Meyer Lansky and Jonathan Pollard are both significant for what they say about US-Israel relations.
Lansky was a gangster, a good American, and a good Zionist. He worked his underworld connections in behalf of US efforts in World War II, the movement of refugees from Europe to Israel, and arms shipments to Israel at a crucial time.
Israelis quarrel as to whether the country should have given in to US demands to extradite him, despite claims of achieving sanctuary in Israel under the Law of Return, but we''ve pretty much stopped arguing about him since he died in 1983.
Pollard is still an issue, with enough elements in his story to keep us arguing for however many years he will be in an American prison.
None of the allegations rest on hard information available to the public. As ever, unverified assertions and ambiguities do not lessen the enthusiasm of activists.
- What did he supply to Israel, and how important was it for what Israel was able to do?
- Who violated the plea bargain, which was supposed to provide him with limited jail time? Was it first Pollard, who granted interviews in violation of the gag order he had agreed to, or was the principal actor Caspar Weinberger, said to be aiming for Pollard out of insecurity about his own Jewish background?
- How stable was Pollard? Should he have been identified as a ticking bomb with unusual loyalties to Israel, and removed from his position with access to sensitive materials? Perhaps his superiors should be serving as much prison time as he. (The same argument could be made about those who continued the employment of Mordecai Vanunu, up to the time that the oddly behaving individual photographed the interior of the Dimona nuclear facility and sold the pictures to a British newspaper.)
- Did Israel abandon Pollard in his time of need, when he was refused entry to the Israeli Embassy, which would have provided him at least temporary refuge from arrest?
- How hard have Israeli officials pressed the Americans over the years to release him?
- Has he served enough time, given how others have been treated for similar or more severe infractions?
- Has he hurt American Jews via the issue of dual loyalties, and is it on account of this that there are American Jews who express a lack of interest in his fate, or oppose freeing him?
- Israelis are also divided about him. While many believe that he has been punished enough, some do not want him here as the darling of the nationalist and religious right, likely to lionize him for breaking the law of the United States for the sake of Israel and the Jewish people.
The stories of both Lansky and Pollard speak to the differential weight of US and Israel, and to what extent Israel must remain the lackey of the US on issues of mutual interest.
Currently Israeli government ministers are talking about trading progress with Palestine for Pollard''s freedom. Other Israelis doubt that their country has the weight to offer such conditions to our great power ally. Some do not think Pollard''s freedom is worth the cost to our security of making concessions to the Palestinians.
It is common to hear about the US applying undesirable policies toward Israel, in keeping Pollard locked up, supporting the Palestinians on issues of settlement, and caving in to a duplicitous Iran. Perhaps now is the time tell the US to shove it, go our own against the Iranian nuclear threat, and stop conversations with Palestinians that seem to be going nowhere.
Publicity that the US was tapping into the e-mails of Israeli leaders has provoked this uptick in noise about Pollard, on the theme that if they spy on us we should be able to spy on them. The US rented a high priced flat whose windows were directly opposite those of Defense Minister Ehud Barak''s apartment. Ostensibly, the flat was to house a Marine posted at the US Embassy, but skeptics doubt that a Marine would get such pricey quarters. More likely it was meant to listen to what was being said in Barak''s flat, by means of laser devices that could get sound from the tiny vibrations of Barak''s windows.
"So what" may be the most appropriate bottom line. It''s likely that each of us spy on the other. Pollard''s problem was being blatant about his Israeli loyalties, spying from within the US defense establishment, and getting caught.
No longer are American Jews in the Foreign Service limited to non-Israel postings, with nothing closer than Turkey, Egypt, or Cyprus available to them. Several American Jews (and one Australian-American Jew) have served as US ambassadors to Israel, and have spoken in Hebrew to Israeli audiences. Other Jews are posted to the Embassy in Tel Aviv. Yet issues of Jewish identity and US policy toward Israel remain intertwined, and sensitive.
Jerusalem is not Israeli according to the US State Department. The Consulate is oriented to the West Bank, and is heavily staffed with local Palestinians. Jews who live in the area of Jerusalem must use the Consulate for whatever business they have with the US Government. Some bridle at staff members who speak Arabic to Arabs, but only English to Jews, and claim to suffer from poor service.
Most likely there are higher proportions of American Jews working in medicine, law, other sciences, and business than in sensitive government positions. However, we hear that Jews in the State Department, CIA, and other sensitive organizations feel threatened, or at least under watch, especially when the issue of Pollard surfaces. Jews wanting the serve the United States worry about suspicions that at least some of their loyalties are elsewhere.
My own career in such matters is limited in the extreme, but years ago, when still more an American than an Israeli, and when traveling for what was then called the US Information Agency, I encountered officers who pushed me to talk about Israel in places that had no Israeli contacts, then officers who criticized me for talking about Israel. On another occasion, I was asked to present a bit of my research for a gathering of academics sponsored by the CIA, but which would not be known as such. The meeting took place in Washington, and included other American-Israeli and American Jewish academics, and a number of Jews associated with the State Department, CIA, and perhaps other bodies. The papers and discussions were academic, without any political or security implications that were apparent to me. Perhaps they were meant only to supplement the officials'' knowledge of what makes Israel tick.
The publication that resulted may have gotten some academic credit for the American professors who organized the meeting, but showed no indication of its sponsorship.
Among the things we now quarrel about is the innocence, naivete, or good intentions of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and other leading Americans, along with the Jews who applaud them.
Are their pressures on Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate wise or foolish? Are they doing the best the can in the context of lingering disputes, where the dynamics of Palestinian and Israeli culture and politics keep the parties themselves from reaching accommodations?
Or have the parties already reached by themselves the only accommodation likely, manifest in the status quo? By this view, outside pressure to do more provokes Palestinian extremists, whose violence leads Israelis to dig in their heels and say, "Screw them," meaning Americans as well as Palestinians.
This Christmas season is not likely to produce any new miracles, despite our location where some old ones are believed to have occurred.