Usually, prisoner swaps involve, well, swaps. You release my prisoners, I release yours. But what to make of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that, in return for freeing Palestinian prisoners, the United States release Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen who is serving a life sentence for passing information to Israel?
This strange triangulation exposes the farce of negotiations. The New York Times quoted Netanyahu’s reasons for negotiating as “preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” and “preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel’s borders.” One state, two states: whatever it is, he’s against it. But since he needs to satisfy both Washington and his right-wing base, Netanyahu plays the Pollard card to signal that he isn’t really dealing with Palestinians; he’s haggling with America.
The more interesting question is: Why is there a Pollard card? Why does a convicted spy so inspire the right’s imagination? Why were there “We Want Pollard Home” signs all over Jerusalem for Obama’s visit? The answer, I think, is that many Israeli Zionists—especially religious ones, and especially American immigrants—who have a hard time facing the reality of a comfortable, assimilated American Jewry, prefer the cultural icon of a persecuted, ethnically loyal Pollard.
In order to build a Jewish nation and society, Zionists classically engaged in “negation of the Diaspora,” or shlilat hagolah. The new muskel-Juden replaces the weak, cringing land-less Jew. Diaspora always meant tragedy; you think you can be a good German bourgeois, but that way lie the death camps. Every Jew longs to return. In the religious world, this reaches mythic proportions. As the prominent religious Zionist leader Rabbi Shlomo Aviner puts it, “the Jews who are in the Diaspora are like lost limbs [of the body of Israel] for whose return we pray.”
American Jews do not fit that story, because we are happy here. It’s been a half-century since Jews struggled to integrate in the United States. When immigrants faced anti-Semitism and an alien culture, the espionage trial of the Rosenbergs captivated them; Pollard, by comparison, strikes us as a holdover, an anomaly. We don’t feel like infiltrators; we feel at home. Even rabid right-wingers don’t plan on making aliyah to Israel. A prominent member of the radical Emergency Committee on Israel once told me that, despite her constant activism on Israel’s behalf, she knows she’s less worthy than a prostitute on the streets of Tel Aviv. I remember thinking: There are daily flights from JFK to Ben Gurion, so why doesn’t she take one? Of course, the plain truth is that American Jewish comfort threatens the Zionist narrative about the horrors of exile.
For many, Pollard serves as the cultural fantasy who bridges the gap between the reality and the story. As a religious Jew, I regularly pray for “our brothers… in distress and captivity” and thrice daily request that God ingather the exiles. Pollard the captive fits those prayers much better than the Jewish lawyers and doctors who went to Stanford with him. The official website of “Justice for Jonathan Pollard” makes this clear. Carefully prepared tables comparing espionage sentences (“Jonathan Pollard spied for an American ally. This chart shows that Pollard's life sentence is far harsher than most of the sentences received by those who spied for enemies, and thereby committed much more serious offences and treason”) obsessively preserve the specter of American anti-Jewish animus. What is the message of the site’s “The U.S.-Iraq Complicity Page,” or of Esther Pollard’s comparing her husband to Albert Dreyfus, the 19th century French Jew framed for treason by a French ultra-nationalist government? Is it not that, deep down, you just cannot trust America?
I mention my own practice because I do not think that all Zionist shlilat hagola is as crazy as “Justice for Jonathan Pollard.” Jewish history is long, and who knows whether Pollard’s imprisonment or my comfort is the real anomaly. Besides, we Zionists have a right to our myths. What is pernicious is when these cultural politics cloud the level-headed conversation over settlements, security guarantees, and borders. Netanyahu has proved adept at intervening in American politics; he is equally good at leveraging latent tensions over Israel-America relations. But exacting concessions from the mediator is not the point. You don’t hold talks in Oslo to make peace with Norwegians. Netanyahu wants to replace Israeli-Palestinian negotiation with Israeli-American squabbling, because he wants to stall. Those of us who are serious about a two-state solution cannot let him.