The Pollard Affair: Antisemitism in Government?

June 1996 - William Nicholls - Midstream

Around the affair of Jonathan Pollard hangs a nasty stink, one that many optimists thought would never assail their nostrils again. It is the stink of antisemitism in high places, and it is time we called it by its name.

The bare facts of the case are well known and have been widely reported. In 1986, Jonathan Jay Pollard, a Jewish intelligence analyst working for the US navy, was charged with spying for Israel. He made a plea bargain with his prosecutors under which he would plead guilty, but they would not ask for a life sentence. In the event, he did plead guilty to passing intelligence information to Israel, a friendly power, but the government attorneys did not stand by their side of the bargain. In a hand-delivered letter sent by Caspar Weinberger at the last minute to the judge trying the case, the then-defense secretary stated that Pollard had committed one of the gravest breaches of US security ever. He accused Pollard of treason, for which he was not on trial, and demanded a penalty "commensurate with" the crime of treason. He got his wish. Pollard was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

After his conviction and sentencing, Pollard remained in solitary confinement for seven years under appalling circumstances in Marion Penitentiary, a jail reserved for the most dangerous criminals, and denied basic rights normally extended even to such prisoners. In 1991, he moved to have his plea vacated on the ground that the government had violated the pretrial agreement. His case was heard by the Washington, DC, Court of Appeals. Two of the judges, Ruth B. Ginsberg, since appointed to the Supreme Court, and Laurence Silverman, are Jewish. The third, Judge Steven Williams, is not. The court ruled by a majority ruling consisting of the two Jewish judges to deny Pollard's plea on the technicality that he had been too late in making the motion. Judge Williams wrote an eloquent dissenting judgment, referring to "a fundamental miscarriage of justice." Later, Pollard was moved to another maximum security prison where conditions are less arduous, but still grievous, in spite of the fact that he has been reclassified as a minimum security risk.

More recently, the Israeli government has begun to take an active interest in Pollard's case. It is understood that the late Yitzhak Rabin intervened with President Clinton more than once on Pollard's behalf, without result. Earlier this year, Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship. The Knesset has passed resolutions without dissent asking for clemency for him. In the United States, a parole hearing was supposedly scheduled for January, and the news drew a large number of petitions for clemency; but nothing has been heard of it. Most recently of all, a White House spokesman, responding to pleas from Israel and elsewhere, announced that there were no plans for clemency at this time. The affair seems to be deadlocked. Meanwhile, Pollard's health appears to be deteriorating under the impact of these frustrations and disappointments.

From its inception, the affair has aroused worldwide misgivings about the justice of what was done, and there has been a gathering swell of petitions and letters from America, Canada, Israel and Europe asking President Clinton to either pardon Pollard outright or at least reduce his sentence to time served. Over a million individuals and groups have written in protest.

Although the New York Times reported on 28 December 1993 that the protests had come from American Jewish groups, this is not altogether accurate. In fact, American Jewish groups were singularly tardy in coming to Pollard's defense. Many of the leaders of such organizations, initially at least, did their utmost to distance themselves from Pollard, perhaps fearing a revival of the old antisemitic charge of double loyalty, directed against themselves as well as Pollard. Jewish groups in Canada and Europe have probably been more active in Pollard's support than those in America. Other than Jewish organizations have also been active in asking for clemency, including both Christian groups and American cities.

At the same time, though less publicly, there has been another campaign going on. It came to the surface in a leaked letter, sent to President Clinton by the late Les Aspin, during his last days as secretary of defense, advising against leniency on somewhat remarkable grounds. Whoever wrote the letter Aspin signed alleges that Pollard remains an important security risk; if he were released he would in all probability go to Israel and transmit classified information to Israel, which might at some future date no longer be a friendly power. Further, the writer alleges (with truly astonishing implausibility) that Pollard endeavored to transmit highly secret classified information in 14 of the letters he wrote while in jail, in spite of the fact that all his mail was censored, and that he was naturally fully aware of this. (A similar charge had been made earlier and formally denied by the director of naval intelligence.) Pollard is described as unrepentant, in spite of his many public declarations of repentance from the time of his trial onward.

The president is asked to believe that Pollard is some kind of master spy with almost magical powers of memory and unrelenting intention to harm his country, and with the means to do so. Pollard, the writer implies, is far more dangerous to the United States that anyone who ever spied for the Soviet Union, and he deserves far worse punishment than any of them. The aim of the campaign is to keep Pollard in confinement until the year 2015, by which time he may well have succumbed to the rigors of his treatment.

All this passes belief. To back to the beginning, and perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the whole case, what information could Pollard have possibly transmitted to Israel which would entail so much harm to the security interest of the United States? According to his own account, Pollard discovered in the course of his work that information vital to the security of

America's ally, Israel

, not to that of the United States, was not being transmitted to Israel as provided for in agreements concerning the sharing of security information. This information included the preparations of Iraq to use chemical weapons against Israel. As a result of Pollard's information, when the SCUD attacks came during the Gulf War, Israel was prepared with adequate measures against chemical weapons, and in the event there were no gas attacks.

Are we to suppose that it was in the vital security interests of the United States that Israel should be exposed defenseless to chemical attack? Apparently all the information transmitted by Pollard dealt with warlike preparations of the Arab powers who were at that time, and some of whom perhaps remain, Israel's bitter enemies. Pollard, evidently sincerely, insists that as a patriotic American he would in no circumstances have transmitted information that could actually harm the United States, and that he did not in fact do so.

