Jewish leaders often lust for media attention, but mention the Jonathan Pollard case, and most dive for cover.
And with good reason: Caught between Pollard's ardent supporters and their potent brew of humanitarian concerns and wild conspiracy theories, on one side, and government officials who insist his crimes were more heinous than we know, on the other, Jewish leaders lack the information they need to make rational judgments about the case.
Last week's announcement that President Clinton is beginning the promised re-examination of Pollard's status -- the result of a last-minute deal at October's Wye River talks -- will bring the case to a boil once again, and turn up the heat on Jewish leaders who will once more find themselves right in the middle of the Pollard information gap.
Critical facts in the case have been kept under lock and key, starting with exactly what he did, how he harmed this country's vital security interests, and whether or not his release could compound the damage. Intelligence officials whisper urgent warnings in the president's ear but don't share their information with the public.
The case for commutation looks very different to different groups of Jews.
Some argue only that simple compassion demands Pollard's release. Whatever he did, they say, he is now sorry, and, in any event, he has served enough time to satisfy the demands of justice.
Many supporters go further, insisting that he was treated with disproportionate harshness. Some add the charge -- stated or implied -- that he has been treated unfairly because of anti-Semitism or a pervasive anti-Israel bias at the highest levels of government. Activists on the fringes have labeled this the "American Dreyfus case," conveniently forgetting the fact that Dreyfus was innocent, Pollard guilty.
But they fail to provide compelling evidence that Pollard's religion is the reason for his harsh treatment, or neglect to address the fact that many strong supporters of Israel have come down hard against his release. Does the name Newt Gingrich ring any bells?
Many Pollard supporters paint a picture of a spy whose thievery was limited to vital intelligence information that was being wrongfully withheld from Israel, but they offer no credible evidence -- just endless, unverifiable claims.
Pollard stole vast amounts of documents, their opponents argue that, and not just carefully culled information vital to Israel's security. He badly damaged U.S. national interests; releasing him today would still pose a threat they say.
Maybe. But after all these years -- and after the massive changes on the world scene since Pollard spied for Israel -- that argument is hard to swallow without some facts to back it up.
How much, exactly, did he steal? What kinds of information? If Pollard took truckloads of data on a range of matters, it might be easier to understand why U.S. intelligence agencies still go ballistic every time commutation is raised.
What information is in the files that makes even staunch friends of Israel, including former CIA director R. James Woolsey, oppose his release?
All these years later, we still don't know the content of the document most responsible for Pollard's severe punishment -- the memo to the sentencing judge from former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
By its excessive secrecy, the government fuels the conspiracy theories of some Pollard supporters. So does an Israeli government that still refuses to provide information to U.S. authorities about information they got from the man they now acknowledge was their agent.
But for Jewish leaders who want to do the right thing, the real issue is still information. Without more of it -- solid information, not the murky stuff dished up by both sides in the commutation debate -- mainstream Jewish leaders will continue to treat the Pollard case as an unavoidable but noxious blot on the communal landscape.
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