I was once chatting with a University of Toronto professor about the historical relevance of the Jonathan Pollard saga. “Pollard is the new Dreyfus!” he exclaimed, a provocative analogy explaining this enduring drama in contemporary diaspora Jewish life. As the merits of his case and sentencing are endlessly debated, anti-Semitism is inevitably casually evoked, but there seems to be more to the story than an American-style J’Accuse. Like a perennial fall flowering, Jonathan Pollard is back in the news again. What is it about this narrative that is so captivating to the American imagination at this particular moment in U.S. politics? I offer two hypotheses about its domestic and foreign-policy significance in Autumn 2011 here:
Speaking before an assembled crowd of 15 rabbis in Boca Raton, Florida, Vice President Joe Biden took the Pollard issue off of the Jewish-American backburner last week. “Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time,” the New York Times reported that Biden told his audience, supposedly repeating verbatim his conversation with President Obama in a discussion about a potential pardon. “if it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.” While some pundits have speculated that Biden was merely taking the blame for the President — especially as the Vice-President is considered the administration’s friendlier face to the American Jewish community — others have suggested that it was a cynical ploy to influence Jewish swing-state voters in Florida.
While it is unclear precisely how Biden’s remarks were intended to rally the Democratic campaign amongst the Jewish electorate (it seems, on its face, to be more controversial than conciliatory, although perhaps just another example of the Vice President’s predilection for foot in mouth disease), this admission comes against the backdrop of this month’s American Jewish Committee survey showing a decline in Jewish support for President Obama. The drop is relatively slight however, especially when juxtaposed to a September Gallup poll, which demonstrated that Jewish support for Obama is in fact 13 points higher than the general population, leading to the “bottom line” that “although Obama’s approval rating among-Jewish Americans has been declining, it has generally declined no more than it has among all Americans […] all in all, Obama continues to do better among Jews than among all Americans, and there has been little change in that pattern so far throughout the first 2 ½ years of his administration.” Is playing nice — or even potentially pardoning Pollard — a cynical ploy to shore up the Jewish vote in the 2012 campaign? If so, it may be time to ‘a-pollard-gize’ already.
However, this domestic agenda seems to clash with foreign policy goals. As the United States moves to block a vote for Palestinian statehood at the UN Security Council, American weapons sales and foreign aid to Israel continue unabated, and both countries collectively hold their breaths in the face of counter-terrorism challenges and the Arab Spring, the special relationship has never been stronger. At times, it even appears that Israel has the upper hand, witness Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s schooling of President Obama in his own Oval Office and Congress. In some ways, the Pollard affair seems to have emerged as one of few remaining symbols of the distinction between the U.S. and Israel’s national interests. Moreover, as the recent contradictory instances of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s intervention in the case of Ilan Grapel, a dual American-Israeli citizen held in Egypt as a suspected spy for Israel and of the arrest of Shamai K. Leibowitz (grandson of the Jewish theologian and activist Yeshayahu Leibowitz) of spying for Israel in the United States suggest, it seems that where priorities align – in this case, in reigning in a new Egypt – there is cooperation, but where policy continues to diverge (Iran), charges of treason may have a political dimension beyond the facts of the case themselves.
Is Pollard the new Dreyfus? He is eligible for parole, if not pardoned first, in 2015. But we may be better able to judge his legacy by November 2012.