It must be close to 10 years ago that I met with Dr. Morris Pollard to talk about his son, Jonathan, then serving the life sentence he had been given in 1986 for stealing government secrets and passing them along to Israel. I was a reluctant breakfast companion; I held little sympathy for Jonathan Pollard. He had been a spy, had been caught, had been sentenced. What did he expect? Some reprieve because he was Jewish, because Israel was an ally?
Dr. Pollard, a stranger to me, was another story altogether. He was an eminent scientist, probably in his late 60s, a professor emeritus at Notre Dame with an international reputation. He had been raised as a farm boy in rural Wisconsin, discovered science his first year in college, and, in what seemed like the wink of a star, discovered his life had changed overnight. His wife had raised their son and daughter and he had lost himself in microbiology. Knew and read little else. What a sweet man, I thought.
He needed help, in the form of advice, on how to proceed politically. He wanted to mobilize public opinion in the Jewish community and, eventually, in Congress, to gain some leniency for his son. It was apparent that he was putting the familiar world of science behind him and launching into wholly new terrain. But it was as if he had no other choice. He was a grieving father, a man in great and continuous pain. If not the father, who else would save his son?
I wanted to reach out and just touch Dr. Pollard’s shoulder. And so I found myself, my view of Jonathan Pollard and his crime unchanged, offering a number of tactical suggestions to his father, who I knew was going to travel this road no matter how hopeless it seemed.
Who would have guessed that that sad lonely journey of Dr. Morris Pollard would have helped bring matters this far? To a point where the Pollard case has become a “hot item” in the Israeli campaign for prime minister, with Binyamin Netanyahu championing release? Or who would have thought that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a loose confederation of 55 leading Jewish groups, would in 1998 come out against the terms of Pollard’s sentencing, on grounds that Israel was an ally and the punishment was far in excess of what other spies had suffered. Or — astonishing to me — that the Orthodox Union and the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations would finally unite on a single issue: namely, an end to Jonathan Pollard’s imprisonment?
My surprise, I suppose, stems from the recollection of just how many American Jews were affronted by Pollard’s act of betrayal: his passing on to an Israeli handler U.S. code-breaking and communication intercept procedures, and his throwing into jeopardy U.S. spy networks. Israel was an ally, to be sure, but no more so than our NATO allies. And while our interests in many cases dovetailed or were compatible with those of our allies, in the long run, they had to be viewed as separate.
Thus, Jonathan Pollard’s spying for Israel raised the issue of dual loyalty for all Jews. Those who worked in sensitive government areas suddenly found themselves examined more carefully, or frozen in place. Ironically, some would have preferred if he had sold the secrets to the Soviet Union because he was a communist, or to the French because he wanted the money. Then he would just be a spy who happened to be Jewish.
In the past few years, public opinion within the Jewish community has begun to shift. The feeling seems to be that Pollard negotiated a plea bargain only to have the government (and particularly former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger) subvert the agreement and push for life imprisonment. Slowly, Jewish organizational heads have altered their rejection of any reprise for Pollard. Time, changes in perspective, and other subsequent spy cases all played a role: The sentencing now is deemed too severe, even unjust; he paid for his crime, release him and let Pollard, now 44, live in Israel, is a prevailing sentiment. It is by no means unanimous, but clearly has the support of many community leaders, and has even filtered into Israel. Hence the sudden introduction of Pollard’s release by Netanyahu at the Wye meetings last October.
Now, in a surprise loop, along comes The New Yorker magazine and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh to throw a spanner in the works. Hersh’s article in the Jan. 18 issue is entitled “The Traitor,” and in it, he presents the case against Jonathan Pollard. The classified information Pollard sold caused untold damage to the U.S., he asserts. The Israelis traded some of it to the Soviet Union in exchange for letting Russian Jews emigrate to Israel.
Moreover, U.S. agents were compromised. And money, not idealism, had been at the core of his behavior. Indeed, according to Hersh, Jonathan Pollard was an insecure, storytelling braggart, who was a cocaine abuser, deep in debt. The portrait is not sympathetic. And it is clear that Hersh’s sources, in the Justice and Defense departments, from CIA and other intelligence organizations, are alarmed that President Clinton may indeed review the evidence and grant clemency. Undoubtedly, similar leaks to Sens. Bob Kerrey (D- Neb.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have convinced these influentials that Pollard should remain in prison.
Now liberal anti-establishment reporter Seymour Hersh — he gained renown 30 years ago, infuriating military hawks by breaking the My Lai story, recounting how a platoon of American soldiers slaughtered innocent villagers in Vietnam — finds himself suddenly allied with conservative hard liners who reside at the center of America’s foreign policy. Politics makes strange bedfellows, to coin a phrase.
Many in the Jewish community have begun to protest Hersh’s allegations. They point to suppositions in the article, to leaks from unnamed sources, to Hersh’s earlier errors in his 1997 book “The Dark Side of Camelot.” In an effort to expose the Kennedys, Hersh had in that book exposed JFK’s sexual exploitation of Marilyn Monroe. The problem was that the material he had rushed to buy was a forgery. This is simply more of the same, goes the argument against Hersh. Personal aggrandizement at the expense of truth. Exposé for its own sake.
Still, if Hersh’s name is tarnished, and the charges read more like innuendo than hard facts, there is the reputation to contend with of The New Yorker and its editor, David Remnick. Fairly solid, it should be said. Perhaps what is required is for skeptical, hard-nosed Jewish leaders to follow Seymour Hersh’s trail, to walk back the cat as it were, and talk with those in the intelligence community opposed to Pollard’s release. I think the phrase is “to talk tachlis.” I would suggest that they include Dr. Morris Pollard. He is not disinterested, but he certainly deserves to be present at the denouement. — Gene Lichtenstein