Speaking to his ministers on Sunday about his visit last week to Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded a new era in US-Israel relations. To a degree, he was correct.
When US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greeted Netanyahu and his wife Sara as they alighted from their car at the southern entrance to the White House, Trump demonstrated that the eight years of hostile treatment Israel suffered at the hands of his predecessor Barack Obama were no more.
But unfortunately, Obama wasn’t the only thing that was wrong with US-Israel relations.
There is also a problem with antisemitism.
Rather than confront the problem head on, and where it does Israel and American Jewry the most damage, Netanyahu shied away from contending with the issue.
This was a mistake.
Just hours after he left town, another American Jew was targeted by an antisemitic slander of the sort Netanyahu failed to address during his meeting with Trump.
Thursday afternoon, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee held a confirmation hearing for Trump’s ambassador designate to Israel, attorney David Friedman.
Friedman is a Jewish attorney. He is unapologetic about his support for Israel. The fact that unlike his liberal Jewish predecessors, Friedman does not make his support for Israel contingent on Israel’s willingness to appease the territorial and other demands of the PLO , made him the subject of withering criticism at the hands of several Democratic lawmakers.
While unpleasant, the scathing criticism Democratic senators leveled against Friedman was within the bounds of legitimate debate. They support a different, less supportive policy toward Israel than the policy that the Trump administration is developing. They receive support from liberal Jewish groups that insist there is no contradiction between funding Palestinian terrorists (in the name of the chimerical two-state solution), and supporting Israel.
What was not within the bounds of legitimate debate however, was a question that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez posed to Friedman. Noting that Friedman is “very passionate about Israel,” Menendez asked Friedman to assure the senators that his loyalty and commitment lay with the US, rather than with Israel.
Menendez’s query was beyond the pale because it wasn’t about Friedman’s positions. It was about his Judaism. Inherent to Menendez’s question was a barely disguised insinuation: Jews who are passionate about Israel cannot be trusted by their fellow Americans.
There are many distressing aspects to Menendez’s decision to use an antisemitic line of questioning against Friedman. It is distressing, for instance, that liberal Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League did not condemn the liberal lawmaker for trafficking in antisemitism.
But by far, the most distressing aspect of Menendez’s allegation that Jews who support Israel passionately and unapologetically are inherently disloyal to the US was its familiarity. The canard that Jews are inherently disloyal has been the bane of the Jewish community in America for generations.
It doesn’t matter how much you love America. It doesn’t matter how much of your life you devote to advancing the interests of America.
If you are a Jew, and you support Israel, then your loyalty to America will be questioned.
This brings us back to Netanyahu and his failure to address the issue of antisemitism in his meeting with Trump.
There is one issue where Netanyahu is uniquely positioned to fight the canard that pro-Israel Jews are disloyal to America.
That issue is the plight of Jonathan Pollard.
Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 for transferring classified materials to Israel. He was paroled in 2015.
Pollard’s plight is important for two reasons that bear direct relevance to Menendez’s antisemitic behavior at Friedman’s confirmation hearing and to the general problem of antisemitism in America.
First, Pollard is proof of American antisemitism.
To be sure, Pollard failed the loyalty test. America trusted its secrets to Pollard 35 years ago when he served as an analyst in US Naval Intelligence. And he betrayed that trust when he revealed American secrets to Israel.
Pollard though is not unique. Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, French Americans, Irish and German Americans have also transferred American secrets to foreign governments with which they felt a kinship. To the extent they transferred secrets to states that are allies of the US, they received prison sentences that ranged on average between two to five years and served their terms in minimum security prisons until they were released back into society and free to leave the US.
Pollard, in contrast, was railroaded by the US justice system. He was given a life sentence and served for 30 years in maximum security prisons. He spent his first 10 years in prison in solitary confinement.
Over the 30 years he sat in prison, US national security officials and lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide called for successive presidents to commute his sentence.
They all refused.
And when Pollard was finally paroled in November 2015 his nightmare of persecution didn’t end. Instead he was given draconian parole conditions that no prisoners are subjected to in state or federal prisons. Not only is Pollard barred from leaving the country, he is barred from leaving Manhattan.
He cannot practice Judaism because he is confined to his apartment from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. so he cannot attend morning and evening prayers. He cannot keep Shabbat because he is required to wear a GPS tracking device that he must charge in an electrical outlet every few hours, including on Shabbat when such activities are prohibited. He cannot get a job because anyone who hires him will be required to allow the government total access to their computer network.
Pollard’s disproportionate punishment is a powerful expression of official, state-sanctioned antisemitism in America. And since 1985, it has served as a warning to American Jews and as a license to antisemites like Menendez to discriminate against American Jews.
For 30 years, as Pollard served out his life sentence at a maximum security prison, no one needed to do anything more than mention his name to put fear into the hearts of American Jews. The message was clear. It doesn’t matter what you do. We will destroy your life if you are too supportive of Israel.
As for US relations with Israel, successive administrations have held Pollard over the heads of Israeli governments. On the one hand, they would on the one hand dangle the prospect of his release in front of their Israeli counterparts to exact concessions. The concessions were invariably made and the promise to release Pollard was always withdrawn.
On the other hand, Pollard’s crime, and his incarceration, afforded successive administrations the ability to use antisemitism as a political tool against Israel domestically. Every few years when public support for Israel hit a new high, a mid-level national security official would give a background briefing to reporters and raise allegations of Israeli spying, along the lines of Pollard’s actions. The subsequent reports would instigate a public debate about Israel riven with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish vitriol.
During his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu chose not to bring up Pollard and Pollard’s scandalous parole terms. Instead, Netanyahu sufficed with discussing Pollard’s plight at his meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. According to media reports, the two men agreed that Ambassador Ron Dermer will work with the administration on the issue. What that means was left open to interpretation.
Given the devastating role the Pollard affair has played in US-Israel relations, it is understandable that Netanyahu wouldn’t want to bring up Pollard at his first meeting with Trump. Who wants to bring up unpleasant subjects when you’re trying to build a new relationship with a new US president?
But while understandable, Netanyahu’s decision to minimize his discussions of Pollard’s plight and then delegate the issue to his ambassador was the wrong way to build that relationship.
Every day Pollard is subjected to prejudicial treatment by the US justice system is another day that the US is officially persecuting an American Jew, not because he breached his oath to protect US secrets, but because he did so as a Jew.
And as Menendez’s bigotry toward Friedman made clear, every day that this continues is a day when it is acceptable to slander loyal American Jews simply because they passionately support Israel. Every day that Pollard languishes under effective house arrest is another day when it is acceptable to question the good intentions of America’s greatest ally in the Middle East.
In other words, to rebuild its alliance with the US, Israel needs more than a warm embrace at the White House. It needs to receive Pollard at Ben Gurion Airport.