The Pollard Case: A Reassessment

Israel and American Jewry Intensify the Struggle for Release

World Jewish Congress - Policy Dispatch #25 - January 1998

At issue:

The case of Jonathan Pollard, a US intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, has been one of the most troubling episodes in the history of Israeli-American relations. American Jews were particularly disturbed by the specter of charges of dual loyalty. Initially, most mainstream American Jewish organizations were loath to speak out and take action on behalf of Pollard even though there were serious improprieties both in his trial and sentencing. The Israeli government also maintained a very low profile in the matter, and did not speak out either publicly or privately.

Only now, 12 years after Pollard's sentencing, has the case finally returned to the front pages and there is a growing chorus of voices, both in Israel and the United States, calling for his release. For the first time Israeli ministers have actually visited Pollard in prison and pledged to step up their efforts to work for his release.


Jonathan Jay Pollard was an analyst with the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service when he was recruited by Israeli agents. According to Pollard's testimony, for 18 months, beginning in May 1984, he provided Israel with sensitive information on Iraqi nuclear capabilities - information that Washington had refused to furnish Jerusalem. When on 21 November 1985 it became clear to Pollard and his wife that they were being trailed by the FBI and were on the verge of arrest, the couple fled to the Israeli Embassy in Washington. The Israelis refused to admit them to the embassy compound and the Pollards were immediately arrested.

From the moment of their arrest, both the Pollards and the Israeli government were completely cooperative with the US Justice system and the FBI. In June 1986 Pollard pleaded guilty to charges of espionage and entered into plea bargaining with the prosecution.

For American Jews the Pollard case seemed to be their worst nightmare come true. Many reacted with shock and even fear. Charges of dual loyalty were nothing new, but seemingly in one stroke Pollard had legitimized all those who had long suggested that when push came to shove American Jews were primarily loyal to Israel and only later to the United States. Not since the trial of the Rosenbergs had American Jewry felt so compromised.

Pollard denied that he furnished the Israelis with any information that compromised the national interests of the United States. On the contrary, he claimed that he had only given the Israelis material that was necessary for their survival, but that could not harm the United States. Nevertheless, US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was particularly vehement in pressing for a harsh sentence to be imposed on Pollard and once declared that the spy "deserved to be hanged". More serious, however was the evidence presented (in, for example, Harvard University law professor Alan M. Dershowitz's 1991 memoir Chutzpah) that Weinberger had leaked false information to the Afro-American judge, to the effect that the information Pollard had transferred to Israel was related to Jerusalem's ties with South Africa. Justice Arthur Goldberg was to have broached this subject with prosecuting judge Robinson, but the eminent American-Jewish jurist died just days before a meeting was to have been arranged.

Pollard's cooperative and compliant attitude did not mitigate his sentence. He received a life sentence - a harsher penalty than that meted out to spies for hostile powers. His wife and co-conspirator, Ann Henderson-Pollard, was given five years which was later reduced. No American who had ever pleaded guilty to spying for an ally has ever served as much time as Pollard. Indeed, Pollard has served more time in prison than anyone convicted of spying for a friendly power. Notably, after Pollard's conviction, the law was changed so that the maximum legal sentence which could be imposed on a spy for friendly powers is 10 years. In prison Pollard was subjected to the harsh conditions of solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, and had the impression that he had been abandoned by all but a handful of Jewish public figures who tirelessly worked on his behalf.

Strains were placed on the Pollards' marriage and the couple eventually divorced. After several years in prison Ann Henderson-Pollard was released and in 1994 Jonathan Pollard married Elaine Zeitz, head of a Canadian group of Pollard well-wishers. Mrs Zeitz-Pollard has spearheads the public campaign for her husband's release.

The Reaction of Israel and the American-Jewish Establishment

Understandably, Israel was, from the outset, exceedingly sensitive about the damage done to its relationship with Washington. Not only had it been caught spying on its patron, it endangered the good name of American Jews who had demonstrated their feelings for Israel time and again. Israel maintained that the Pollard affair represented a rogue operation without official sanction but this contention was unconvincing.

Initially, mainstream American Jewish organizations, frightened by the dual loyalty canard, refused to come to bat for Pollard. Although many Jewish leaders were stunned by the severity of Pollard's sentence - and said so privately - they were loathe to do more than publicly express their condemnation of Pollard.

Pollard, however, enjoyed the support of much of grassroots American Jewry and especially of religious circles. Consequently, most efforts to ameliorate the conditions in which he was jailed and to strive for his release were made on a strictly ad hoc basis. Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was particularly active in drumming up support for Pollard. In 1991 the American Section of the World Jewish Congress, embracing most major American Jewish organizations, issued a statement calling for Pollard's life sentence to be commuted to time served. Dershowitz called this action "an important first step which reflects the growing grass-roots sentiment in the Jewish community". This assessment was echoed by Pollard's sister Carol.

