So Sorry Jonathan, that We did not Succeed

Why did the struggle for Soviet Jewry succeed while the struggle to free Pollard did not?

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich

OpEds Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
INN:YM

Translated by David Herman

The news about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard is making waves, and rightly so. The People of Israel are happy that one of its most suffering heroes is going to be free.

But along with the feeling of rejoicing there is a sense of failure. After all, we did not succeed in the struggle for his release, if he remained in prison for 30 years!

Yes, there was a struggle and a number of demonstrations over the years attended by several thousand people. There was awareness and identification with Jonathan's unjustly bitter fate.

People sometimes ask – why, in the case of Aliyah from Russia, did the pressure and demonstrations bear fruit - and in the case of Jonathan  they did not?

There are a number of answers. First of all, the story of one man cannot be compared to the struggle of an entire people, a whole community of several million Jews who lived in Russia. It was a struggle for the rights of a people and for human rights. One cannot compare the scope and significance of these two struggles.

Different, but also similar. The Jewish establishment in the USA waged a struggle for Soviet Jewry in a very measured and considered manner, in order not to harm its own interests. The struggle for Aliyah disturbed the American administration in its efforts to draw closer to the Soviet Union and to end the Cold War. Nixon and Kissinger declared it almost openly. Senator Henry Jackson whose Amendment to the law conditioned giving trade benefits  to the Soviet union on freedom of migration from the Soviet Union, was considered a red flag in the eyes of the Administration. I met Senator Jackson in 1981, and he complained  to me that the Government of Israel was putting pressure on him to cancel the amendment, on the grounds that one must not anger the Russians too much. (See, for example, Rabbi Avi Weiss's new book "Open Up the Iron Door"  pages 80-84)


Pollard was in jail in the United States and the keys to the jail were in the hands of the President of the United States.
This was the policy of the Jewish establishment in the USA, of the Israeli Government and the American Administration.

We activists went against all of them and forced them  to change their approach. In the end, everyone who stood in the way of this three-part establishment suffered personally and paid the price.

In the case of Pollard there was a similar constellation. The Jewish establishment in America was afraid of Pollard's story because it cast a heavy shadow on the loyalty of Jews to the United States. (Only after 30 years of incarceration did the Jewish establishment dare to positively mention Pollard and then only as  a "humane" issue.)

One cannot expect a more daring position from the establishment, because "establishment" means something stable by definition.  

But where were the activists?

There were no activists prepared to do exceptional things and shake up the whole world. Somebody tried to silence them, here in Israel and especially in the United States. I remember the demonstration opposite the President's Residence  two years ago when Shimon Peres was due to go and  visit Obama. The demonstrators pleaded with Peres not to omit to mention Pollard's name. They asked Shimon Peres, who was deeply involved in the whole issue ever since Jonathan's arrest! Nothing was more ridiculous.

According to the formula of the struggle for Soviet Jewry we should have blocked with our bodies the exit from the President's Residence thereby making headlines, and not only headlines.  Public activism has an impact when it exceeds the bounds of routine. It shocks. It powerfully arouses the conscience of each and every person.

"We want to do something honorable" If it is honorable, then it will not make the least impression on anyone. Because the establishment, in this case Peres, can also make some fine-looking declarations. But what, truly, can we demand from our tiny state? The fact is that the Israeli Government blatantly mismanaged things from the time Pollard was recruited until his trial and arrest. They sinned.

More than once I told the organizer of the struggle "It's true that Peres and Yitzhak Shamir are guilty of the tragic fate of Jonathan," But, after all, Pollard was in jail in the United States and  the keys to the jail were in the hands of the President of the United States.

It would have been much more  logical to wage the battle in the United States. And it was also possible to win popular support, because in Pollard's case, as we know, all the rules of the game and of a fair trial were violated. The American version of the Dreyfus Trial.

It cannot be denied that the main struggle for the release of Pollard had to be waged in the US.

But every time and every attempt in this direction was stopped with the argument  that "we have to pressure the Government of Israel alone and they will do the job."

Now, we have to admit, after nothing helped,  that the strategy was essentially misguided. Perhaps also another strategy would also have failed.  But why didn't we try everything? Whoever tried to infuse a spirit of battle in the struggle was dismissed and his name sullied.

They say that after the quarrel is over there is no point in waving fists. This may be so. But it is worthwhile to draw conclusions for another struggle which is already on the way.

The writer was a Prisoner of Zion who spent 11 years in the Russian gulag. 



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