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The Conference of Presidents Meets with Pollard

Allan Brownfeld
February 1, 2016

by Allan C. Brownfeld

PollardJONATHAN POLLARD, the convicted American spy for Israel, who served thirty years of his life sentence, was released from prison on November 21. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally appealed to President Obama to lift the standard prohibition on parolees leaving the U.S. for five years. Pollard should, Netanyahu urged, be permitted to go to Israel, where the case has been a cause célèbre, and where Pollard has become something of a hero. If Pollard were permitted to emigrate, notes Joseph diGenovs, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, there would be a “parade” and “events just rubbing it in the United States’ face.”

On January 25th, according to the widely read Jewish newspaper, the Forward, a secret meeting with Pollard was hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, described as “American Jewry’s most important national umbrella organization.” It was a breakfast at “an elegant synagogue conference room in Manhattan.” According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents, the meeting came in response to a request by Pollard, who has been protesting the conditions of his parole. The group did its best to keep the meeting a complete secret but was thwarted by a pro-Pollard group which announced that it had taken place. Also in attendance was Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who has called for Pollard to be permitted to leave for Israel.

Peter Beinart, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and a professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, said of Pollard, “I don’t think embracing him sends the right message. He served his time. Let him live his life. He is a traitor.” Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of the meeting with Pollard, “It may send the wrong message, that the community endorses what he did. It will provide his enemies and the enemies of Israel with an opportunity to say, look the community embraces a spy.”

IT IS INSTRUCTIVE to review exactly what Pollard did as a spy. He was working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he was recruited by the Israeli Defense Ministry in the mid-1980s. He delivered suitcases full of military intelligence to Israel, including satellite photos. Among the tens of thousands of secret documents that Pollard stole for the Israelis was the National SIGINT (Signals intelligence) Requirements List, which revealed which communications channels of which military powers in which regions the National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting, in what order of priority. It would indicate to the reader where and what actions the U.S. military might take.

Pollard also provided a year’s worth of memos by intelligence officers in the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet, recording all their observations of Soviet planes, ships, and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea. He turned over documents on how Navy intelligence was tracking Soviet submarines, and material revealing that one of America’s most highly classified photo-reconnaissance satellites could take pictures not just straight down but from an angle. Foreign navies might think they could take a missile out of hiding once a satellite passed over but, in fact, it was still snapping pictures. Because of Pollard, they now knew this.

Joseph diGenova, the prosecutor in charge of the Pollard case, said the damage he did to U.S. security was “beyond calculation.” Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told Israeli Ambassaodor Meir Rosenne that Pollard should have been executed.

Originally, Israel disavowed Pollard, but has now embraced him. He was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995. By 2013 he became the focal point of a protest movement in Israel. An online petition demanding clemency quickly attracted 175,000 signatures. When Pollard’s November release was announced, Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who headed the Knesset’s Pollard caucus, welcomed the news with the shehekhyanu prayer, which Jews utter on a monumental occasion.

FOR THE VAST MAJORITY of American Jews, Pollard’s actions were repugnant, at best. Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, in his book, Ally: My Journey Across the America-Israel Divide, recalls that, “One senior member of the National Security Council told me over breakfast, ‘As an American Jew, I believe Jonathan Pollard should get out of prison...’ He paused and said, ‘In a coffin.’ ”

Yet shortly after Pollard’s sentencing, a strange campaign was launched calling for his immediate release, suggesting that he was a “political prisoner” and a victim of “anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, president of the Synagogue Council of America, wrote, “Virtually every major American Jewish organization has asked for (Pollard’s) release.” Full-page advertisements appeared with the support of such leaders as Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Gerald Zeller, president of the Rabbinical Assembly. The New York and Chicago Boards of Rabbis called for Pollard’s release. In 1989, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, called upon the entire Reform movement to express support for Pollard.

Many Jewish voices challenged this embrace of an admitted and convicted spy. Former Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral Sumner Shapiro declared, “It bothers the hell out of me... to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people.” Dov Zakheim, who served as the Defense Department’s undersecretary when the Pollard case broke, said that Pollard’s acts made him “very, very angry” and that he found the organized Jewish community’s reaction troubling: “Pollard seems to have infatuated the Jewish community, and especially the Orthodox community, that he is somehow a prisoner of Zion.” Former New Republic editor Martin Peretz declared, “Jonathan Pollard is not a Jewish martyr. He is a convicted espionage agent who spied on his country — a spy, moreover, who got paid for his work. His professional career reeks of infamy and is suffused with depravity.”

The idea that the probation restrictions placed upon Pollard are harsh or unreasonable, a notion promoted by the Israeli government and Pollard’s American supporters, is without foundation, and provides an interesting contrast with Israel’s own treatment of those it convicts of espionage and later releases. Writing in The American Conservative (the magazine founded by Pat Buchanan), Philip Giraldi, a former CIA official, notes:

By some accounts, Pollard likely has a million-dollar-plus nest egg waiting for him in a bank account somewhere outside the United States, representing his accumulated earnings dutifully deposited by the Israeli intelligence service....


Those who are calling for Pollard’s freeing from probation both in Israel and among Israel’s friends in the U.S. should look to the example of how Israel itself has treated Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal in 1986. He was drugged and kidnapped, convicted in a secret trial, and spent 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement. Since his release in 2004, he has not been allowed to leave Israel or speak to journalists and has been re-arrested a number of times.

Recalling the time of Pollard’s arrest, when he was serving in Turkey, Giraldi writes,

the focus on Pollard has obscured the duplicitous behavior by the Israeli government and its proxies in the U.S. I recall when I was in Turkey shortly after Pollard was arrested and a delegation of the American Jewish Committee came through town and met with the Consul General and later the Ambassador, insisting that Pollard was some kind of nut and assuring all who would listen that Israel would never spy on the United States. That spin prevailed in much of the media and among the punditry, calling it a ‘rogue operation,’ until Tel Aviv finally ‘fessed up in 1998. The fact is that the Pollard spy operation was approved at the highest level of the Israeli government and to this day Tel Aviv has reneged on its agreement to return all of the material stolen to enable the Pentagon to do a complete damage assessment. And Israel continues to spy on the U.S. aggressively, ranking first among ‘friendly’ countries in that category.

And now the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations holds a secret meeting with Jonathan Pollard. When a religious organization holds a secret meeting with a spy, there must be some message in this for the rest of us. It is time we found out what it is.

Allan C. Brownfeld is publications editor for the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, and a nationally syndicated columnist.