American Jewry came to realize that criticism of Pollard's harsh sentence did not imply excusing his crime.

Eventually a Citizens for Pollard group was established to lobby on his behalf, and many celebrated Hollywood actors were enlisted, including Jack Lemmon Jon Voight and Whoopi Goldberg. In 1997 Israel Singer, Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress, visited Pollard in prison and declared that Pollard "has more than paid for his transgression and deserves to be released from prison".

Repeated appeals for a reduction in Pollard's sentence met with a cold shoulder in Washington. Pleas for clemency by Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres bore no fruit. President Clinton rejected appeals for clemency because of "the considerable damage that his action caused our nation".

The US Supreme Court declined to review "US vs Pollard" and Harvard University law professor Alan M. Dershowitz severely criticized the American Jewish establishment for failing mobilize behind Pollard. Dershowitz even suggested that the establishment's lukewarm organizational attitude was behind the failure to sway the court to consider the case.

Meantime, in 1995, US Defense Secretary Les Aspin wrote to Clinton that Pollard was still a security risk since he allegedly tried to smuggle secret information out of prison. Those charges were never substantiated.

Within Israel, public opinion was always sympathetic to Pollard who was seen as having been sacrificed in order for Israel to save face. Notably, Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater presented a play about the Pollards. Written by Motti Lener and Ilan Ronen, "Pollards - the Patriots" did much to enlighten the public about Pollard's crisis of identity and sense of betrayal. It also drew attention to the fact that Pollard remained imprisoned. In the lobby, theater audience's were requested to sign a petition for Pollard's release. A thriller, Rikud Ha-dov [Dance of the Bear] by Oren Sanderson was also based on Pollard's plight.

Elyakim Rubinstein, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington when Pollard was arrested, and presently attorney general, has been a particularly eloquent advocate of direct intervention by the Israeli government on behalf of Pollard. In an op-ed article in the Jerusalem Post, for example, he wrote "it was only appropriate that the government should do its best for Pollard, as it did for his wife. And it should act not through an independent public committee, but directly. It is true that Israel has no formal judicial standing in the matter vis-a-vis the US government. But just as the US has turned to us not infrequently on humanitarian issues, so should we now turn to them. Our US colleagues understand this."

A minority of voices, however, have been critical of Israeli efforts to free Pollard. "We made a mistake right at the beginning, and anything we do now can only compound the errorwhen the government intervenes, directly on Pollard's behalf, all it does is revive suspicions about its direct involvement in the affair," wrote Shlomo Gazit, a former army intelligence chief.

Government support

In recent months the Israeli government has taken a more tender stand in its dealings with Pollard and a firmer stand in pressing for his release. Israel finally granted Pollard citizenship on 24 January 1996, reversing its earlier position. It took 10 years for Israel to intervene on Pollard's request.

However, it was only in December 1997 that Israeli ministers were finally willing to make the journey to the Butner, North Carolina federal prison to actually meet with Pollard. Absorption minister and former prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein was the first, followed shortly thereafter by communications minister Limor Livnat. On the latter occasion Pollard called for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Labor-Opposition leader Ehud Barak to compose a joint declaration calling for his pardon and for that document to be addressed to President Clinton.

The press alleged that Foreign Minister, David Levy, is alleged to have criticized such "pilgrimages" to Pollard on the grounds that they anger the American authorities. A foreign ministry statement, however, subsequently denied any such stance. The Knesset has also become the venue of activity on behalf of Pollard, Labor MK Opher Pines having established a Knesset Caucus for Pollard which draws broad support across party lines.


The chorus of voices now calling for Pollard's release will likely expand. American Jewish leaders are expected to end their silence on the Pollard issue. With the 50th anniversary celebration of the creation of the State of Israel President Clinton will probably be asked to make a gesture and commute Pollard's sentence to the length of time already served.

The dual loyalty charge will probably never disappear entirely. Politicians with an ambiguous record on Israel find an attractive political weapon, as did President Bush. Still, it can be expected that as the assimilation and acculturation of American Jewry continues, this charge will become less and less relevant.

During the early years of the state, Israel did not hesitate to employ Jews for intelligence gathering and other security operations. Today, Israel can be expected to exercise considerably more caution in its use of Diaspora Jews for intelligence work. Israel has come under severe criticism from some Canadian Jews for its alleged use of Canadian passports in undercover operations. All told, the Pollard case can be seen as a watershed in defining the boundaries of Israel's relations with America and American Jewry. It can only be hoped that Pollard will not have to suffer much longer in the process.