At this time when Passover is upon us once again, the Jewish People, and indeed much of the world, finds themselves with several uneasy questions which they have been obliged to ask themselves. This is coincidentally appropriate, since one of the ritual aspects of the Seder, in which a key part of the history of the Jewish People is recalled, involves four sons of different personalities who ask questions about the significance of this Holy Day. One son asks in reverence and enthusiasm, the other in antagonism, another with timidity, and the last one does not even know how to ask. The Passover Haggadah, which is the guidebook for the Seder ritual, then provides specific answers for each son.
But during this Passover season, the Jewish People are faced with several questions to which there are no simple answers. Indeed, they are such uncomfortable questions that it can be said that Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora have tried to avoid speaking about them in an objective way for several decades. But in the present case, perhaps this is the best time to raise them.
The first question which received much attention over the past few weeks was the possibility that Jonathan Pollard might be released by the United States, and handed over to Israel as part of a deal to keep the peace talks going between both nations and the Palestinians. This created much emotion among people in America and Israel, not only in government and the intelligence community, but particularly among Jews. Because while it is not always admitted, the fact is that the case of Jonathan Pollard raises feelings of deep unease, not only between Israelis and Americans, but between American Jews and Israelis.
Jonathan Pollard was an intelligence analyst working for the CIA, who turned out to be an Israeli spy who had been transmitting US secrets to Israel for some time. Now the concept of nations spying on each other is nothing new. But the spying usually occurs on nations which are the enemies of the spy’s home nation. In the case of Jonathan Pollard, he was spying on a nation who was a friend of Israel. Indeed, its best friend.
The real problem of the Pollard case was that Israel was spying on a friendly nation whose President, Ronald Reagan, had only a few years earlier declared nearly unconditional support of Israel on all levels, political, military, economic, etc. There have been other American Presidents who have helped Israel, and saved it. Most notably Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. But there had never been a President of the US who had come out so directly and publicly in support of Israel as Ronald Reagan.
In addition, President Reagan kept his word. The military and economic support he provided Israel began to transform the nation. Israelis began to feel more safe, and with American protection guaranteed, the business community felt secure enough to invest in the Israeli economy with great enthusiasm. Ask any Israeli who remembers the 1980s, and they will tell you that it was the first time the nation felt they could really enjoy life and plan for the future. Instead of always looking over their shoulder, and wondering if the next day would bring total destruction. All this was done thanks to President Reagan, and later on his successors.
The uncomfortable question arises then,why would Israel spy on its best friend? This consequently produces more questions. Is this how Israel treats its friends, by manipulating and stealing from them? Is this what Jewish loyalty means? Is this an example of the great democratic, legal, and righteous principles which Israel, and its Jewish Diaspora, always claimed they were bringing to the Middle East?
Clearly these questions still create a sense of unease among Israelis and their kinsmen in America and the rest of the world. But what was even more disturbing at the time of Pollard’s arrest, and the press which followed, were the answers from the Israeli government. Namely, that everybody does this. Other nations spy on their friends, like the Europeans, so why is it such a big deal if Israel does so?
At the time, these issues were swept under the rug as quickly as possible, and the great friendship between Israel and the United States continued. But almost three decades later, in the wake of the Edward Snowden case, with the United States, through the NSA, being caught doing the same thing, such questions have resurfaced. Particularly when the world heard President Obama, of all people, justifying the NSA spying activity by saying exactly what the Israelis said, everybody does it. So what?
This writer does not presume to provide answers. But one question has been avoided countless times in both spying cases. How can a nation, and a people, claim to stand for certain principles and values, which supposedly set them apart from the rest of the world and make them exceptional (so to speak), and then proceed to conduct themselves in this manner? What type of hypocrisy allows a people, regardless of their tremendous contributions to mankind, to treat their friends with such disloyalty and dishonesty, only to then continue their premise of being a righteous, law abiding, humanistic, and civilized society?
There is a term in Judaism, called the Yetzer Hara. A more common term would be the Evil Urge. It is an aspect of every human being, every people, every religion, and every nation. No one is above it. It is an essential part of our nature, and what mankind struggles with every day. In that sense, Israel was possibly correct in its description of Jonathan Pollard’s actions in the 1980’s by stating that every nation practiced such spying on their friends.
But the key aspect in dealing with the Yetzer Hara, is to first recognize and admit that it is influencing our lives in such extreme ways. The need of every nation, but particularly those such as Israel who claim they stand for certain values, is to face their own Yetzer Hara, and divest themselves of the pretense that they are inherently above such flaws in their character and behavior. This is something that no nation has successfully achieved. including Israel.
So it is no wonder that these are uneasy questions. For American Jews it is even more complicated. For how can they claim a certain loyalty and affinity to Israel, as Jews. which still feeling as Americans that they have been betrayed by a friend to whom, speaking figuratively and literally, they basically provided an open checkbook? In addition, how does this reflect on Jewish Unity? Is this how Israeli Jews treat their brethren in America? Is it enough to say that even family members will treat each other unjustly, so there is no need to make a big deal about it? Is Jewish Unity so important that a facade to the world must be maintained at all costs while the internal distrust continues to grow until the very fabric of the family begins to come apart?
Difficult questions indeed. But if any people, any nation, is truly great, it must have the strength to face these questions openly, deal with them, and in doing so find a true path of honor and justice. This is an important aspect of true righteousness.
If Jonathan Pollard has done any service to Israel, it is not from the information he stole from the CIA. It is by the actual experience he has endured for 30 years, and the symbolic reminder to Israel and its Diaspora, that consideration of others, especially one’s friends, is an equally important aspect of a civilized nation.