The Pollard puzzle: A pension but no parade - opinion

When a defendant, no matter how guilty, is punished too harshly, justice miscarries.

JONATHAN POLLARD arrives at US District Court in New York City in 2016. (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
JONATHAN POLLARD arrives at US District Court in New York City in 2016.
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
Writing about Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who spied on America for the Jewish state, isn’t like walking across a minefield, it’s worse – like stomping on every hidden trap in the bomb-strewn area. You trigger all kinds of explosions, as fragments start flying everywhere.
Last month, I devoted barely 200 words of a 900-word column to opposing a hero’s welcome for Pollard when he (eventually) comes to Israel. Even though the US punished him unfairly, he did commit crimes against Israel’s cherished ally. My few words generated outrage, including calls from lawyers, misleading letters to The Jerusalem Post claiming I never denounced his punishment – which I did, passionately – even an attack against me as I prayed on Shabbat.
So why return to this hair-trigger topic? Because, amid the cross fire, some Pollard supporters made an intriguing argument. Rather than joining the pile-on and questioning my intelligence, integrity and patriotism, they thoughtfully challenged my statement that Pollard shopped “American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan.”
Acknowledging that my research uncovered these charges in multiple sources, they didn’t claim I made them up. Instead, they blamed the disinformation campaign America’s national security apparatus launched against Pollard. That counter-allegation sounded far-fetched, outrageous and thus perverse enough to be true.
ON NOVEMBER 21, 1985, FBI agents arrested the 31-year-old Pollard outside Israel’s Washington embassy. Since June 1984, Pollard had photocopied stacks of classified documents from the Naval Intelligence Support Center where he worked. Pollard pleaded guilty, sparing the government the embarrassment of detailing the secrets he stole – and to protect his wife at the time. Nevertheless, in 1987 judge Aubrey Robinson, Jr. trashed the plea bargain and sentenced Pollard to life imprisonment.
Most Americans caught spying for allies serve two to four years. Many Americans who spied for the Soviet Union barely served a decade. When Pollard was released after three decades in 2015, The New York Times deemed him the “only American ever sentenced to life in prison for spying for an ally.”
Robinson threw the book at Pollard because secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger wrote a searing secret 46-page presentence “damage assessment memorandum.” In an additional four-page unclassified memo, Weinberger claimed: “It is difficult... to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant.”
Pollard was unfairly blamed for many other US intelligence leaks which were later exposed. Also, beyond a general dislike for Israel in certain circles, Weinberger was overcompensating for his Jewish-sounding last name. He believed he lost a California state election in 1958 “because the Jews knew I wasn’t, and the gentiles thought I was.”
Pollard’s betrayal was a guided missile aimed at American Jewish sensitivities. He was the American Jewish nightmare, a proud Zionist and Stanford-educated high achiever who proved, as Weinberger hissed, that his “loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States.” But when a defendant, no matter how guilty, is punished too harshly, justice miscarries.
As the Pollard controversy raged, the legendary former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg conferred with judge Robinson. Robinson explained that the government gave him evidence emphasizing Israel’s military connection with South Africa and Pollard’s role in confirming Americans’ knowledge about the cooperation.
By then, one of Goldberg’s former law clerks, Alan Dershowitz, was representing Pollard. Dershowitz investigated and on January 15, 1990, told Goldberg that Pollard had nothing to do with South Africa.
Dershowitz reported: Goldberg was “quite upset” that “the Justice Department had improperly ‘pandered’ [that was his precise word] to judge Robinson’s racial sensitivities as a black judge by providing him with false, inflammatory, ex parte information.”
Four days later, Goldberg died, making the story reliant on hearsay – but plausible given the US government’s irrational crusade against Pollard.
Building on this foundation formalized in Dershowitz’s affidavit of March 27, 1990 – which some accept, others question – Pollard’s supporters claim the allegations about peddling information to South Africa and possibly Pakistan were more attempts to sully Pollard’s name among Zionists and African-Americans.
THESE ULTIMATELY sidebar controversies don’t change my recommendation from last month: Israel should grant Pollard a pension for time served – but no parade. The homecoming should be as secret as Pollard wanted his earlier ties to Israel to be.
Spying is lying. Spying against enemies wraps you in glory; spying on friends clouds you in muck. That’s because betraying enemies dazzles; betraying your own disgusts. Israelis should acknowledge the complexity of Pollard’s deeds, for Americans and American Jews.
Ethics of the Fathers, 3:11, teaches that someone who “puts his friend to shame publicly... will have no share in the World to Come... even if he has Torah and good deeds in his hand” (emphasis added). Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in his majestic Sage Advice, explains that humiliating a friend “is one of the gravest sins a person can commit.” The Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b, says: “better to throw oneself into a flaming oven rather than to shame someone publicly.”
Let’s toast the good Pollard’s information did for Israel’s security – discretely – without rubbing our American friends’ noses in it.
Ultimately, this isn’t about Pollard. He deserves to be left alone after decades of unnecessary prison suffering. It’s about us. Too many Israelis practice a bratty nationalism, taking a kid-brother, stamp-your-feet, demanding, “magia li” (I deserve it all) approach to their American older brother. It’s time for a more mature, nuanced nationalism, reflecting our greater sense of security, not thousands of years of justified insecurity.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.