Jonathan Pollard

An American who spied for Israel.

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The US government reacted with more severity. Pollard was held in solitary confinement and, while connected to a polygraph, pressed to identify other Israeli spies from lists of leading American Jews.

Although Pollard had been promised leniency in return for full cooperation with the government, in the wake of Israel's provocative response, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger submitted a secret affidavit to the sentencing judge. Although the contents of this affidavit have never been disclosed, some claim that it exaggerated the extent of the damage caused by Pollard to American security. 

Its impact was clear: both Pollards were given exceptionally severe sentences, on par with those handed down to enemy spies (for example the Walkers who, in the mid-1980s, were convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union).

Pollard is the only person to have received a life sentence for spying for an American ally. Against Pollard's claim that his intention had been to help Israel and the United States, the Justice Department responded that the laws on espionage did not distinguish between allies and enemy countries.

But in the long run, despite anger among administration officials and lawmakers, the Pollard affair did little long-term damage to Israeli-United States relations. In March 1987, President Reagan reaffirmed America's commitment to a strategic alliance between the two countries. Later that year, Congress renewed a $3 billion aid package and the administration formally accorded Israel the status of a major non-NATO ally.

The Jewish Community's Outrage

The implications for American Jews and their relationship with Israel were more harmful. According to a New York Times poll conducted in 1987, 61% of US Jews experienced anger and embarrassment over the Pollard case, while 54% believed the episode would trigger an increase in anti-Semitism.

Jewish leaders, including Tom Dine, director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the time, castigated Israel for its conduct during the affair. During a mission to Israel in March 1987, 60 prominent American Jewish leaders met face to face with Israeli officials and bluntly expressed their disapproval.

Writing the same month in the Jerusalem Post, Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri criticized the reactions of the American Jewish community. Rather than being motivated by concern for Israel, he claimed American Jews' reactions had more to do with fear of anti-Semitism and unease about their position in American society.

In contrast to the widespread sense that American Jewry had attained an unprecedented level of integration and security, the Pollard affair suggested to Avineri that US Jews felt no less vulnerable than their coreligionists elsewhere in the Diaspora.

Other Israelis, notably Abba Eban and Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem, disagreed, noting that U.S. Jews had a genuine grievance: Israel had compromised their loyalty to the U.S. in the eyes of the American public. The Pollard case contributed to ending the silence of US Jewish leaders on criticizing Israel in public. This change was to become evident after the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, when American Jews felt freer than ever to challenge Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.