A Despondent Celebration for Jonathan Pollard
On November 21, 2015, Jonathan Pollard will be released from federal prison, according to the US Parole Commission. His release marks the end of a 30 year incarceration, much of which he spent in solitary confinement, that resulted from charges of passing sensitive intelligence information to Israel.
Those who maintain Pollard’s guilt cite a number of factors to justify his punishment: The law doesn’t distinguish between the allies and non-allies with respect to espionage, much of the intelligence data supposedly handed to Israel ended up in the Soviet Union’s possession, Pollard’s services were motivated by greed rather than Israeli security interests, and the information was given to Israel only after attempting to sell information to several other countries that certainly couldn’t be considered allies.
To be sure, I’ve read countless articles, attended lectures and protests, and even watched documentaries about Pollard’s case. I grew up around individuals engaged in pro-Pollard activism, and can coolly recite the list of grievances that Pollard supporters cite in his defense. I can tell you that Pollard provided an ally with information vital to its security, the government’s prosecutor failed to uphold his end of a plea bargain, other convicted spies’ whose damage appears to have far surpassed Pollard received comparatively light sentences, bombastic statements by then Secretary of State Casper Weinberger suggested an anti-Semitic bias, and the imprisonment of Anne (now his ex-wife) was uncalled-for and unprecedented. These arguments suggest, compellingly in my opinion, that – independent of his guilt or innocence - Pollard’s trial was hopelessly biased, and his sentence outrageous.
But I wasn’t alive when Pollard was originally imprisoned. My opinions and perceptions related to the case were formed relatively recently. Articles bolstered by evidence that has emerged over the last three decades, I suspected, don’t tell the full story of Jonathan Pollard. Controversies, especially those thrust into the international spotlight, develop over time as tempers cool and more information becomes available. To develop a nuanced understanding of the origins of the controversy, reading the facts and opinions from the 1980’s – when Pollard was originally arrested and tried – would be absolutely essential.
In pursuit of some type of context, or perhaps my own version of closure as a tumultuous three decades comes to an end, I sifted through dozens of articles and publications appearing since 1985, including decades-worth of articles appearing in The Commentator, looking for some type of insight into the development of the controversy.
My findings (which are by no means based on exhaustive research) surprised me: The reasoning and rhetoric from three decades ago maintains an extraordinary degree of similarity to what is written nowadays. In 30 years, the arguments against the length of his imprisonment have not changed, and the competing accusations haven’t developed a bit.
Certainly, new documents and interviews have emerged throughout the years, but positions of political import had already been staked, and, in defense of those positions, interpretations of new evidence became a predictable give-and-take of unrestrained vitriol. At a certain point, what may have started as a legitimate investigation of a man who passed sensitive intelligence to another government became a vicious battle of egos to be fought on an international stage.
Even without the surfacing of new information, Pollard made headlines every few years in the context of presidential commutation or the possibility of securing his release as a bargaining chip in some ongoing negotiation. Half-healed wounds were torn open, with one side crying accusations of anti-Semitism and the other responding with charges of dual loyalty. Over time, Jonathan Pollard became more an object of controversy than a human being.
So I’ve never known Jonathan Pollard as a human being. Nor have most in my generation. When I was born, he had already spent several years decaying in federal prison. To me, he’s a picture of desperate eyes staring from behind bars, a poster at a rally calling for Justice, or a flyer advertising one of many lobbying efforts to secure his release.
For those who have sought to justify his imprisonment and his status as a traitor to the United States, November 21 will provide a resolution. Through constant pressure - most notably when George Tenet, the CIA director, threatened to resign his post during the Wye negotiations - they ensured that he completed his sentence. Those people can sleep with the smug satisfaction that justice has been served to a deserving criminal.
But for those who supported Pollard, whether by maintaining his innocence or by protesting the degree of his punishment, his release provides no closure whatsoever. The underlying trope of government-sponsored anti-Semitism will not abate with his release. Charges of American Jews’ dual national loyalties will manifest themselves in other issues. The political fights surrounding Pollard will likely relocate to new battlegrounds and find fresh blood to spill. They will seek other humans and objectify them.
Though Pollard might resume something that resembles normal life, his name will forever be associated with political conflict and he will never truly shed his status as an object. The only celebration appropriate for the release of Jonathan Pollard, then, is one tempered by a deep sense of despondency for the loss of his humanity.