On the eve of Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel, Israel’s longest running spy scandal is making headlines again. A petition signed by more than 100,000 Israelis, including Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, was presented at a special Knesset meeting this week calling for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, currently serving a life sentence for espionage. Last week, the Jerusalem City Council granted Pollard the Jerusalem Freedom Citation, and Free Pollard Now! I Care Too is just one of the hundreds of Israeli on-line forums fretting over Pollard’s plight. The pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres to join their predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, in seeking clemency for Pollard, and permission for him to emigrate to Israel. Netanyahu has already asked one president, initially including Pollard’s release as a condition for signing the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians 15 years ago.
How do we explain the Israeli obsession with Jonathan Pollard? On one level, it’s fairly straightforward; Pollard was spying for Israel so Israelis feel responsible for his fate.
The urgency to gain Pollard’s freedom stems from several core Jewish values which are deeply felt by religious and non-religious Israeli Jews alike; Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh—All of Israel (all Jews) are responsible for one another—and Pidyon Shvuyim, the communal pledge to ransom Jewish captives at almost all costs, a commitment that helped bankrupt many a Jewish family or community during centuries of vulnerability in Europe. These values extend to Israel’s military code of conduct in the guarantee that no wounded Israeli soldier will be left on the field of battle. Israel has a long history of redeeming captives, with Gilad Shilat only the most recent and famous example.
Pollard identified strongly as a Jew and as a Zionist, and despite his strangely outdated references to his obligation to the Jewish race, he is seen as “one of ours.” Israelis do not doubt Pollard’s sincerity in renouncing his American citizenship in favor of Israeli citizenship, dismissing charges that this was part of his PR campaign to make himself a martyr for Israel.
The martyr image, though, has power, and particular appeal in some right-wing circles. In some right-wing media coverage and internet chatter, the United States is charged with being deeply anti-Semitic and an untrustworthy ally. Pollard’s martyrdom is unquestioned, his ongoing captivity proving that “the whole world is against us,” and that Jews can depend only themselves. Talkbacks on the Free Pollard Now! website, for example, accuse Obama and Shimon Peres of being Muslems, or of only caring about Palestinian suffering.
Given their us against the world grievance, it’s not hard to understand Pollard’s support from the extreme right, or their dismissal of the complexities and questions of his case. But why has his cause morphed to the more-or-less united Israeli front lobbying today for his freedom? Pollard has always been controversial and not entirely appealing; Israel disavowed any knowledge of him for years, he was accused of spying for money, of selling secrets to several governments (including possibly Pakistan) in addition to Israel, and of causing more serious damage to U.S. intelligence than has ever been made public.
Interestingly, some American leaders also suggest that anti-Semitism played a role in the disproportionately long sentence Pollard received and the repeated refusals to pardon him. In comparison to Soviet and Chinese spies imprisoned during the same period, Pollard’s sentence seems excessive. Even less isolationist Israeli Jews feel that something has not been not right or fair in the handling of the case. This sense of injustice has rallied many to Pollard’s cause, or at least to go along with the pleas of Pollard’s second wife and other activists, who have been running an effective PR advocacy campaign.
Perhaps Israeli leaders feel guilty for Israel’s initial rejection of Pollard, and the failure to extricate him from his American pursuers. Pollard tried to gain sanctuary at the Israeli embassy in Washington but the guards turned him away. Pollard was arrested at the embassy gates while his Israeli handlers were whisked to Israel, out of reach of American prosecution.
It is unlikely that President Obama will expend the political capital to pardon Pollard, only two years before Pollard is eligible for parole. But perhaps Israel’s leaders, with Netanyahu in the lead, would like to take credit for finally getting Pollard freed, and bringing another Jew, whatever his shortcomings, back home