The human spirit: Prisoners of Zion

The subject of loyalty is deeply embedded in every American Jew’s consciousness, but the time has come for every single one of them to demand Jonathan Pollard’s release.

Jonathan Pollard vigil 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jonathan Pollard vigil 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In this season of taking stock, of counting our blessings and regretting our faults, we recognize with profound appreciation that we live at a time when the Jewish communities of the world are free.
When I speak to student groups about one of the great dramas of my lifetime – the exodus of the Jews of Russia and how, to use Natan Sharansky’s words, “housewives and students” defeated the powerful Soviet Union, I might as well be telling them a Hanukka story. They don’t know who Sharansky is, and the term “Prisoner of Zion” has little meaning.
That’s not a criticism. What molded our lives doesn’t have to mold theirs.
In more recent times, we have directed our efforts to finding and freeing individual Jews, mostly soldiers of the IDF who are missing in action: Ron Arad, Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Guy Hever, Zachary Baumel. I wonder if I am the only one who, for so many years, included Gilad ben Aviva (Schalit) in the entreaties of my daily prayers? And who sees that he occasionally still finds his way in, before I remind myself that he was freed last October?
Where does Yehonatan ben Malka fit in our private and community prayers?
He’s not incarcerated in an underground cell in Gaza or in a Communist prison. Yehonatan ben Malka is an Israeli citizen whose exact location we know. Prisoner number 09185016. Butner Federal Correction Complex in Granville County, North Carolina. Jonathan Pollard.
I was eight years old, walking from public school to Hebrew school in Colchester, Connecticut, stopping at Fanny Miller’s candy store for fireballs and chocolate-covered raisins, already taking part in the great debate with my Jewish friends. “What would you do if America and Israel went to war against each other?” we asked each other.
The subject of loyalty was deeply embedded into our consciousness as American Jews. Somehow you knew that your Irish and Polish and Italian classmates weren’t having a parallel debate. In a sense we were hyper-patriots. We couldn’t take freedom and security of America for granted like the Daughters of American Revolution in town.
At the same time, the values of liberty and justice resonated with both our Americanism and Judaism. In the rare circumstances I heard the names Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans to be executed for spying in the Cold War (in 1953), the subject was quickly hushed up.
By the time I was 12, I’d read one of the early Holocaust accounts: Judith Sternberg Newman’s biography In the Hell of Auschwitz. Newman’s relatives lived in Colchester. On one hand, I felt even luckier that my grandparents had left Eastern Europe for the United States. On the other hand, the need to protect the Jewish people was imperative.
Grave errors had been made in America towards the Jewish people. Although I felt unhampered by my Jewish identity to attend any university, a generation earlier talented Jews faced admission quotas and certain branches of the armed forces were known to be difficult for Jews to enter. The US, with its wide-open spaces and supposed immigrant culture, didn’t take on an organized rescue policy for Jewish victims of Nazi Germany until 1944.
Think of the 937 passengers on the ship called the St. Louis, refugees from Germany, sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, being turned back to the Nazis in May 1939.
Public opposition to immigration, xenophobia and anti-Semitism kept immigration restrictions rigid even after World War II. In addition to the moral greatness of saving the Jewish people, imagine what America would be like today if the country had taken in the Jews of Europe. Take even the simplest parameter: Nobel Prize winners. Thirty-seven percent of American winners are Jews – and that is without the Six Million.
You couldn’t count on the US to avoid making additional errors about the fate of the Jews. What would any of us do if we were in the position to raise the alarm and help avert a future catastrophe? Even back in Hebrew school the answer was clear.
Jonathan Pollard was born in Texas in August 1954, and grew up in Indiana. While working as an American civilian in intelligence in Washington, Pollard saw classified material that contained information about maintaining Israel’s security. I don’t care that he was paid – Mossad agents get salaries, too, for taking on dangerous work.
You can spend hours reading the details of his case online and the strong opinions it has generated. Here’s the short of it: Pollard’s illegal activities for Israel were detected. He sought asylum in the Israeli Embassy in Washington but was rejected. To avoid an embarrassing trial, Pollard was persuaded to agree to a plea bargain that would also guarantee that he wasn’t given a maximum sentence. He expressed profound regret for his actions. The prosecutor complied with the plea agreement and asked for “only a substantial number of years in prison.” Nonetheless, Judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr. imposed a life sentence after hearing a “damage assessment memorandum” from the defense secretary.
That was in 1987. Unless he receives a presidential pardon, Pollard’s possible parole won’t come until November 21, 2015.
No one has ever revealed what documents Pollard gave Israel in 11 deliveries of confidential files about the Middle East. Was the information critical in convincing Israel to knock out the nuclear plant in Osirak, Iraq? If so, his perspicuity saved not only Jewish lives but American lives, too.
WHY, THEN, is he still in jail?
Among those who opposed Pollard’s release was his former boss, the late US Navy Rear Adm. Sumner Shapiro, who served as director of the Office of Naval Intelligence from 1978 to 1982. Said Shapiro: “We work so hard to establish ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up... and then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me.”
Pollard’s incarceration, then, isn’t only about spying. To a Jew who rose to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy, he should be punished for threatening the hard-won proof that he was as loyal an American as his neighbors.
After shameful denials, Israel admitted that Pollard was working for us and declared him an Israeli citizen. His release is often mentioned in connection with prisoner swaps and peace deals, to sweeten an otherwise hard-to-swallow deal. Former US deputy defense secretary Lawrence Korb said “the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies” in American foreign policy.” Do any of us doubt that US Vice President Joe Biden’s vituperation against Pollard had less do with the spy’s deeds than his anger towards the State of Israel?
Nonetheless, more than a quarter-century after Pollard was jailed, many voices across the political spectrum agree that his punishment was excessive. Left-wing Congressman Barney Frank is in rare agreement with rightwing former House speaker Newt Gingrich on this one. Former CIA director James Woolsey says Pollard’s punishment is excessive. Even former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger admitted that “the Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance.”
As we enter 5773 – an election year in the US – Jews of every political orientation should be able to agree that the time to release Pollard and make their views known is now. Synagogue members of every orientation should include him in public declarations. To quote accused spy Sharansky, who now heads the Jewish Agency: “The time has come to vigorously and loudly demand his freedom.”
From one Prisoner of Zion to another.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.