The public discourse surrounding President Shimon Peres' efforts to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard has so far all but ignored U.S. domestic politics, even though presidential elections are less than five months away. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney are in full campaign mode and are running neck-and-neck.
The steep hill Obama has to climb in order to be re-elected, coupled with the importance of the so-called Jewish vote that could determine the outcome in several swing states (for example, Florida), could serve as an opportunity to end this sad tale.
The fact that only 64 percent of Jewish voters (a big drop from when he was elected) want the 44th president to serve another term should serve as a flashing red light for Obama; he may have to engage in some trust-building with his Israeli ally and his Jewish base. Despite Obama's political predicament and his keen desire to put to rest the suspicion with which his Jewish supporters view him, it is unclear whether Pollard's release is in the offing.
Diplomatic and national security heavyweights in the U.S. have publicly come out in support of a presidential clemency, including former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. But Pollard's chances of winning a get-out-of-jail pass are still a big unknown, owing to an unexpected source — U.S. Jewry's unwillingness to embrace the campaign, including most of its prominent leaders and organizations. When past administrations pursued policies that conflicted with Israeli interests, they waged an uncompromising battle; but on Pollard things are different. Even the pro-Israel lobby, despite its many accomplishments, has been standing idly by without marshalling even an iota of its resources, nor has it capitalized on some of its political assets for this cause. The reason for this behavior lies in how U.S. Jews perceive their affiliation to both countries.
They are still grappling with the key questions pertaining to loyalty and identity posed in the wake the Pollard affair, despite having gradually climbed up the U.S. social ladder and risen to the top of the economic and intellectual pyramid. Assimilation and integration have accelerated as well over the past several decades.
Although this was a unique, one-time affair, Pollard's actions have been seared in the community's collective memory as an open wound that continues to bleed. Their basic premise — that support for Israel is not in conflict with U.S. strategic interests and heritage — was turned on its head by the Pollard affair.
The conscious decision on the part of Jewish leaders and key segments of the community to run away from this issue mirrors the way they acted when the affair broke in the 1980s. They harbor deep fear that by engaging in this they could come off as thankless and disloyal toward a nation that has provided them with a welcoming environment and an opportunity to become an influential elite.
In the 1980s, Jewish leaders went out of their way to lambaste Pollard's actions in no uncertain terms — often using blunt language. Twenty-seven years on, they still refuse to fight for his release.
The window of opportunity for his release may soon close unless U.S. Jews form a front and take on this cause, because when it comes to deliberating the pros and cons of a deal on Pollard, the White House has so far refused to factor the Jewish vote into its list of considerations.