US President Barack Obama’s impending visit to Israel has reignited once more the question about Jonathan Pollard, and whether after 27 years he should be set free.In this debate, there is an ugly, generally unspoken, truth about Pollard’s sentence: it is only tangentially connected to Israel. He continues to rot in prison both because of the enormous success enjoyed by American Jews, and to prevent the Pollard case from jeopardizing that success.Generally, those who support Pollard’s release want the discussion to be about Pollard’s disproportionate and excessive sentence. If this was a typical spy case, that argument would have been accepted over a decade ago.
Until 2001, some suggested that perhaps Pollard’s secrets ended up unintentionally in Soviet hands, and that this had resulted in the death of almost a dozen American spies. Yet the discovery of two highly placed Soviet, then Russian spies--Aldrich Ames (a CIA counter-intelligence chief arrested in 1994) and Robert Hanssen (an FBI agent arrested in 2001)—made it clear that Pollard had no connection to the issue at all.Yet, that was 12 years ago. Indeed, as more light has been shed on the case over the past 27 years, it has become impossible to explain why Pollard was the only person to receive a life sentence for spying on behalf of an ally in peace time—a sentence without parallel in American history. By what measure of justice does Pollard deserve the same prison sentence as Ames and Hanssen, who both actively undermined American national security by selling out American spies to its arch enemy?To appreciate the miscarriage of justice, compare Pollard with Steven J. Lalas, an American of Greek ethnicity who sold hundreds of documents to the Greek government, including the identities of CIA agents and information about US military movements. Despite the gravity of Lalas’ crimes, and despite his failure to fully disclose the extent of his activities to the FBI, he only received 14 years in prison.Perhaps the most “apples to apples” comparison is with Robert Kim, a Korean-American who, like Pollard, worked as a civilian analyst for the Navy at Suitland, Maryland, passing secrets about North Korea to South Korea. Kim only received 9 years for his crime because he—just like Pollard—cooperated and reached a plea bargain. Only with Kim, the US government honored their part of the bargain.But again, Pollard’s is not a typical spy case. Had he sold similar information to Australia or Saudi Arabia, Pollard would not have become a household name and would have been freed long ago.Pollard’s case was dealt with disproportionately because it resonated with one of the oldest, and most tenacious, anti-Semitic aspersions ever cast on the Jews: dual-loyalty. Neither Koreans nor Greeks are the subject of such unshakable suspicions.At the same time, American Jews have become more fully integrated in American political and governmental life than in any other country (spare Israel) at any other time. They are exceedingly prominent in both Republican and Democratic parties, serve in the most senior positions of every administration in every agency, and thus have access to America’s top secrets.When Pollard used this access to give Israel reams of classified information, he struck at both the heart of this vulnerability and the heart of this centuries-old suspicion.Thus the reason Pollard continues to rot in prison, even as his health fails him, is for the same reason historically governments kept the corpses of those executed in the town square. The stench filling citizens’ nostrils was a reminder of what would happen should one break the covenant with their society. As Isabel Kirshner of the New York Times summarized the CIA position in 2010, “the release of Mr. Pollard would send a bad message about how the United States viewed people who traded in American secrets.”But the point is not really to deter Americans. Pollard’s suffering is meant to deter other American Jews.However, the irony most observers miss, especially in Israel, is that Pollard’s sentence created a way for American Jews to move beyond the Pollard scandal, and allowed them to continue to play a central role in America’s most sensitive positions. Correspondingly, the longer Pollard has sat in prison, and the more the American government appears merciless in his case, the more American Jews can continue without fear that they will be suspect because everyone knows what happens to a Jew caught spying for Israel.This dynamic is so strong that we should not be surprised if one day we learn that some of America’s most influential Jews have not just abstained from working on behalf of Pollard’s release, they may have actively sabotaged it.To push an already controversial topic even further, allow me to suggest that if some prominent American Jews indeed undermined Pollard, the knee-jerk reaction of many in the American Jewish community in the will be to condemn them. Yet with a bit of perspective, those same American Jews probably owe them more gratitude than disdain. The fact is it worked. Since Pollard’s arrest, Jews have only climbed higher up the federal government ladder. When Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President in 2000, the question of dual loyalty did not dog him.All this said, eventually, even medieval courts would take down the rotting body once the message was clearly sent. Pollard is no innocent. He betrayed the oath he took and he jeopardized the ability of American Jews to work for their government doubtless being raised about where their true loyalties lie. But after 27 years, let’s hope Obama realizes it is time to bury this and move on.The writer is Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.