Jonathan Pollard is finally free to go to Israel and live in the land for which he literally gave so much of his life.
Over all these decades, the attitude and perspective about the case of Mr. Pollard has divided the Jewish community, perhaps more than so many other sensitive and difficult issues our community has grappled with.
But now, 35 years later, Jonathan Pollard as an issue is gradually fading, with the focus rightfully redirected at the human being the U.S. federal government didn’t just imprison on charges of spying for Israel but tried to crush — if not literally then certainly any way they possibly could, short of actually taking his life.
Jonathan Pollard was an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy and had access to information that, according to some involved in the matter at that time, was of value to Israel. The State of Israel had several handlers who directed Pollard’s actions and managed to send the material to Israel.
Investigative journalist Edwin Black described some of the information Pollard is said to have given to his Israeli handlers. “Pollard gave the Israelis more than 800 unredacted intelligence reports and publications. The many reports and publications—some of them dozens of pages long and featuring satellite photos — also displayed tell-tale source identification.
“Pollard’s disclosures meant America lost horse-trading leverage with Israel’s intelligence services. But more importantly, Israel was suspected of re-editing and then itself trading the information with other intelligence services under its own quid pro quos. Washington resented that its secret information was no longer under U.S. control. It could theoretically end up anywhere, including Moscow, as a bargaining chip while Israel was trying to free Soviet Jews.”
At the time, Caspar Weinberger was the U.S. Secretary of Defense and it appears that he was violating an agreement with Israel that would have provided the Jewish State with valuable information on some of the designs and intentions of Israel’s enemies. That is when Pollard decided to act.
On the night that Pollard was caught in 1985, although he had an escape plan provided to him by Israel, he made his way to the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. The Israelis did not allow him in, and it took many years for them to even acknowledge that Pollard’s work was sanctioned by Israel.
In all, Pollard spent 30 years in prison. He entered the federal prison system in a maximum-security facility in Marion, Illinois, and was later transferred to a medium-security facility in Butler, North Carolina.
“Israel abandoned him,” says his attorney, Elliot Lauer, with whom I spoke on Monday. “And the conduct of U.S. law enforcement was outrageous.”
Now three-and-a-half decades later, Jonathan Pollard is free and in the next few weeks will hopefully fulfill his dream of going to live in Israel. He might have left already except for the fact that his wife, Esther, is dealing with stage 4 breast cancer. According to Mr. Lauer, they are busy lining up medical care in Israel for Mrs. Pollard and consulting with her doctors about her ability to make the long trip.
Another of Mr. Pollard’s confidants here in New York is Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the Coalition for Jewish Values. Over the decades, Rabbi Lerner was a steady visitor to prison to see and spend time with Pollard, and he supported him and took care of whatever he required.
Essentially, the Pollard story is a tragic one, and there is no escaping the realization that he was singled out for especially cruel treatment — not because he was a spy, but because he was a spy for Israel.
It was an unfortunate combination of circumstances that Jonathan soon came to regret, but at that point it was too late to change anything. Instead of going to trial, Jonathan was offered a deal that if he would plead guilty to espionage he would not be sentenced to life in prison. He did plead guilty, but the government went ahead and sentenced him to life in prison anyway. The U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case was Joe di Genova, who today is a member of the Trump legal team seeking to reverse what appears to be the result of our recent election.
According to Elliot Lauer, even after Mr. di Genova left government and went into private legal practice, when the matter of possible early release for Jonathan would come up he made sure to be involved and used his not-minimal governmental influence to make sure that Jonathan remained imprisoned.
Mr. Lauer points out that during all those years that Jonathan was imprisoned, others who spied for non-friendly — indeed, hostile — countries to the U.S. were sentenced and freed after serving anywhere from 4 to 7 years.
An appeals court hearing on Pollard’s disproportionate sentence was held before a three-judge panel in 1992 that included Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Laurence Silberman, and Stephen Williams. The two Jewish judges, Ginsburg and Silberman, upheld the life sentence, while the non-Jewish judge, Williams, dissented. Pollard remained in jail until his sentence was completed in 2015.
Pollard is now 66 years old, so all this took place when he was in his late twenties, and he began his long prison sentence at the age of just 31. Rabbi Lerner points out that so intense was Pollard’s imprisonment that during the drive to Manhattan from an airport near New York after his release, Jonathan asked Rabbi Lerner whether he was seeing things or if people all over the streets were talking to themselves. Jonathan had never seen high-tech cellphones or Bluetooth technology before.
Over the last five years of his parole he also had to deal with a series of restrictions that dominated his life up until last Friday when his parole expired and he was finally genuinely free. That included wearing a cuff on his arm at all times so that the authorities could monitor his whereabouts. He had to be home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day. Not being there on time would have been a violation of his parole and may have resulted in being rearrested.
On top of that, the rules forbade him from having access to a computer. The absurd rationale was that if Pollard had computer access he could send top secret information, if he had any. His attorney, Mr. Lauer, argued through the five-year parole period that even if he had that kind of information, who would be interested in 35-year-old intelligence information? His petitions were always rejected or ignored.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu called Jonathan at his Manhattan apartment, wishing him well and saying that he hoped to see Jonathan in Israel very soon. The prime minister said that he and his staff are working to arrange the very best care for his wife, Esther.
As can be expected, Mr. Pollard prefers to keep living his quiet, private life to which he has grown accustomed these last few years. I asked Rabbi Lerner and Mr. Lauer about the possibility of arranging a brief phone interview, but they both said that nothing like that can be arranged at this point. They added that there is nothing to discuss until the Pollards are settled in Israel, which can be months from now.
Rabbi Lerner explains that considering who Jonathan Pollard is and what he endured so that Israel could be safe, if it would be announced after his arrival in Israel that Jonathan would be davening at the Kotel one morning, there is no doubt that there would be tens of thousands of people there to greet him.
“For now he doesn’t want to be the center of attention,” said Rabbi Lerner. “He wants to settle in Israel, have his wife taken care of, and just live a normal life.”
Jonathan Pollard is the consummate reluctant Jewish hero, but a hero nonetheless.
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