Honor Extended to Jonathan Pollard by Australia’s Orthodox Jewish Community Stirs Controversy

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May 3, 2021, 9:05:35 AMMay 3
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Honor Extended to Jonathan Pollard by Australia’s Orthodox Jewish Community Stirs Controversy 

Rabbi of Australian synagogue hosting the event warns that invitation to ex-spy Pollard as keynote speaker 'opens the door to accusations against us of untrustworthy loyalty'

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File photo: Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York.

File photo: Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York. Credit: Mark Lennihan / AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

An invitation extended to convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to serve as the keynote speaker at a large Jewish event in Australia has sparked condemnation and exposed a deep rift in the community.

Pollard, who served 30 years in an American prison and five years on parole before becoming a free man late last year, was invited by Mizrahi, the largest religious Zionist movement in Australia, to deliver the main address at the annual Jerusalem Day event on Sunday. Jerusalem Day marks the anniversary of the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War.

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Pollard was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987 when he served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Navy’s counterterrorism center. The incident put great strain on Israel’s relations with the United States and raised questions about the dual loyalty of Jewish-Americans. Pollard immigrated to Israel at the end of December and now lives with his wife in Jerusalem.

Jeremy Leibler, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, questioned the choice of such a controversial figure for a large community event. “While the hosts of the Yom Yerushalayim event are free to select their guest of honor, I can think of far more appropriate guests to speak at such an event than an individual who has been convicted and imprisoned by Israel’s strongest and most reliable ally for treason,” he told Haaretz.

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“The issue of Jonathan Pollard raises very serious issues for Jewish communities in the Diaspora and one has to question the judgment of selecting him as a keynote speaker for such an event.”

The Jerusalem Day event is being co-hosted by the Caulfield Hebrew Congregation – also known as the Caulfield Shul. It is considered to be the flagship synagogue of the Orthodox community in Melbourne, with an estimated 1,500 members. Other sponsors – all affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy – are the Bnei Akiva and Hineni youth movements, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria and the Council of Orthodox Synagogues Victoria.

Pollard will be delivering his speech from Jerusalem via video to an in-person gathering at the synagogue.

Prominent members of the Jewish community, Haaretz has learned, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the hosting organizations about the choice of speaker. However, both Mizrahi and the Caulfield Shul have so far refused to back down. The synagogue board, slated to meet later on Monday, might revisit the decision.

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Rabbi Ralphe Genende, the senior rabbi of the Caulfield Shul, refused to comment on the decision, but according to a letter he sent to members of the congregational board, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, he was extremely upset by it.

Danny Lamm, the president of Mizrahi Australia – who was behind the initiative to invite Pollard – asked David Mond, the president of the board of Caulfield Shul, if his synagogue would be willing to host the event. Mond welcomed the idea.

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The congregational rabbi, however, was not consulted. In his letter to the board members, Genende wrote: “On both a personal level, as senior rabbi to the congregation and as senior rabbi and one of the religious advisors to the Australian Defense Force, I believe this is a misguided and potentially damaging invitation to both the Shul and the wider Jewish community. It sends a message to the Jewish community and especially to young Jews, that it is acceptable to betray one’s country, one’s staunchest ally and friend.  It sends a message to the Australian government and people that our Jewish community admires such behavior and opens the door to accusations against us of untrustworthy loyalty.”

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The letter notes that the late Shimon Peres, then serving as Israel's prime minister, had apologized for Pollard’s activities “which had caused considerable damage to the relations with the USA.” Genende added that it was “a great pity” that an event “that should unite the community in its love for Jerusalem” was being used to promote an individual “whose behavior was at best controversial.”

When asked why Pollard was chosen to be the main speaker, Lamm issued the following response: “The imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard for a term out of all proportion to the crimes of which he was convicted outraged world Jewry and led to unified calls for his release. Mr. Pollard has an extraordinary story to tell, and will give insight into his motivations, for which he sacrificed his liberty for nearly 30 years. Many in our community eagerly await Mr. Pollard’s oration.”

He said that Pollard was not receiving any payment for his participation in the event and that “no senior or junior person” had spoken to him about reconsidering. Under COVID-19 restrictions, he said, the maximum number of people that the main synagogue hall could host for the event would be 450. He could not say how many people had registered to date but said that an adjacent hall was being prepared to accommodate what was expected to be an “overflowing” crowd.

Mond, the congregational president, did not reply to a request for comment from Haaretz.

Since arriving in Israel, Pollard has given only one interview to the press – to Israel Hayom, which is owned by the family of the late billionaire and prominent Republican donor Sheldon Adelson.

Pollard arrived in Israel in late December on a private plane owned by Adelson. In the interview, the convicted spy expressed no remorse for his behavior.

Aside from that interview, Pollard has kept very much to himself since the move. Before Israel's March election, reports had circulated that certain right-wing parties were trying to recruit him to their Knesset rosters.

The event in Australia will be the first time, since Pollard’s release, that he will be addressing a Diaspora community event.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, an umbrella organization of more than 200 groups across the country, declined to comment on the matter.

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