The case of Jonathan Pollard, despite having becoming the cause célèbre for Israelis in recent years (especially of late), is one of the most sensitive and uncomfortable topics among American Jewry. For US Jews, Pollard is the ultimate manifestation of suspected dual and conflicting loyalty between the United States and Israel – the Jewish state. While it is the right – and perhaps the duty – of the Israeli government to seek his release, Israelis should be especially cautious about asking their American kindred to take up his cause.

Pollard, at the time of his arrest in 1985, was an American citizen (not a dual citizen) with a high-level security clearance, which he received for his work in US Naval Intelligence. The details of the espionage he conducted against his own country have never been publicly released or confirmed, despite the plethora of information disseminated by his supporters and detractors alike. One narrative tells of a morally conflicted man who was disturbed by the lack of vital information being shared by the US with Israel, who felt he had a moral obligation to help Israel. The other narrative is of a drug-addicted opportunistic spy-for-hire who shopped top-secret intelligence information to anyone who would buy it. Neither story can be confirmed due to the still-classified and unreleased court documents that tell the true story of Pollard’s case.

Jonathan Pollard

Jonathan Pollard - by US Navy

One of the most problematic narratives put forward by those pushing for Pollard’s release is that the US government arbitrarily reneged on a plea bargain, instead deciding to sentence him to life in prison. The Justice for Pollard campaign correctly notes that the US government was interested in a plea agreement, in order to minimize details of the case from entering the public sphere. To those ends, one condition of the deal was that Pollard not disseminate any details of his case or any additional classified information. Weeks before his sentencing, however, Pollard held an interview with then-Jerusalem Post correspondent Wolf Blitzer, detailing information that he had handed to the Israelis. This interview, along with several others, is most likely the reason why the government decided to seek the maximum penalty of life in prison.

Another faulty line of reasoning for Pollard’s release, perhaps the most often cited argument, is that he is serving the longest sentence ever of any American for passing classified information to a US ally. In US law, however, there is no distinction between passing information to an ally or enemy. The crime Pollard pled guilty to (U.S. Code, Title 18, Chapter 37, Section 794 “Gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign government”) makes only three distinctions: when the crime leads to the death of a US agent, when the crime takes place during wartime, and when the crime takes place during peacetime. The first two distinctions can carry the death penalty, the third up to life in prison- the sentence Pollard received.

Secondly, if Pollard’s supporters are to claim that no American has served a prison sentence as long as his for spying on behalf of an ally, then the definition of an alliance becomes relevant. The United States and Israel are not allies, in so much as they have never entered a legal alliance. In contrast, the United States and most of Western Europe are signatories to a mutual defense treaty known as NATO – an alliance. The closest Israel and the United States have ever come to creating an alliance was the memorandum of understanding known as the 1981 Strategic Cooperation Agreement and Israel’s designation as a Major non-NATO Ally, a status that allows for military cooperation but is explicitly not a mutual defense pact, a status that would jeopardize America’s NATO membership.

However, there is no distinction in US penal code between gathering information for an allied or non-allied foreign government, and Israel is not a US ally. Therefore, the argument comparing Pollard’s sentence to others who spied for US allies is fallacious.

'Free Pollard' sign in Jerusalem - by "Tamara" (CC)

But the point of this article is not the technical points of Pollard’s crime or his sentence, the details of which are known only to a handful of current and former US government officials. Jonathan Pollard was an American Jew who put his loyalty to Israel (a country whose citizenship he did not hold at the time) over that of the United States. Many American Jews – who may momentarily struggle with the hypothetical question of which country they would fight for if the US and Israel ever fought against each other in a war – deeply resent the resulting suspicion that Pollard’s betrayal may or may not have laid on American Jewry’s perceived loyalty to the United States vis-à-vis Israel.

Pollard was not a dual citizen who chose to advance the interests of one homeland over the other; he was an American citizen who betrayed his own country in order to serve a foreign power with which he shared an ethno-religious kinship. The type of suspicion this perceived dual loyalty raises is uncomfortably similar to the unfounded suspicions the US had of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Many American Jews serve in the highest levels of the US government and any notion that their loyalty to Israel matches or exceeds that of their loyalty to the US is detrimental to the personal and professional success and acceptance they’ve built and earned.

Since Jonathan Pollard was recognized as an Israeli agent and granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, it is the right and possibly the responsibility of Israel to seek his release from prison. However, for members of the Israeli government to ask American Jews to take up the cause as their own – as MK Nachman Shai did this week – is to endanger those Jews. Furthermore, being asked by Israel to advocate for a man who betrayed their country, American Jews may begin to question their fierce loyalty toward Israel that up until now did not conflict with or endanger their loyalty to their own country, the United States.

Free Jonathan Pollard? Fine. But leave American Jews out of it.

This post first appeared as a Jerusalem Post blog