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The Man in the Mirror
Two decades into his life sentence, Jonathan Pollard casts a long shadow from his prison cell.

by David Holzel

In March 1987, I was attending a gathering of Jewish journalists in New York City, when I happened to scan the front page of the New York Times. A headline noted that Jonathan Pollard was to be sentenced that day, and as I read the article, my sense of reality shifted. An American Jew, guilty of one count of passing classified material to Israel, was

almost certainly about to receive a life sentence, and not a word of it had been mentioned at this gathering of Jewish newspaper editors and writers.

If there was a story for a Jewish journalist, this was it. It threw a glaring light onto the hyphenated identity of the American-Jew. It raised the question of how far an American Jew would be willing to go to help Israel, if it were in his power to render the Jewish state singular assistance. And it raised a mirror to those who dared to look at a reflection that asked: “We say we revere the martyrs who went to their death saying the Shema, rather than desecrate the name of God. Is that empty sentimentality, or do we truly believe in sticking our necks out for a just cause?”

For all that, not a word from my colleagues. And suddenly my conscience became a clock ticking down the minutes until Pollard was put away for life. All Jews are responsible for each other, we are fond of saying, but I could do nothing to stop that clock ticking down on an American Jew, just four years older than I, a Zionist who wanted to see Israel safe, and who, from his position as an analyst for the U.S. Navy, had passed military information to Israel that the U.S. had withheld.

It soon will be 20 years since that date – March 4, 1987. Jonathan Pollard and I have grown from impetuous young men to something like middle age. We have never met or spoken. But since that day, he has been my shadow. Whenever I have looked for him he is there, in prison.

Considering the indifference of my employers,
I am still baffled why they allowed me to write an editorial stridently sympathetic to Pollard. Then I was given the assignment of traveling to South Bend, Indiana, where the Pollard family lived. In a clubby Notre Dame dining room, I had lunch with Jonathan’s father, Morris, a microbiologist at the university, and Jonathan's mother, Mollie.

That day they conveyed to me their grief at what happened to their son and their frustration over the shoddy legal representation Jonathan had received. Along with Jonathan’s older sister Carol, Dr. and Mrs. Pollard were the main sources for my article. It was, I think, the first lengthy story about Pollard in the Jewish press.

In those days, when those who called themselves American Jewish leaders, and the organizations they led, were silent about Pollard, I learned that there were three types of Jews who vociferously were not – Holocaust survivors, the Orthodox, and the crazies.

I’ve often wondered why. From experience, Holocaust survivors know that staying quiet and following the rules isn’t always enough when it comes to preserving Jewish lives. Pollard’s willingness to break the law because it could potentially save Jews was exactly what there wasn’t enough of during the Holocaust.


There were three types of Jews who vociferously supported Pollard – Holocaust survivors, the Orthodox, and the crazies.

Orthodox Jews are less burdened about what for others is a sense of dual loyalty between their American-ness and their love for Israel. Because their Jewishness is very much on display, many have to stick their necks out to exercise their freedom of religion. That Pollard stuck his neck out for Israel was something to be commended, not condemned.

The crazies, who never fit in anywhere because they can't or won't conform, have nothing to lose in speaking up for another marginal figure, Pollard.

I’m still not sure where I fit in. For years I was razzed by Jewish friends and colleagues for continuing to push the Pollard issue. I advocated dedicating an empty seat on the synagogue bimah to Pollard, to lighting a candle for Pollard. Similar symbolic acts were done for Soviet Jews. But apparently it is easier – or less disconcerting – to identify with the more abstract plight of Jews caught in a foreign dictatorship than it is to hold a place for someone a lot more like us who is serving a life sentence for aiding Israel.

Pollard embarrassed most American Jews. He broke the law to help Israel. Having to explain that to other Americans, let alone to the face in the mirror, was just too uncomfortable. Isn’t America a good place for Jews? Isn’t America good to Israel? So how could he have repaid America by passing its secrets to Israel and possibly ruin a good thing? Better he should stay where he is and we forget about him.

