There are many, many similarities between these two Jews imprisoned in the U.S. for leaking documents having to do with Israel. But there is also one crucial difference.
It turns out that the classified FBI documents which Shamai Leibowitz got jailed for leaking were wiretaps of Israeli embassy lobbying and hasbara activities against Iran. Leibowitz, grandson of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz and a former defense lawyer for Marwan Barghouti, leaked them in 2009 to Tikun Olam blogger Richard Silverstein, who told the story to the New York Times.
“What really concerned Shamai at the time was the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran, which he thought would be damaging to both Israel and the United States,” said Silverstein.
Leibowitz pleaded guilty, reportedly before he was even indicted, apologized in court, and got 20 months in prison last year on a plea bargain; he’s now at a half-way house in Maryland.
It’s hard to argue that somebody who leaks classified FBI documents is not committing a crime and should not be punished, but regardless of whether or not he belongs in jail or even a half-way house, Shamai Leibowitz is a hero. And nobody owes him a greater debt of thanks than the people of Israel.
It’s clear enough that he didn’t leak documents that concretely endangered Israel’s, let alone America’s, security; no such claim has been made in or out of court, in the U.S. or in Israel. Rather, he leaked documents that concretely endangered the private side of Israel’s campaign to prepare U.S. opinion for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, something Israel’s leadership certainly seemed eager for in 2009, and could still be.
Silverstein told the BBC that the wiretap transcripts, which Leibowitz had access to as an FBI translator, revealed a “whole panoply of activities” - keeping tabs on congressmen and arranging for the ghost-writing of op-eds, for instance - that were “designed to create a real punitive attitude toward Iran.” The intelligence community has a term for it, Silverstein said – “perception management.”
None of what the Israeli embassy was doing sounds illegal or even surprising – the thing is that it was done to advance the most dangerous, ideologically insane project this country’s come up with since I don’t when: bombing Iran.
Without repeating things I’ve written over and over, I think an Israeli attack on Iran would set in motion at least a bilateral WMD war, very possibly a regional one. Without even trying to imagine how many people might get killed, I think it would be the end of this country. It’s unclear how popular the idea of bombing Iran remains among Israel’s power elite today, given the changes in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, and due to statements by Meir Dagan. Yet it was quite popular in 2009.
Shamai Leibowitz went to jail for trying to head off such an attack, and to the extent that Tikun Olam’s postings gained attention, he did his bit for a great, historic cause. Silverstein, who also deserves credit, told the BBC that Leibowitz dreaded that if he didn’t leak the wiretaps and the “disaster” happened, “he would look back and feel that he might have been able to do something to prevent it.”
Leibowitz, an Orthodox Jew, is remembered in Israel for comparing Barghouti to Moses in the Palestinian’s 2002 trial for his role in multiple terror attacks. A little context is in order though: Leibowitz didn’t mean that Barghouti was the equal of Moshe Rabbenu, rather that his acts against Israel were reminiscent of Moses’s killing of the Egyptian soldier who cruelly beat the Israelites.
I wouldn’t go along with that comparison, either, but it’s irrelevant; Leibowitz’s ”whistle-blowing” was a great and brave mitzva. He is an Israeli-American prisoner of conscience.
He’s also a leftist, like me, so I imagine some people might ask how I would compare his act to that of Jonathan Pollard, a hero mainly to the Right. I’d say there are many, many similarities, and one crucial difference.
Pollard, serving a life sentence for passing top-secret Navy intelligence documents to Israel in the 1980s, is also a prisoner of conscience. He acted out of what I consider pure motives: a concern for Israel’s security (The money came later, his Israeli handlers cynically corrupted him with it - that’s not why he gave them all those documents.) Pollard didn’t mean to endanger America or its agents, although he apparently did. Whether he did more harm or good to Israel, we Israelis owe him a debt of thanks for his brave attempt. Even with regard to the U.S., he did not out of malice. He’s spent far longer in prison than he deserved to, and the only conceivable reason he hasn’t been let out is because the U.S. remains convinced that if freed, he would still be a danger to its security. Whatever his politics, whatever his personality, I see him as a fundamentally good guy – incredibly brave and idealistic.
He and Leibowitz both acted bravely out of idealistic motives, yet the fear for Israel that motivated Pollard was exaggerated to the point of paranoia. He thought Israel was on the verge of another Holocaust, which simply wasn’t (and isn’t) true. He didn’t need to go to such lengths for this country, and it’s a shame and tragedy he did.
Leibowitz, on the other hand, was motivated by an altogether reality-based fear – the strong possibility, if not likelihood, that Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and start a cataclysmic war, a “disaster” for everyone. There was a true, compelling need for the information he had, and his bravery was not misplaced. (Not for society’s benefit, anyway, although I’m sure it was for his own benefit and that of his family.)
They’re very similar, Pollard and Leibowitz; the difference is their worldviews. Pollard is a hero to Jews who believe the danger to Israel is weakness; Leibowitz is, or should be, a hero to Jews who believe the danger to Israel is not knowing its own strength.
This is not a matter of opinion, but of fact; a glancing familiarity with the balance of power between Israel and its enemies, including Iran, tells you which side is strong and which is weak, which side needs to be afraid and which needs to stop being so blindly paranoid. Pollard and Leibowitz are both good, brave men; the difference is that Pollard was wrong and Leibowitz was right.