud and clear: American Jews can be dealt with differently than other Americans, and with fewer consequences, even if they are directly employed by the American government. Ask the Iranians why they felt like they could seize former FBI Agent Robert Levinson—recently revealed to have gone to Iran under contract with the CIA—with impunity and continue to obfuscate about his whereabouts, even as they have sought to negotiate an end to sanctions with the Obama Administration. Ask the Cubans why they feel like they can continue to hold USAID contractor Alan Gross while lobbying for increasing trade ties. Ask the members of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, who clearly know, or could find out, the whereabouts of longtime USAID contractor Warren Weinstein. They do it, because they know that they can get away with it. They do it, because America does it, too.

Putting a target on the backs of American Jews who serve their country in dangerous places is a terrible way to treat U.S. government contractors and employees—whether they are Jewish or not. Telling America’s enemies that, when it comes to questions of national security, Jews are different makes all Americans vulnerable, by sending the signal that America is a country that won’t protect its own.

But if the official injustice of the Pollard case is dangerous for all Americans who serve their country, it has also metastasized into a real threat to the promise of legal and social equality that American Jews now take for granted. It is not hard to imagine why the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and other name-brand Jewish organizations have ignored the message that Pollard’s outsized punishment is intended to convey—which is that political anti-Semitism is OK in America or at least to be expected. After all, no one wants to be associated with a convicted traitor who pleaded guilty to betraying his country—let alone be outspoken in his defense, or turn him into a symbol of an entire community.

Yet by framing their obligatory annual engagement with the Pollard case as a strictly humanitarian issue, even American Jewish leaders who have been forthright about the case—most especially Malcolm Hoenlein, the longstanding executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—have given an unwitting stamp of communal acquiescence to the message of suspicion that Pollard’s punishment is intended to convey. The business-as-usual attitude of the American Jewish leadership has legitimized a noxious brand of political anti-Semitism, which has been adopted by parts of the U.S. political establishment—as well as by journalists and academics who help to frame discussions of public policy. The injustice that is being done to Pollard pales next to this very deliberate injustice being done to American Jews by high-ranking U.S. government officials in Pollard’s name.

Israel’s recent flurry of concern for Pollard, after years of denying that he was actually an Israeli spy, hasn’t been helpful, either. In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly offered to arrange for Pollard’s release in exchange for concessions from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in settlement negotiations with the Palestinians. But the idea, now more than 15 years old, that Pollard is a legitimate bargaining chip in Middle Eastern affairs does neither Pollard nor American Jews any favors. Rather, it illustrates the advanced state of moral and intellectual decay into which the organized American Jewish community has sunk. The intended message of Pollard’s continued incarceration is that all American Jews are potential Jonathan Pollards. Are you? Is it right for the U.S. government to see—and present—us this way? As Americans, and as Jews, this is an ugly message that threatens our most deeply held attachments and beliefs.


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Time To Put the Pollard Case to Rest—by Demanding He Be Set Free

A newly clear aspect of the case reveals evidence of a deeper injustice—which must now be addressed

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