Talk of Freeing a Spy for I$raHell Stirs Old Unease for U.S. Jews

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CreditAmmar Awad/Reuters

The Jonathan Pollard Case, ExplainedJonathan J. Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for spying for an American ally.

Each year, just before Passover, Malcolm Hoenlein writes a letter to President Obama requesting that he grant clemency to Jonathan J. Pollard, the American sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing suitcases stuffed with classified documents to Israel.

This week, with his goal suddenly within reach, Mr. Hoenlein, the leader of an umbrella group of American Jewish organizations, has held off sending the letter. He is waiting to see whether Mr. Obama will release Mr. Pollard as part of a quid pro quo with Israel that would keep peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on track.

Even now, nearly three decades later, Mr. Pollard’s case bedevils American Jews. While more and more of them believe the time to release him is long past — he spied for an ally, not an enemy, they say, and has expressed remorse — they are deeply divided over whether he should be used as a chit in a diplomatic transaction.

For an older generation, the potential release of this Cold War-era spy has roused another unwelcome ghost from the past: the suggestion that American Jews, like Mr. Pollard, inevitably hold divided loyalties and cannot be trusted in sensitive posts.

A 2005 rally in Jerusalem in support of Jonathan Pollard.CreditRonen Zvulun/Reuters

If Mr. Pollard, once freed, is given a hero’s welcome in Israel — a likely outcome, given the Israeli government’s long campaign on his behalf — there is worry that it will cause a backlash in the United States, where Mr. Pollard is still viewed by many, especially in the national security establishment, as a traitor who sold his country’s secrets for cash.

“Pollard represents the ultimate betrayal,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator who is one of a circle of American Jewish diplomats who came of age at the time of Mr. Pollard’s arrest. “He is also a poster child for one of the darker tropes in American society: that Jews simply cannot have a single loyalty.”

Born in Galveston, Tex., to a Jewish family shadowed by the Holocaust, Mr. Pollard grew up with Zionist ideals and a fascination with the world of spying. With a degree in political science from Stanford, he was hired as a Navy intelligence analyst and soon started selling classified information to an Israeli handler, who paid him $1,500 a month, bought his wife a diamond-and-sapphire ring and sent the couple on expensive trips to Europe.

In 1985, facing arrest, Mr. Pollard sought asylum in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, but he was disavowed by the Israelis. Two year later, after reading an assessment of the damage he had done from the defense secretary at the time, Caspar W. Weinberger, a judge sentenced him to a life term. Since 1993, he has been in a federal prison in North Carolina.

Mr. Hoenlein, who has visited Mr. Pollard in jail, said he should be released purely on humanitarian grounds. But he said he was resigned to the possibility that the decision would be driven by diplomatic calculations, particularly since Mr. Pollard is eligible for release in November 2015, which makes him a diminishing asset as a bargaining chip.

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