By Jonathan S. Tobin
It was probably inevitable that we hadn’t heard the last of Jonathan Pollard. When the convicted spy landed in Israel last fall, most of the Jewish world heaved a sigh of relief. After 30 years in prison and then another five living quietly in New York after he was paroled, Pollard was finally free to live in the country for which he had sacrificed so much.
Almost exactly 35 years after he was turned away from the Israeli embassy in Washington when he was seeking to evade arrest for his crimes, Pollard was personally welcomed to the country by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Long considered by many Israelis to be a “soldier” of the Jewish state who had been abandoned by those who had exploited his desire to aid Israel, the fulfillment of Pollard’s dream of going “home” to Israel seemed to bring his long, tragic saga to a close. The former U.S. Navy analyst who spied for Israel had endured a disproportionate sentence and done hard time in federal prisons. But once he stepped off the plane and shook the hand of the one Israeli leader who had always taken an active interest in his plight, many may have thought that he would be more interested in living a quiet life than in settling old scores or stirring up more trouble than he had already caused.
But anyone who thought the freed spy would now act in the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people were wrong. He’s a free man living in a democracy and has every right to say what he likes. But while his first public comments in 35 years — an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom — are certainly eye-opening, if he thinks his comments will do no harm, then he’s dead wrong. While Pollard speaks of his love for Israel and the Jewish people, he needs to understand that by supporting the claim that all American Jews have dual loyalty, he is not only handing anti-Semites ammunition but undercutting the hard work of generations of American Jews who have supported the Jewish state. He’s also causing actual harm to an alliance that while shaken by his bad judgment and that of his handlers and their political bosses has also proven strong enough to withstand the real policy differences that have popped up between Washington and Jerusalem over the years.
The fact that he has no regrets about his betrayal of his oath and makes extravagant claims about the assistance the intelligence he stole rendered Israel is simply evidence of how clueless he is about the long-term damage he did both to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jews. By saying that any American Jew who finds himself in the same situation that he was in should do as he did, however, he has crossed a line beyond which he no longer deserves the sympathy that Jews in both Israel and the United States have long felt for him.
There is no doubt that Pollard has quite a story to tell, and the lengthy Israel Hayom interview no doubt only scratches the surface of it. Even so, there’s far more of an interest in the article than can be analyzed in a single column.
That Pollard portrays himself as the hero of the tale is understandable even if he seems not to have undergone much introspection about his actions. Many of the stories he tells about his dealings with his Israeli handlers, and his arrest and prosecution, as well as his life in prison, have a ring of authenticity about them. That’s especially true about two people of whom he has nothing good to say. Both Rafi Eitan, the late Israel Mossad master spy who ran the Pollard operation out of the Lekem special scientific intelligence-gathering unit that he headed, and Richard Hibey, the Israeli-funded attorney that ran his defense, come out poorly and justifiably so.
Eitan’s cynical exploitation of Pollard was a disgrace. He knew that Israel had agreed not to spy on the United States, and that taking advantage of an obviously naive Pollard was especially wrong since he was Jewish. Israeli intelligence has generally always shied away from using local Jews because engaging them to spy on their own country — whether a free and prosperous outpost of the Diaspora like the United States or a repressive nation where Jews were already endangered — would do grave damage to local Jews.
Eitan also trapped Pollard into taking money and other forms of compensation so as to thoroughly compromise him and put him at the mercy of his handlers. And when Pollard fell under suspicion from his colleagues and superiors at the Navy Department — something that was inevitable given the spy’s unstable behavior and massive scale of his thefts of intelligence — Eitan made no effort to save him even as the Israelis involved in the operation were able to flee the United States.
Pollard has every right to heap abuse on Eitan’s memory. While it may be hard to believe that, as Esther Pollard claims, Eitan actually told her that his only regret about the caper was that he hadn’t had Pollard killed so as to silence him, it is nonetheless in keeping with the way the spy was considered expendable. While Eitan was a legend who was involved in the capture of Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann and many other intelligence coups, and later went on to a successful political career, his legacy is tarnished by his role in the Pollard affair.
Also deserving of abuse is Hibey, whose incompetent defense not only ensured that Pollard would get the worst possible treatment from the U.S. legal system but also doomed future appeals. He may not, as the Pollards seem to imply, have been instructed by Israeli officials to harm the case, but his conduct was so bad that he might as well have been paid to throw it.
Omitted from the account is the fact that the life sentence imposed on Pollard by an unsympathetic judge — egged on by a U.S. security establishment out for revenge — was largely his own doing. His jailhouse interview with Wolf Blitzer, then a correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, in which he justified his crime, allowed the prosecution to claim that he had violated the plea bargain that would have netted him a much lighter sentence.
