March 4 marked the 20th anniversary of the unprecedented life sentence meted out to Jonathan Pollard. It’s an appropriate time to take stock of the response of the American Jewish community and the government of Israel to his arrest, sentencing and continued incarceration.
Jonathan, a civilian naval intelligence officer, transmitted to Israel in the mid-1980’s classified documents concerning Iraq, Syria and other hostile Arab states. The information he transmitted was part of a vital intelligence flow previously shared by the United States with Israel, but then cut off upon orders of the then-deputy director of the CIA following Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
Twenty-one years after Jonathan’s arrest, no evidence has been presented of any damage caused to the United States by his actions that could even begin to justify a life sentence or his continued incarceration. Certainly the longer Jonathan has remained in prison, the easier it should have been for the government of Israel and the American Jewish community to push for his freedom.
Moreover, the latter years of Jonathan’s second decade in prison coincided with the release by Israel of thousands of Arab terrorists as part of a diplomatic process championed by the United States, thereby providing a tailor-made vehicle for pushing for his release.
Yet for nearly the past eight years, no Israeli prime minister – not Ehud Barak, or Ariel Sharon, or Ehud Olmert – has demonstrated any real interest in obtaining Jonathan’s freedom. Their indifference and callousness stand in sharp contrast to the actions of their predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and, even more so, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rabin regularly raised Jonathan’s plight with President Clinton starting in 1993, and Netanyahu went to battle for Jonathan at the Wye talks in 1998, exacting a promise from Clinton that Jonathan would be released as part of the Wye withdrawals. Clinton ultimately reneged on that undertaking, in large measure because he knew he would pay no political price with the American Jewish community for violating his promise.
Indeed, for the past 11 years the Pollard affair has fallen off the radar screen of the American Jewish community. This inaction reflects a distressing backsliding from the prominent position the Pollard case had on the community’s agenda during the first half of the 1990’s.
Following the announcement of Jonathan’s arrest in November 1985, and in the first few years thereafter, there was much embarrassment in the American Jewish community, tremendous concern as to the effect Jonathan’s actions might have on the standing and image of the American Jew and even some official support for his draconian sentence in March 1987.
While at the grassroots level many American Jews were troubled and perplexed by the harshness of the sentence, there was no serious activity on his behalf.
The first Gulf War, accompanied by Saddam Hussein’s threats to incinerate the Jewish state and Iraq’s 39 missile attacks on Israel, brought a rethinking of the Pollard affair, even though most of the major national Jewish organizations still refused to adopt the case as a “Jewish issue.”
The Jewish community began to recover from its initial shock and started to publicly question why the U.S. government violated its written plea bargain with Jonathan, singling him out as the only person to be given a life sentence for spying for an American ally.
Within a year after the Gulf War, every significant Jewish community in the United States had Pollard activists in the rabbinate and at the communal level. Rallies and protest meetings drawing thousands of people were held in communities around the country, at which members of Congress joined with other public figures and local leaders in calling for Jonathan’s release.
Indeed, the Pollard case eventually became one of those rare issues on which there was near unanimity of opinion within the American Jewish community. In October 1992, a full-page ad signed by 600 rabbis from around the country and representing the entire Jewish religious spectrum ran in The New York Times, calling on then-President George H.W. Bush to commute Jonathan’s sentence to the seven years then served.
A year later, in November 1993, another full-page ad ran in the Times, this one signed by 1,000 rabbis and the overwhelming majority of Jewish federations and rabbinical councils across the United States, urging Bill Clinton to commute Jonathan’s sentence.