Pollard and Jewish Disunity

Jerusalem Post - February 28, 2000 - Rabbi Stewart Weiss

WE ARE ONE! So proclaim the signs in front of virtually every Jewish Federation in America, spotlighting the ideal of Jewish unity as the focus and CAUSE CELEBRE of the current Jewish establishment.

But is the slogan a call to action, or just wistful, wishful thinking totally detached from any semblance of reality? Even the most cursory examination of the present state of Jewish affairs reveals wide and deep divisions among our people, in virtually every sphere of existence.

On the religious front, there has been no respite in the Rabbinic Wars that perpetually occupy the pages of the Jewish media and the halls of synagogues everywhere. Orthodox Jews are seen by the non-Orthodox as dogmatic, uncompromising and out of touch, while the non-Orthodox are considered illegitimate perversions of the true faith, responsible for an assimilation and Jewish decline of Shoa-like proportions. The two camps meet on only the most innocuous of issues, if they meet at all.

I experienced just how deep this sentiment runs when I recently accompanied a small Orthodox group on a Kosher cruise. On Shabbat morning, we were one short of a minyan. Seeking one more Jew from among the general passengers, I saw a fellow on deck whom I had met previously, who had proudly told me of his long association with his local congregation. I asked him to join us for a few minutes, so that the mourners present could at least recite the Kaddish.

"Take down your antiquated Mechitza separating the sexes, and I'll join you," he defiantly proclaimed. We never said the Kaddish, but death was in the air.

On the political and social level, we have virtually no common ground. Take any candidate or any issue, and Jews will eagerly line up on opposite sides. From Hillary to McCain to Haider, from abortion to euthenasia to parochial school vouchers, Jews have definite - and rival - opinions. We'll pour millions of Jewish dollars into the campaigns of Liberal Democrats, only to find that an equal sum has been given to Conservative Republicans.

Is there ANY issue upon which we Jews CAN agree, as a bloc? Should or should not Jews accept money from Holocaust perpetrators now experiencing a belated guilty conscience? Should Jews stay in Eastern Europe and build its Jewish infrastructure, or should they make Aliyah? Should Israel be the focal point of Jewish education, and, even if it is, should we speak with a Sefardic or Ashkenazic pronunciation? For G-d's sake, the raging controversy over the merits or demerits of Brit Milah suggest that we can no longer even agree that our sons should be circumcised when 8 days old!

Even in those rare instances when we DO seem to find consensus among the rank and file on a particular issue, Jewish leadership often remains in obstinate opposition. Take, for example, the case of the missing Israeli soldiers. It has been 18 years now since Zach Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman were captured in Lebanon and paraded on Syrian TV. In 1993, Yasser Arafat handed the late PM Rabin half of Baumel's army dog tag, and promised to supply, within two weeks, further information as to his whereabouts. The promise was never fufilled.

The Israeli public is virtually unanimous in its belief that the issue of the MIA's must be tied to the peace process and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Even the U.S. Congress voted in 1999 - without dissent - to link economic assistance for Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority to their cooperation in the search for the 3 soldiers and airman Ron Arad, captured in 1986.

Yet the Israeli government has consistently refused to adopt legislation that would satisfy the public will and force the Arab parties to tell what they know about our captives. Defying the popular will, the members of Knesset will not "have their hands tied" by submitting to dictates from the very electorate which placed them in office. And so we gnash our teeth in frustration as PLO terrorists triumphantly go free, and our brave young men grow old.

Perhaps most tragic is the ongoing tragedy of Jonathan Pollard. When Pollard was first convicted of spying on America for Israel fifteen years ago, virtually no one would take up his cause. I recall hosting Pollard's parents at a lecture in my Dallas synagogue, which was boycotted by the Jewish establishment. Only an impassioned appeal by myself and the local Reform Rabbi brought out the Jewish population.

What they heard that evening about Pollard was far different from the "official" version carried in the media. They learned that Pollard had compromised no strategic U.S. secrets or agents, but had shared with Israel vital information on Iraqi poison gas capabilities, information that should have been given to Israel in the first place. They learned that Pollard had admitted his crime, waived his right to a trial, and agreed to a plea bargain on the one count of sharing classified information with an ally.

And they learned that the government had cynically reneged on the plea bargain, sentencing him to life in prison in a maximum-security facility.

Today, more than a decade and a half since his conviction, Pollard still languishes in jail, having served more time for espionage on behalf of an ally than any man in American history. He has watched on numerous occassions as others convicted of spying for America's enemies - doing infinitely more harm to U.S. interests than he ever did - either go free or are given the lightest of sentences. And we now understand that it was Pollard's information which helped Israel weather the Iraqi Scud attacks by preparing hundreds of thousands of gas masks, thus easing Israeli anxiety and helping America keep its Gulf War coalition intact.

In the course of these 15 years, the Jewish People has come together over the Pollard case. More than 250 Jewish organizations have now officially petitioned the U.S. government to free Pollard for time served. These organizations include men & women; Liberals and Conservatives; Sefardim and Ashkenazim; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbinates; right-wingers, left-wingers and moderates.

The only seeming holdout in the equation is the Israeli government. After finally being forced to admit Pollard was an Israeli agent, and then grant him Israeli citizenship, the government has been conspicuous in its inaction. PM Barak has refused to unequivocally demand Pollard's release as part of any MidEast pact, and has gone so far as to shrug his shoulders and say that "Pollard is an internal U.S. issue that has no bearing on the peace process." Pollard - who has received none of the financial, medical or legal services promised to him by Israel - has thus been forced to sue the government for abandonment. Once again, the Jewish world has reached the brink of unity on an issue of major importance, only to break down into ideological fragmentation.

Diversity of opinion, when accompanied by respect and comraderie between the parties, can be healthy, even stimulating and productive. But when that debate becomes rancorous, unmoving and malicious - taking no prisoners - it polarizes us into a house divided and shows, to our great shame, that we are anything but ONE.

Rabbi Stewart Weiss is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, Israel.

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