I often imagine a day perhaps in the not-too-distant future: A prisoner is released, but I don’t see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas jumping with joy. Quite to the contrary, I don’t see the nation of Israel — American Jews included — feeling like it is being stabbed in its ever-growing and ever-paining wound. And perhaps most defining of all, I don’t see this prisoner being released after a murder; instead he is released after committing espionage against the country of my birth.
This prisoner’s name, Jonathan Pollard, invokes more upheaval among American Jews and Jewish Americans alike than the mere name Israel itself, testing my own identity as a Jew, as a Zionist and as an American.
Many of my friends await the day to see a sadly frail Pollard released. They say songs will be sung and dances will danced, as he boards an El Al plane destined for a much stronger, more advanced and hardly recognizable Israel. I understand their pride, but I don’t know if I will feel it.
Am I betraying America if I cheer at the release of someone who went behind America’s back? Am I betraying Israel if I don’t advocate for Pollard’s release? Am I betraying Israel if I don’t cheer as he prophetically walks onto Ben Gurion Airport’s cement runway? Pollard’s eventual released cannot be mired only by political and legal undertones; the whole story goes far deeper than most individuals passionate about his fate realize. For the Pollard issue for American Jews — or Jewish Americans, depending on how one identifies — speaks to a much larger identity crisis, a crisis that perhaps led Pollard to engage in espionage and lose, so far, 27 years behind bars.
Americans who identify as Jews and/or Zionists walk a tight rope and Pollard has only magnified the stakes. Are we Jewish Americans? American Jews? Israeli-Americans? Jewish Zionists? American Zionists? Zionist Americans?
On the surface, these words and their infinite combinations seem identical and even meaningless; however, we must refrain from simplifying and shaming these identities. These words and their combinations have meaning and to downplay their significance is to downplay the infinite amount of identities that establish past political and religious precedents, in Israel and beyond. Identity is man-made and never static. Through the testing of identity, as the Pollard case has proved for Jews worldwide, we refine ourselves. Many of us have already refined our visions of Zionism because of it.
Personally, I connect with Pollard’s urge to help Israel, but I will never be able to rationalize spying against my country. My call is not for any one person to change his or her view regarding Pollard, but for every one of us to challenge our views of ourselves so that at the end of the day we at least have something more than a figurehead — whether reviled or championed — on which to hold onto in the challenging years ahead.
A native of Baltimore, Justin Hayet is a pro-Israel student leader at Binghamton University studying political science. He has been published in The Jerusalem Post and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.