Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel-Diaspora Relations

What Can We Learn from the Pollard Case?

Daniel J. Elazar

In the years since Israel's Peace for Galilee operation in Lebanon in 1982, there has been a growing rift between the American Jewish leadership and Israel regarding appropriate political tactics to insure Israel's security and survival. In 1987 the American Jewish Congress and Rabbi Alexander Schindler of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations actually adopted a policy of openly criticizing policies and actions of Israel in the American media and other public forums. In many respects the last straw for these American Jewish leader that brought them to break their silence was the Pollard case.

Jonathan Pollard, a young American Jew with romantic Zionist ideas, with his wife Ann as an accomplice, used his position in U.S Naval intelligence to supply classified information on the Arab states to the Israeli government through the Israeli spymaster in Washington, Rafi Eitan, and the then - military attache, Aviam Sela. While Eitan insisted on paying Pollard, the young couple apparently did what they did for love of Israel. Moreover they were hardly discreet about it, although their work went unnoticed for some time. To make matters worse, Pollard was picked up by the FBI as he sought refuge in the Israeli Embassy which, as always must be in such cases, turned him away. Hence the Pollard case hit the headlines in the United States in a most dramatic way.

Now that the dust has settled in the case and the controversy surrounding it has faded from the front pages, it is appropriate to step back and try to assess what the Jewish people can learn from one of the most upsetting, painful and divisive experiences to affect Israel-American Jewish relations, as well as Israel-United States relations, in recent memory.

A Foolish and Reckless Act and an Excessive Punishment

First of all, let us establish that the vast majority of Israelis who expressed an opinion on the subject, agreed with their American Jewish brethren that the employment of an American Jew as a spy within the government of the United States was foolish and reckless and needlessly jeopardized the good relationship developed between Israel and the United States which had reached a high point under the Reagan administration. Catching Pollard, everyone agrees, opened the door to anti-Israel forces within the administration, which had been forced to keep quiet for the past several years, to launch a counter-attack, the degree of whose success is not yet known.

If there is any sympathy in Israel it is for Pollard, the man and for his wife, who have impressed most Israelis with their sincerity in doing what they did out of love for Israel. That sympathy was increased by his life sentence, far harsher than that meted out to those Americans who spied for the Soviet Union, and transfered American secrets to its major enemy, as distinct from someone who passed on American intelligence of a peripheral nature regarding third parties. In this they are joined by many American Jews and perhaps other Americans as well who, as the first wave of passion subsided, took a second look at Pollard's life term to ask why he was so severely punished relative to others. No less a person than Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, one of the leading defenders of civil rights in the United States, raised this question openly in the columns of the New York Times and drew a favorable response from other columnists around the country.

What Separates American and Israeli Jews?

The real differences between Israeli and American Jews appear on other levels. On one hand, the situation reminds the sympathetic observer of Churchill's description of the Americans and English as "kindred peoples separated by a common language." In this case we are speaking of two segments of the Jewish people separated by their common love of Israel.

American Jews love Israel as the embodiment of their ideals; in other words, as a fulfillment of their particular synthesis of American and Jewish idealism which has become the American Jewish creed, highly moralistic in its expectations and messianic in its anticipations. That kind of Israel offers nourishment and sustenance to American Jewry. When it falls short, as it does in many little ways, and more blatantly in situations like the Lebanon War or the Pollard case, many American Jews are truly hurt, seeing their ideal as violated and reacting with bitterness.

Israeli Jews, on the other hand, whatever their aspirations for Israel in the future, are presently wrapped up in their concern for Israel's survival in the face of so many enemies. Hence their love for Israel leads them to accept what at least some American Jews see as moral breaches. To most Israelis those actions often are seen in light of a higher morality of survival, in this case survival by enhancing Israel's ability to prevent war, in itself a moral good. Both communities are partially right in the focus of their love and in their moral assessment. Each sees itself as entirely correct, at least until there is time for second thoughts.

