Ron Radosh

The Pollard Case and the Rosenbergs: Are There Really any Similarities?

Writing today in Tablet Magazine, Gil Troy presents a new analysis of the case of Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish American who was arrested for espionage on behalf of Israel and convicted in 1987. Pollard is now facing his 24th year in prison, and as Troy writes, “has earned the dubious record of serving the longest prison term in American history for spying for an ally.”

The Pollard case inevitably brings up the comparison with the espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for the crime of “conspiracy to commit espionage” in June of 1953.  Troy offers the following comments about the supposed similarities in the cases:

American Jews had been here before. Three decades before Pollard made headlines, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s [5] arrest, trial, and conviction as Soviet spies for stealing atomic secrets rendered the American Jews’ nightmare scenario in pinkish hues. But in the 1950s, American Jews were greener, more marginal. Julius Rosenberg represented the intellectual, foreign-born, New York Jew as Communist, at a time when Communism was disproportionately popular among Jews.

With the Rosenbergs—as with the Pollards—the rightness of finding them guilty was often confused with the wrongness of their punishment. The zeal with which they were prosecuted, the way Judge Irving Kaufman presided over their trial, and Ethel Rosenberg’s unjust execution along with her husband, all suggested something deeper in both the American Jewish psyche and the larger American political culture. The American legal establishment particularly enjoyed prosecuting these treasonous Jews, while many American Jews leapt to prove their own loyalty—at the Rosenbergs’ expense.

Just as in the Rosenberg case, the judge presiding over Pollard’s sentencing was swayed to render too harsh a punishment—a decision that kicked up new waves of suspicion and anxiety.

My first response is that I disagree with some of Troy’s judgments. In fact, aside from his personal reasons for giving the Rosenbergs the death sentence- which even J. Edgar Hoover did not want for Ethel- Judge Kaufman did not run an unfair trial. The main claim for this charge is that Kaufman insisted that the issue of Communism was relevant as a motive for their espionage. The couple, despite the fact they were facing a death sentence for their acts, refused to testify about their political beliefs and invoked the 5th Amendment as a reason for not doing so. The Rosenberg defense immediately argued that this proved it was a civil liberties and not an espionage case- since their personal politics were irrelevant. Indeed, they went on to argue that all the Rosenbergs did is work for peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and that was their real crime. Remember that in this period, the far pro-Communist Left believed that the Truman Administration had ushered in fascism to America, and that the Rosenbergs’ indictment and trial proved this.

All of Kaufman’s excesses were not visible at the trial. His main offense was his famous ex parte communication with prosecution counsel Roy Cohn, to discuss the possible sentence he would give. While not illegal at the time, it was highly irregular and almost never engaged in.  It proved that on the issue of the sentence, Kaufman was grandstanding- as were some of his statements after the trial- and on a personal level, probably thought that giving the Rosenbergs the death penalty would lead him to a seat on the Supreme Court. If anything, his actions discredited him, and all but eliminated him from consideration for ever being promoted in the US court system.

I also think that little evidence exists that the “American legal establishment particularly enjoyed prosecuting these treasonous Jews,” as Troy writes. In fact, Julius Rosenberg had set up a major espionage network for old Joe Stalin, and over the years, that ring did major harm to American national security. On this account, I highly recommend reading some of the recent articles by science reporter Steven Usdin, as well as his timeline of the case.

Moreover, while Pollard was engaging in espionage for an American ally- which some would argue necessitates a more reasonable sentence- Julius Rosenberg began his spying during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when Stalin was an ally of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, and continued his espionage until his arrest, during the early years of the Cold War, when the US was not an ally of the Soviets. Pollard considered himself a Jew and a Zionist—while Rosenberg’s identification as a Jew was something he used to gain sympathy after his arrest. The truth is that he was a secular Jew who used his ethnic identity for political reasons, and his only loyalty was to the USSR and to Communism. He was a classic “non-Jewish Jew,” who like Trotsky, repudiated Judaism as a religion as well as an identification in place of a belief in the universal cause of liberation of the working-class, who had no religion. The way in which the Rosenberg defense used their failure to gain a last minute stay of execution, and to raise holy hell that the couple would be executed during the Sabbath, was a cheap ploy to make the US appear anti-Semitic. The Justice Department responded by putting off their execution until after sundown, so as not be charged with the offense of being anti-Semitic, then became a focus of new claims about how hard-hearted and anti-Semitic the Eisenhower administration was.

The irony is that the American Left- I refer here to the Communists and their fellow-travelers-actually used the argument that while the Jewish Communists arrested for treason in Communist Czechoslovakia during the infamous Slansky purge trials that occurred in the same period as the Rosenberg arrest and trial- were guilty of being Zionist and American spies against the Czech People’s Republic- and most of whom were hung- the Rosenbergs were innocent and were being tried because they were Jews who fought for peace.  Here is what the CP historian, the late Herbert Aptheker, wrote at the time, in a dialogue (if you can call it that) with the anti-Communist social-democrat, Sidney Hook:

Most certainly the Czechoslovak trials carry no anti-Jewish aspect. In that country, unlike our own, the display of anti-Semitism is a serious crime…You are certain the trials in Czechoslovkia were ‘framed,’ but that the Rosenbergs are really guilty….In one trial defendants charged with specific acts of treason, sabotage and murder…confess their guilt- but you are sure they were ‘framed’; in the other case the defendants, though offered their lives if they confess, refuse the offer and persist in maintaining their innocence, but you are sure they are guilty.  In one case dozens of witnesses and scores of documents demonstrating the defendants’ guilt are introduced, but you know they are ‘framed’; in the other case there is one decisive witness and his testimony, denied by both defendants, is ridiculed by scientists throughout the country as absurd….
What is the ‘most heinous crime’ charged against the Rosenbergs? The passing of information- known and never secret- to a war-time ally….anti-Semitism played and plays a part in this case…Is it not a fact that this Nazi-like sadism is present in connection with the unprecedented death sentence meted out…?

I can do no more than quote the response to arguments like that- Aptheker was just one of many who used these- from I.F. Stone, whom we all know was at times himself something of an apologist for the Soviets, and who years earlier, had himself been a KGB operative. Stone commented:

The Communists also have cause for shame. The false cry of anti-Semitism, the eagerness abroad to use the Rosenbergs to equate the U.S.A. of Truman with the Germany of Hitler, the wild cries of frame-up, sacrificed calm consideration of the Rosenberg case to the needs of world Communist propaganda. After all, no picket lines circled the Kremlin to protests the executions of Jewish writers and artists; they did not even have a day in court; they just disappeared. Slansky was executed overnight without appeal in Prague. How the same people could excuse Slansky and the ‘doctor’s plot’ and at the same time carry on the Rosenberg campaign as they did call for political psychiatry.

So whether or not at this time Pollard should be freed as a matter of justice, as Troy argues, is something to debate on the merit of the argument for his freedom. But let us leave out of it spurious comparisons to the 1950’s trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.