Vic Rosenthal's weekly column
The arrival of Jonathan Pollard in Israel 35 years after his arrest for espionage on Israel’s behalf has made me think about the position of the Jew in the diaspora, particularly in America.
There are facts about Pollard’s case that are shrouded in mystery (for example, the still-secret Caspar Weinberger memo that in part convinced the judge in his case, Aubrey Robinson, to abrogate his plea bargain and sentence him to life imprisonment).
There is very little impartial material written about his case. Did he do what he did out of Zionist motives or did he do it for the money (or both)? Was Judge Robinson influenced by accusations that Pollard had aided the apartheid South African regime? These questions are discussed here (from a pro-Pollard perspective). Was the sentence outrageously unfair or, as some say, was it too light? Was his sentence, like the one given to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, intended as a warning to disloyal ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews? It is possible to find documentation of various degrees of trustworthiness to support disparate narratives.
It is certain that Pollard provided a great deal of useful information to Israel about her regional enemies that had been withheld by the US. It is also certain that Pollard was abandoned by Israel, expelled from the embassy in Washington where he sought asylum, into the arms of the FBI. And it is certain that he received the harshest sentence by far ever handed down to someone for spying for an American ally, harsher yet than what some who spied for the Soviets received.
Early Wednesday morning, Pollard was met at the airport by PM Netanyahu, who said the shehecheyanu with him and personally handed him his Israeli identity document. This of course immediately made him a political football in Israel, to the extent that he wasn’t already. But that’s not what I want to discuss.
What interests me today is the attitudes of American Jews toward Pollard, and what that tells us about how they see themselves and their position as diaspora Jews.
The diaspora has generally not been a friendly place for Jews since their expulsion from Judea after the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt by the Romans on Tisha b’Av, 135 CE. Always outsiders, they were often exploited, expelled, oppressed, and even exterminated by their hosts. But – especially between the end of WWII and the beginning of the 21st century – the USA has been different. Although there are examples of anti-Jewish riots and lynchings, and discrimination in employment, education, and residence, the position of Jews in America for a long period has probably been as good as or better than anywhere else in the diaspora.
Like Homer Simpson, an American Jew has two tiny creatures that sit on his or her shoulders and whisper. One says, “you are an American like other Americans, even if you are Jewish. This is your home. You have rights here.” And the other says, “never forget that you are a Jew. Your existence is precarious. Keep your suitcase packed.” I think that American Jewish attitudes toward Pollard are derived from the interaction of these voices.
On one occasion, a friend told me that “Pollard should have been executed, like the Rosenbergs.” This from a liberal American Jew who, I’m certain, opposes capital punishment in general. “America was good to him and he spit in its face,” he continued. “He was a traitor both to his country and to other Jews, who will always be suspected of having dual loyalties.”
This particular Jew is more knowledgeable than most Americans about Israel, a strong Zionist and supporter of causes related to Israel. But at the same time he was one of the approximately 69% of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama’s second term, when it should have been obvious to anyone that he was far from a friend of Israel (unlike his opponent, Mitt Romney). Needless to say, President Trump’s remarkably strong pro-Israel stance doesn’t sway my friend from his strong antagonism to the president.
When I listen to him, I hear both voices. My friend is proud of being American and takes what he sees as patriotic American positions. His center of gravity is in the US. But at the same time, there is that other small voice, the one that reminds him that as a Jew, he is less than entirely secure in America. He worries that Pollard’s actions might cause an increase in antisemitism among non-Jewish Americans. And maybe sometimes at 3 AM, he wonders if he shouldn’t have a packed suitcase under his bed.
So it is very important for him to let everyone know that American Jews in general, and he in particular, are good Americans. Maybe better Americans than some non-Jews.
This is a position fraught with cognitive dissonance.
There are American Jews that strongly support Pollard. Some (unlike my friend) are Orthodox Jews, like Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the former head of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization of Orthodox synagogues. Lerner visited Pollard in prison countless times, and helped obtain financial support for him after his release when he was unable to work. Pollard “got religion” in prison, and that may be part of it. But I have also heard some Orthodox Jews strongly denounce Pollard in words like my friend’s. And, on the other side, the Reform Movement passed a resolution to ask President Clinton to commute Pollard’s sentence in 1993; its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs (whom I usually love to criticize), visited him in prison along with representatives of the Conservative movement.
Pollard is a litmus test of some sort, but it is not either one for Right vs. Left or Orthodox vs. (religiously) liberal. It’s something else. I know that my grandmother, who lost siblings in the Holocaust and from whom I inherited much of my sensibility, would have instinctively stuck up for Pollard, despite the fact that she was very proud of the paper that said she was an American citizen.
I think it’s related to what I called “center of gravity” above. If your center of gravity is in the diaspora you have to worry that someday you will be uprooted. If it’s located with the Jewish people, you may be less comfortable in the diaspora, but you have fewer illusions.
Where is your center of gravity?