It’s ironic that polls showed that few Americans realize that Pollard is a Jew. What is real is that Pollard received a sentence disproportionate to the crime he committed. As Edwin Black wrote:

"Pollard has by far received the longest sentence in U.S. history for spying for a friendly government. His life term rivals only those handed down to America's greatest traitors, such as Aldrich Ames, whose treachery killed American agents, and John Walker who revealed our nuclear submarine positions to the Soviets. In fact, at least one of Walker's family of accomplices has already been released after serving 15 years of a 25-year sentence."

So it was a surprise, and a relief, to meet two up-and-coming Federation machers in Atlanta, one an attorney and the other a real-estate developer, who were nudging the Jewish community there about Pollard. One of them even visited Pollard where he is being held, at the Federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.

For their trouble, these two men earned the not entirely complimentary nickname “The Pollard Twins.” They were both participants in the Wexner program, a high-intensity program to teach up-and-coming Jewish leaders about Judaism. When the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim – rescuing

More on Pollard

Justice For Pollard
The nexus of all things Pollard.

In Hebrew.

A Reflection of Our Insecurities
Veteran Jewish journalist James D. Besser used the mirror metaphor back in 2002 as he reflected on Pollard's uncomfortable effect on American Jews.

The Pollard Case
Denise Noe writes on Pollard as near noir for Crime Library.

captives – was discussed, the two made the connection with Pollard.

Pollard does seem more like a captive than a prisoner. He remains chained by a secret – by a 46-page classified memorandum that then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger submitted to federal Judge Aubrey Robinson. The public has never been allowed to see this memo, which reportedly outlines the damage Pollard did to American security and which, David Zwiebel writes, “is widely cited as a major reason that the judge ultimately sentenced Pollard to life in prison for espionage.”
 The day before Pollard was sentenced, Weinberger submitted an additional memo to the court, in which he accused Pollard of treason.

The accusation was dramatic, but inaccurate. Pollard was not charged or convicted of treason. Worse, to this day the public has not been allowed to see and judge the secret information Weinberger supposedly presented. That we are expected to accept Pollard’s life sentence without hearing a credible reason enlists us in what amounts to a witch hunt.

The witch hunt has had the intended chilling effect
Every judicial appeal, every attempt at clemency for Pollard has failed. And yet I cling to the belief that, whoever else Jonathan Pollard may be, he is a Jew who attempted to help Israel, an American who has been denied justice, and that his punishment far outweighs his crime. He has served his time.

Just as disappointing to me has been how the Israeli leadership turned its back on Pollard. While the Israeli public is sympathetic, those in power have distanced themselves.

When I interviewed Shimon Peres in February 1995, I asked him for his thoughts on Pollard. At the time of our interview, Peres was Israel's foreign minister. But he was prime minister when Pollard was passing documents to his Israeli contacts, in what an Israeli government investigation after Pollard's arrest cynically called "a rogue operation."

As I wrote of the exchange at the time, “Before I even finished my question, Mr. Peres, who until that point in the interview seemed half asleep, turned his head and glared at me.... ‘No, no, no,’ he said. ‘I shall answer some questions, not all of them.’”

As the 20th anniversary of Pollard’s sentencing approaches, his shadow grows longer around me. He sits in prison with no release in sight. Yet the world has changed greatly in those two decades. The U.S.-Israel relationship, lauded for its closeness at the time, has grown even closer post-Sept. 11. The go-go ‘80s -- in which unrestrained entrepreneurship and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to solving problems were encouraged, and an arms-for-hostages deal was carried out by White House operatives -- was the environment in which Pollard acted. (If you’ve forgotten or are not familiar with the zeitgeist of the 1980s, watch Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" or read Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City.")

Still, if in that time and in that place you had been in Pollard’s position, what would you have done? Look into the mirror as you consider that question.

Copyright © 2007 by David Holzel



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