If all this is the case, and it has not been refuted, how has the United States been harmed? There is a story, unsupported and not very convincing, of some of this intelligence deliberately or accidentally getting from Israel to the Soviet Union. At worst, however, Pollard's information could have permitted the Soviet Union to know that the US was fully aware of what its Arab allies were doing, thus confirming the efficacy of information gathering satellites.

A rather wilder story was circulated for a while by the intelligence community alleging that Pollard had blown the cover of a considerable number of US agents in the Soviet Union. It now appears that if indeed this happened, the person responsible was the Soviet spy, Aldrich Ames, and that he may have attempted to pin the responsibility on Pollard to cover his own tracks. The corrected account, brought to light by Israeli investigative journalists, has not been authoritatively denied.

From a more detached standpoint, the situation appears in a different light. When someone is implausibly accused of something, it usually makes sense to look at the possibility that the accuser is secretly doing something very like what he accuses his opponent of doing. Weinberger accused Pollard of treason. Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that what was really going on in Weinberger's department, perhaps not without his knowledge, was treachery to an ally of the United States. Circles in the US administration at that time, among whom Weinberger was prominent, had tilted away from America's traditional friendship to Israel and were wooing the Arab powers, including Iraq, which they regarded as a buffer against Iran and eventually the Soviet Union. Weinberger's personal hostility to Israel is hardly a secret.

The aroma of antisemitism grows more recognizable still as we approach the actions of Joseph DiGenova, the government's prosecuting attorney. DiGenova did his utmost by threats and inducements to get Pollard to incriminate individuals on a lengthy list of leaders of the American Jewish Community. DiGenova, or those who instructed him, appeared to believe they were engaged in a vast conspiracy to undermine US interests in favor of the Zionist state. Pollard's refusal to incriminate the innocent may well have been a major reason for the prosecution's violation of the plea bargain.

Passing over the atrocious treatment of Pollard in confinement, which has its own palpably antisemitic elements in the denial to the prisoner of normal religious privileges, the present campaign against so-called leniency - as if any sentence at this stage could still be called lenient - is clearly a continuation of the assault on Pollard and governed by the same mysterious motivation. What does Pollard still know that could possibly be harmful to the US if it became known to Israel?

Any security information Pollard still has in his allegedly almost supernatural memory is close to a decade old by this time, and much has changed in the world situation since then. Is it still, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in these days of peace-making in the Middle East, in the vital interests of the United States to deny Israel information once important to its own security, and conceivably still so?

Much more likely, what Pollard knows, and what Israel must not know, is information about actions of the US administration during the Reagan years. What does he know, for example, about the background of the Iran-Contra affair? Above all, what does he know about the pro-Arab, anti-Israel campaign being waged, then and now, in at least the middle echelons of the State Department and the Defense Department? If large sections of the Reagan administration were then engaged, and their successors (or they themselves) are still engaged, in a covert offensive against Israel, officially the friend and ally of the United States, is this not something to be kept secret at all costs?

In what conceivable circumstances might Israel, as the Aspin letter alleges, cease to be a friendly power? There is probably no country in the world more friendly to the United States than Israel, for reasons both of gratitude and shared values. Only if America ceased to be an ally of Israel and threw its lot with Israel's enemies could Israel be forced to change sides. Is this was the writer of the Aspin letter foresees?

That such anti-Israel activities are going on would be difficult for a reasonable person to doubt, after what has already come to light. But since they are contrary to the declared policy of successive United States administrations, and genuinely harmful to a state most Americans regard with a degree of friendship and affinity they do not feel toward its Arab enemies, these activities must be kept a dark secret, and anyone who might expose them put out of the way.

Can any unbiased person really believe that it is in America's best interest to harm her ally and help its foes? Only those who put oil before morality could reasonably think so. But surely it is worse than that. Antisemitism is not dead. The lesson of the Holocaust has not been learned, and the risk of its repetition in some new form is therefore always present. Unfortunately, experience show that those who romanticize and love Arabs usually hate Jews, and it is not easy to tell which came first. Arabists in the State and Defense Departments are not friendly to Israel and it is not unreasonable to think that some of them carry their distaste to the point of antisemitism.

The suspicion of antisemitism is raised above all by the irrational aspects of the affair, so reminiscent of the paranoia of traditional antisemites. DiGenova's search for an utterly implausible Jewish conspiracy among the largely assimilated leaders of American Jewry takes us back if not to the Middle Ages, at least to Tsarist Russia, or even Hitlerite Germany. The absurd claim that Pollard's transmission of information to Israel harmed the United States more than anything any Soviet spy did must raise the possibility of an irrational paranoia, a fear of Jewish cunning and duplicity, that students of antisemitism have learned to recognize in every generation. Surely, we are confronted, not with a Jewish conspiracy using Jonathan Jay Pollard as its agent and tool, but with an anti-Jewish conspiracy in high places in the US administration.

Will President Clinton be strong enough and principled enough to withstand these pressures and right a long-standing injustice?

William Nicholls is Professor Emeritus of Religous Studies at the University of British Columbia and author of Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (Jason Aronson, 1993).