The Pollard Affair and American Jews

Henry Siegman is the executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

The Pollard spy scandal has played itself out as a tragedy in three acts: stupidity, arrogance and cover-up.

When information about Israeli spying against the United States first came to light, it was seen as unbelievably stupid. It was difficult to imagine what conceivable gain would justify jeopardizing the massive economic and military support that Israel receives from the United States. Ironically, the stupidity and recklessness lent credence to the claim of Israel's leaders that it was a "rogue operation" that they knew nothing about.

Then came Act 2, as we watched in disbelief the rewarding of those responsible for what Israel had insisted was an illicit operation. Nothing but arrogance could account for what appeared as Israeli nose-thumbing at America's sense of a friendship betrayed. One of the spymasters received a fat job as the head of a major government enterprise; the other was promoted to the commander of Israel's second-largest air force base. Since in the real world rogues are punished, not rewarded, the promotions gave rise to the suspicion that Israeli officials may have been guilty of deceit in denying knowledge of the operation.

The life sentence imposed by a U.S. court on Jonathan Jay Pollard raised the curtain on Act 3. That sentence triggered a wave of seemingly spontaneous outrage at the Israeli action on the part of the Israeli press and public and American Jewish leaders, who demanded a long-overdue accounting from Israel's political Establishment. (In the crunch it is always the Israeli public, the press and the judiciary that emerge to vindicate Israel's reputation as one of the world's most vigorous and irrepressible democracies.) At first Israel's cabinet stonewalled these demands, but then partly capitulated and appointed an investigating committee without real teeth.

The continuing refusal of the cabinet to invest that committee with full judicial powers--to issue subpoenas and to require witnesses to testify under oath--reinforces the suspicion that members of the cabinet are protecting not Israel's security but their own political careers. Inevitably that suspicion focuses on Israel's top political leadership--Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

Let it be said bluntly: If Israel's top leaders are implicated in the Pollard affair, they should not be allowed to invoke security considerations to avoid paying the penalty for so horrendous a political blunder. If they are not implicated, they have a responsibility to dispel the cloud created by their inept handling of the matter. Only the appointment of a full-blown commission of inquiry can achieve this.

During our visit to Israel we tried to persuade Prime Minister Shamir and his cabinet that a full and honest account of the Pollard affair is needed to set relations with the United States and American Jews back on the track.

It is strange that these unfortunate circumstances have been seized on by some Israelis to revel in the discomfort that the Pollard affair has caused American Jews.

In an open "Letter to an American Friend" in the Jerusalem Post, Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli political analyst and social critic, argues that the discomfort that the Pollard affair has caused American Jews proves that they do not really feel "at home" in America--a point of view that is apparently widely shared by Israelis. They see in the American Jewish reaction a vindication of Zionism's classic notion that nowhere but in Israel can Jews feel truly safe.

It seems to escape these Israelis that if Jews do indeed feel safe in Israel today it is in no small measure due to the support that Israel receives from the United States--which is not to deny the critical contributions that Israel makes to the United States. Apparently American Jews have felt sufficiently "at home" in America, sufficiently rooted in its political culture, to engage in extraordinary political and philanthropic efforts to help secure that support. These efforts have rested on the twin foundations of a profound love for Israel and a conviction that the most fundamental interests of both countries coincide.

Avineri thinks that the reaction of secure American Jews to the Pollard affair should have been that Pollard's spying for Israel "is no skin off their nose, and that's that." That would indeed have been an appropriate reaction, had American Jewry's position been that Israel's problems generally are "no skin off our nose." In the circumstances, it comes with singular ill grace for Israelis to seize on our anger as evidence of our own insecurities rather than of Israel's outrageous behavior.

Contrary to the Israeli view, Jews feel very much at home in America. It is the freest, most open society that Jews have known in their 3,000-year-old history.

If ever the day should come when the American experiment in religious pluralism fails, and 6 million American Jews get to feel as insecure as some Israelis believe they already do, it would offer scant comfort to Zionist ideologues. For in that kind of world there would be little hope for the viability of Israel and the security of its 3 million Jews.

If the tensions that have surfaced because of the Pollard affair also lead to a more critical understanding of the deep and lasting ties that bind American Jews and Israel, they will yet have served a constructive purpose.

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