Other elements of Pollard’s account strain credibility. The notion that an unnamed Israeli official in the presence of an unnamed U.S. military officer would have told Pollard to kill himself is hard to believe. The same applies to his story of an escape arranged for him that would, had he taken advantage of it, have led to his murder—presumably at the hands of American operatives — because of what he claims was a threat to tell all about the Iran Contra affair before it became public.
The Pollards are convinced that his spying saved Israeli lives, and it’s possible he did. He’s also innocent of the charge that he indirectly betrayed U.S. agents in the Soviet Union. But the notion that he did no damage to the United States is simply untrue. His theft of the U.S. Radio and Signal Intelligence Manual cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. The sheer magnitude of the volume of material he stole gives the lie to his claims of merely helping Israel without hurting the country to which he had sworn loyalty. Also dubious is the notion, repeated more than once, that Israel would have known nothing about Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons without Pollard since it’s highly likely that the Mossad knew more about what was going on in Iraq than the CIA.
The interview does go into great detail about how Esther Pollard befriended the imprisoned spy. Pollard’s wife, Anne, who had been part of the operation, had also been jailed. He divorced her while in prison and eventually married the woman who took up his cause as her own. Their unlikely romance is touchingly presented, though the account skims over the fact that once Esther entered the picture, Pollard appears to have cut off relations with his family. Both his father, Dr. Morris Pollard, and his sister Gail had worked tirelessly for his cause but were reportedly dropped once the woman he married in prison became the only person he appeared to trust.
Both Morris and Gail contacted me in an attempt to get me to aid Pollard early on in the case, as did Esther later on. Pollard also wrote to me from jail for a while. The idea that his family did anything to harm his cause or spread disinformation about him is preposterous. The Pollard saga was also a family tragedy.
Still, the most important element of the interview is the passage where he not only speaks of his lack of regrets but goes on to speak about dual loyalty.
Pollard clearly has an axe to grind against the organized American Jewish world, which was slow to embrace his cause. He depicts himself as a hero not only for helping Israel but by refusing to help anti-Semitic investigators pin crimes on other Jews. And yet, American Jewry had good reason for not embracing someone who was doing so much harm to the alliance they had nurtured. Nevertheless, American Jews and their organizations did take up Pollard’s cause once his disproportionate sentence (he received more severe punishment than anyone who had ever spied for a friendly nation), rather than his crime, became the issue. The idea that “no one in the Jewish community had an issue with the life sentence” is simply false.
But what’s really wrong here is the way Pollard speaks of the United States as an irredeemably anti-Semitic nation and that it can never be a true home to Jews. No country has ever been a friendlier haven for Jews in the history of the Diaspora. Jews have been accepted in every sector of society, including the highest levels of government and the military, and have been able to do so as proudly observant of their faith. Jews are at home in the United States because it is their right, not out of sufferance on the part of righteous gentiles.
Pollard makes much of his claims that America held back intelligence from Israel that it should have shared, and that this somehow justifies his spying. But that wasn’t his call to make, and he seems insensible to the fact that he could have done more to alter that policy by resigning and speaking out than by becoming a spy. It’s hard to blame him for this kind of self-justification since it probably helped keep him going all those years in prison. But more objective observers understand that his claims to heroism have more to do with his needs than those of Israel.
Pollard’s spying also happened at a time when the Reagan administration was upgrading the relationship with Israel from friendly support to a real alliance based on mutual interests. Pollard did more damage to that effort than any of Israel’s foes, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who played a role in the imposition of Pollard’s draconian sentence.
The idea that Pollard would, as he told his interviewer, tell a young Jew working in U.S. intelligence to do as he did is astounding. He not only seems unaware of how his crime cast a pall over every loyal American Jew working to defend the world’s greatest democracy, but seems to think it doesn’t really matter.
To claim that the choice is as simple as one between saving Jews and being silent is mere self-dramatization. Relations — let alone intelligence-sharing, even between these two close allies — is always more complicated than that.
While early Zionists spoke of the negation of the Diaspora, from Theodor Herzl’s time to our own, the cause of the Jewish state has never been about hurting friendly democratic countries or undermining the rights of Jews to live wherever they want. Even a superficial reading of the history of the past century leads to an understanding that the United States is not just another country where Jews are alien wayfarers destined someday to be expelled. For Pollard to advise young American Jews to betray America isn’t just bad advice to be ignored, it’s the sort of thing that does as much to discredit the just cause of Zionism than all the calumnies of BDS anti-Semites.
Pollard has had a rough time, and after more than three decades in jail, he deserved parole and to live out what’s left of his life in Israel. Yet he has no right to attack an American Jewish community that he betrayed just as much as he did the U.S. Navy. Nor has he any right to do more to call into question the loyalty of the many American Jews who continue to sacrifice and serve their country while also supporting its steadfast Israeli ally.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.