There is yet another level, however, one which reflects how much the two communities still do not really know each other despite so many decades of interaction and presumed intimacy. Isralis simply do not understand how American Jews feel. No matter how much some (not many) may have come to understand the matter intellectually, they cannot conceive of the American reality existentially. For them the Jewish people remains first and foremost their primordial group which commands or should command the fundamental allegiance of all Jews wherever they may be. In that sense they do not understand how American Jews have become Americans while remaining committed Jews.

American Jews, on the other hand, cannot understand how much Israelis are a Middle Eastern people, faithful to the notion that peoples, primordial ethno-religious communities, are the building blocks of the human order, that with few exceptions one is born into peoplehood and can never really leave one's original people except with a great wrenching effort. As long as no such effort is made, loyalty to one's people remains first and foremost for Israelis. Perhaps the two communities will never learn to understand each other existenstially in this matter. If so, Jews will simply have to learn to live with that misunderstanding, but both communities must keep trying.

Raising the "Dual Loyalty" Issue and Jewish Insecurity

This brings us to the proximate issue of "dual loyalty" and American Jewish security. In some respects, American Jews look upon Israel as their creation and their pet, so that when Israel seems to jeopardize their status as Americans, it is as if a faithful dog whom they have fed and cared for (and they have an exaggerated view of how much they have helped Israel, which is to be expected), has just turned around and bitten the hand that feeds it. Israelis can argue, properly, that this is a selfish attitude. That does not make it any less real, but here Israelis have a right to ask American Jews, "if you feel so American, how is it that you are so insecure?

Shlomo Avineri, who posed that question, may not know the half of it. I was in Washington, D.C. the day Pollard was arrested and in the United States in 1987 at times that happened to coincide with his sentencing and the reaction to it. What was striking on all three occasions was the degree to which the issue of dual loyalty was raised almost exclusively by Jews. In some cases, the American Jewish establishment did so itself, apparently in the hope of preventing the issue from surfacing by raising the charge in order to deny it. Even more frequently, it was raised by Jews in the media, most of whom are highly assimilated but still apparently need to demostrate their "bona fides" as Americans by constantly raising the issue. Thus Ted Koppel, who has become well-known as a good friend of Israel but who, himself, is married to a non-Jew, repeatedly devoted his Nightline program to the Pollard case, repeatedly raising the dual loyalty issue, to my mind gratuitously.

My business in the States is primarily with non-Jews and it leads me to have close contact with government and public affairs circles and to regularly monitor the media other than the major newspapers and television networks where the Jewish presence is so strong. Maybe they were just being polite, but I did not find any signs of non-Jews raising the dual loyalty issue independently.

The level of American Jewish insecurity is astounding. As one who was born and raised in a religiously observant, Zionist, Hebrew-oriented home in the midwestern and western United States, it was not until I became an adult that it even occured to me that this could be a real issue. Perhaps this was my naivete or perhaps it reflected a high degree of integration in American life. Nevertheless, since 1973 I have watched with ever-growing amazement how American Jews keep looking for anti-semitsm to fall upon them as a result of some Israel-related crisis. So far it has not, but they keep escalating the stakes. As Avineri suggests, American Jewry would do well to examine its deeper self in this respect.

On the other hand, even Jacob Neusner has a point in his excessive, unnecessary, and tasteless Washington Post article, of March 11, 1987. In an immediate sense, the United States may indeed be more physically secure for Jews than embattled Israel and, although he is dead wrong in seeing Israeli culture as limited and parochial, in certain ways there may be a greater flowering of a wider range of Jewish ideas in free, pluralistic and affluent America than in an Israel under siege. But why make the comparison? What is it that drives some people to suggest that the other group is not what it hopes to be in order to justify who they are? America can be praised for what it is without denigrating Israel and it is unseemly for an American Jew, no matter how committed to the United States, to do so. Denigration is different from criticism. It is certainly legitimate to criticize Israeli actions and one can do so without in the least bit denigrating the Jewish state, but that is not what Neusner does. Neusner's brilliance enables him to go immediately for the jugular, but even where he may have a point, it is not to his credit to make it.

