A Staged Betrayal

A new play decries Israel's abandonment of Jonathan Pollard and makes an impassioned plea for his release.

Calev Ben-David - The Jerusalem Post - March 23, 1995

This coming November, 10 yeas after being arrested for passing U.S, intelligence secrets to Israel and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment, Jonathan Jay Pollard will face his first parole hearing. In the coming months, a debate is likely to develop between those in the American Jewish community who are actively pushing for his release, others who prefer a low-key approach, and those who appose any clemency toward the former naval intelligence analyst.

In Israel, the debate over Pollard has already been jump-started by a new play that premiered in mid-February at Tel Aviv's municipal Cameri Theater. Written by Motti Lerner, "Pollard" is a fast-paced mix of docudrama and fantasy scenes, sharply directed by Ilan Ronen, depicting the events that led to the arrest of Pollard and his (former) wife Anne by the FBI in the driveway of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. It is a harsh condemnation of Israel's behavior in the affair and an impassioned plea for his freedom. It makes no bones about its position: The audience is even encouraged to sign a petition in the lobby calling for clemency for Pollard, which is to be sent to President Clinton when it reaches 100,000 names.

"Although I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of petitioning in the theater, says Lerner, "This is a special case. This time the rules are different."

Lerner, 45, born and raised in Zikhron Ya'acov, has emerged in the past decade as one of the most provocative playwrights in Israeli theater. His 1986 play "In the Days of the Messiah" was a potentially prophetic depiction of a violent revolt by West Bank settlers threatened with evacuation by a government making peace with the Arabs. Last autumn, his screenplay for the Israel TV film "Kastner," about a Jewish Agency official accused by some of collaboration with the Nazis, ignited a national debate because of a derogatory reference to legendary heroine Hannah Szenes which was excised at the last minute.

Lerner says his interest in the Pollard affair was sparked by a visit to the United States two years ago, when he went to oversee a Detroit production of "Else," his 1990 play about the life of a German-Jewish poetess Else Lasker-Schuler.

"While there, I also spoke before a number of Jewish organization gatherings," he recalls. "For the first time I really got to understand just how deeply American Jews had felt betrayed by Israel during the Pollard affair, how irresponsible it was to use an American Jew as a spy.

In some ways, I saw the story as relating to the same themes explored in 'Kastner,' Especially the negative attitude of Israeli culture toward the Diaspora. With Pollard, I felt the government took the approach that Israel's security was more important than that of American Jews. It's an expression of the belief that Israel can survive without the Diaspora. To me this is a terribly misguided idea, because we simply don't have the political, financial and cultural resources to make it without the Jewish community abroad."

Lerner says that before writing the play he attempted to meet with Pollard in prison, but was told by his legal advisers that it would not be a good idea prior to the parole hearing. The playwright made no attempt until late in the rehearsal stage to speak with Pollard's ex-wife Anne, who received a five-year sentence for being an accessory after the fact to her husband's possession of classified documents.

Shortly after being paroled from prison in 1990, Anne Pollard settled in Tel Aviv, and after an initial flurry of publicity, has generally kept a low profile, as her husband filed from prison for divorce. She did show up at the play's premiere and participated in a post-performance panel discussion; while praising aspects of the overall production, she was sharply critical of the way she was portrayed by actress Orna Katz, as a somewhat weak and nave figure.

Lerner did consult with Amnon Dror, a retired journalist (with rumored intelligence connections), who heads an advocacy group called the public committee for Jonathan Pollard. "I told Lerner," says Dror, "that I would cooperate only if the play did nothing to hurt Jonathan's chances of being released by impugning his motivations for doing what he did."

Dror had little reason to worry on that score. Although the Pollard of Lerner's play, passionately performed by Shul Rand, is something of a nebbishy know-it-all, his sole reason for violating his loyalty oath to the United States is concern that vital intelligence material is being wrongly withheld from Israel. While others have seen it differently, citing Pollard's receipt of some $30,000 from his Israeli handlers, Lerner portrays him reluctantly taking the money and acting strictly out of Zionist motives.

"Every spy gets some operational money," says Lerner, "and considering the importance of the material Pollard is said to have given to Israel, it seems he received a very small sum. And frankly, for dramatic purposes the play would not have been as interesting of greed was his main motive; I wanted to investigate a character with a crisis in his identity, not a hole in his pocket."

Lerner also contacted the central Israeli figures in the Pollard affair; retired air force colonel Aviem Sella, who made the initial contact with Pollard at a chance meeting in 1984; Yosef Yagur, the New York consular official who formally linked Pollard to the Israeli intelligence apparatus; and Rafi Eitan. Both Sella and Yagur demanded that Lerner not use their actual names in the play, and to avoid legal action the Cameri agreed.

Eitan, whose long intelligence career includes playing a central role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, told Lerner he had no such objection; ironically, he emerges as the main villain in "Pollard." Eitan is depicted as an entirely ruthless operative with little compassion for the Pollards as human beings. Lerner has even written a fantasy sequence in which Eitan delivers a fanatically Zionist speech - in which he suggests planting bombs in U.S. synagogues to scare American Jews into making aliyah - while Pollard is strapped into an electric chair.

"I don't blame Eitan's motivations," says Lerner. "I know that without people like him, this country, myself included, probably wouldn't even be here today. But I do totally criticize his idea that virtually everything is permitted in defense of Israel's security. The real blame lies with those higher government officials who authorized Eitan and are still hiding behind him."

Just how much authorization Eitan received from higher -ups remains one of the main questions about the Pollard affair; the official Israeli line has been that LAKAM was running a rogue operation. Amnon Dror says he specifically requested that Lerner not write that knowledge of Pollard's activities went as high as the two men (Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres) who served as prime minister during the period that Pollard was an Israeli agent. "If the Americans believed that Israel is still concealing the truth from them, " he says, "it would not help Jonathan's chances of release."

Lerner's solution was to create a composite character simply called "the minister," who presents the Israeli case for using an American Jew like Pollard as an operative. The other side of the argument is delivered through the mouth of a fictional character called Sam Greenstein, a wealthy stockbroker cousin of Anne who expresses strong disapproval of Pollard's working for Israeli intelligence.

Greenstein, who also narrates the play, warns the audience at the beginning that "this whole production represents the imaginary fruits of the playwright's imagination." Indeed, in a Brechtian theatrical device, Lerner has almost all the actors break character and address the audience directly, mainly to complain that what they are seeing bears little in relation to the truth. That is, in fact, exactly what many critics charged Lerner with doing in last autumn's "Kastner."

But as "Pollard" was written before "Kastner" was aired, Lerner is using this particular theatrical device less as a means of defending his own dramatic license, than as a way of dealing with the still hidden facts of the affair. In fact, since the real story is so hazy, it would be difficult to accuse Lerner of bending the truth. Sam Greenstein at one point notes that "sometimes a performance can reveal a reality that reality itself can not, or does not want to, reveal."

Despite all the fictionalization, Lerner's play does ring absolutely true in its central point that Israel has a debt to Jonathan Jay Pollard that it still has to pay. And without that debt being fulfilled, say his Israeli supporters, he has little chance for release. The American intelligence community will continue to strongly object to Pollard being freed," says Amnon Dror. "Unless Israel makes a personal plea to President Clinton for clemency, I doubt he has a chance to be released later this year."

J4JP Note (November 2003):

Amnon Dror is not a volunteer. He is a government operative charged with "handling" the Pollard case. He works to protect the Government's interests, not Pollard's.