Israeli Authorities Misunderstand American
Courtesy and Political Morality

The Israeli authorities also have a lot to learn. As many analysts assumed, the decision to employ Pollard was not traced back to senior ministers. If experience is any guide, in no government do ministers themselves actually deploy field agents. The usual rule is that those on the political level give their spymasters tasks and then say to them "do what you have to and don't let us know about it." Were that not the case, there would never be a moment when any political figure was safe. Spying is by definition a dirty business, a little more, a little less, and the political leadership have to insulate themselves from it.

The foolishness of the Israeli leadership is in misassessing the American response. Israelis still do not understand American political culture and political morality, even after observing Watergate and more recently, Irangate. This is not the place to go into an explanation of why Americans are like they are, but Americans apply strict moral standards in the political realm of a kind probably never applied in any other country (Canada may come close, influenced as it is by the United States). Moreover the structure of the American political system with its separation of powers makes it well nigh impossible to quash issues such as the Pollard case. Congress would invariably get into the act. Even within the executive branch, presidents do not rule the roost in these matters. If nothing else, Justice Department investigators take a professional pride in being fearless in their work and showing no favor. In this case they were probable egged on by anti-Israel elements, but even without that, in all likelihood they would have acted as they did.

The "normal" processes in international relations would lead the Israelis to expect that Pollard uncovered was an embarrassment, but since two friendly states were involved, the issue would be resolved at the political level. That is to say, there would be whatever appropriate apoligies and reparations made and then the political leadership of the offended country would quiet the matter for the sake of continued good relations. Apparently they did not understand that things cannot be handled like that in the United States. Certainly not in our time. The media would go about their business of "exposing" without restraint. Every aspect of America's moralistic political streak would come to the fore and, since this moralistic streak coincides with American Jewish political moralism it would be reinforced by the most articulate elements in American society -- the Jews.

Israelis in authority apparently continued to misjudge American courtesy as well. One can have little doubt that Prime Minister Shamir came back from his February 1987 visit to the United States encouraged that the matter was ended. Prior to his trip the American Jewish leadership had brought heavy pressure to bear on him not to go on the grounds that the timing was very bad. Pollard was due to be sentenced during the time Shamir was to be in the country and in general the climate was not good. Shamir persisted for his own reasons and the American government obliged by postponing the sentencing and by not raising the issue with him. Since this would not have been the Israli way - Israelis everything on their sleeves - Shamir and his colleagues were lulled into thinking that they could go back to business as usual. Hence the unfortunate timing of Rafi Eitan's appointment and Aviam Sela's promotion. . The Israeli leadership must learn to better understand the United States if it is to properly assess American reactions on other issues that may even be more vital to Israel's future.

The Unstatesmanlike Response of American Jewish Leaders

On the other hand, American Jews have to climb down from their moralistic hobby horse, which was reflected in their expectation that Eitan and Sela should be cast out of the temple forever. They have to understand that Israelis, however wrong and foolish they believe employing Pollard was, will inevitably take into consideration the long and excellent service records of both men. They will never be brought to believe that one mistake, which after all caused no fatalities or wars, demands such an overrighteous reaction. This, indeed was one of the greatest sticking points in communication between the two communities. Neither can understand the other's view on the subject of punishment of the Israeli principals.

Finally - and this is probably too much to expect - American Jewry should take this opportunity to reexamine the way it responds to such issues as an organizaed community. In a private conversation, one of the leading elder statesmen of American Jewry reflected on how unseemly it was for the American Jewish leadership to fall over their feet to run to Israel to publicly lecture the Israeli leadership on how to behave in the aftermath of the case. Dignity has its place in international relations and it is a very important one. Those American Jewish organizations engaged in external relations (what American Jews call "community relations") will in almost every case sacrifice dignity for publicity since they live off of the latter; hence the unseemly scramble for column inches in the New York Times. But this, too, is registered by friends and foes alike, who undoubtedly have come to certain conclusions about how the Jewish people does its business and, in turn, how to do business with the Jewish people.

All told, the Pollard case was far from being our finest hour. Let us at least try to learn from our mistakes.

Elazar Papers Index / JCPA Home Page / Top of Page