There are few issues as emotionally charged and divisive among American Jews as the case of Jonathan Pollard. He is a hero to some. They see him as a man who, compelled by Zionist beliefs and concern for Israel, an American ally, took great personal risks to provide Israeli intelligence with documents to help against the nefarious activities of the Soviet Union. But to many, he is a villain. To them he is a man who betrayed his nation, for cash, and who besmirched the reputation of a people by playing into one of the oldest canards of anti-Semitism—the charge of dual loyalty.
Whatever one’s views on the matter, there’s one thing that Jonathan Pollard irrefutably is, and that’s a convicted spy. Arrested in 1985, he was convicted of one count of espionage two years later. Almost 30 years after his arrest, the life and crime of Jonathan Pollard still has the capacity to divide a community—and his case remains a flashpoint in US-Israeli relations.
There aren’t too many Jews who come from Texas. Texas’ Jewish population is about 110,000, which makes it approximately 0.5 percent of the State’s total population. By comparison, Jews make up about 2 percent of the total population of the United States. So Texas has fewer Jews than its share of American Jews, who tend to live in cities with relatively large Jewish populations like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and so on. But Texas is where Jonathan Pollard was born in August 1954, the third child of an academic scientist father and homemaker mother. When Pollard was 7, the family relocated to an area with even fewer Jews than Galveston, Texas—Indiana.
One wonders whether growing up far from the main centers of Jewish life had an impact on Pollard’s Jewish identity after his father took a job at the Catholic University Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Although Indianan Jews like Van Halen’s David Lee Roth and filmmaker Sydney Pollack have made important contributions to American culture, the State is irrefutably a remote outpost in the Jewish world. Could young Pollard have developed a somewhat oppositional Jewish identity as a result of his isolation and geographic estrangement from other Jews? Perhaps this predisposed him to defiance? Maybe it engendered in him a greater, acute need to belong? Whatever the effect of his upbringing and its location, and its impact on his Jewish identity, Pollard and his supporters would later point to his sense of Jewishness in his defense.
A bright student, which is perhaps unsurprising given his father’s profession, Pollard went to college at Stanford University. Upon graduation in 1976, armed with a degree in political science, Pollard applied to join the CIA. He didn’t get very far, however, for the agency deemed him unsuitable. This was apparently due to his confessed (in the course of a polygraph test) drug use and the outlandish, false claims he made while at Stanford. According to reports, Pollard would tell people, apropos of very little, that he was working for the Israeli foreign intelligence agency Mossad, which was not true. As one of the FBI agents who helped capture Pollard, Ronald Olive, put it, “This guy wanted to be a spy from the beginning. He would play spy games. He would say that the Israeli Mossad were ‘paying my salary; they’re grooming me to work for the United States government.’” These were, Olive concluded, “All fantasies of his spy imagination.”
But despite his rejection by the CIA, Pollard’s dreams of becoming a spy became more grounded in reality when he was hired as an intelligence researcher at the Naval Intelligence Command in 1984. He now had access to top secret documents. Apparently it did not take long for Pollard to abuse his position. Not long after taking the post, it seems he met an Israeli to whom he offered to pass on classified materials. Having given Pollard security clearance, there was little American authorities could do to protect against this. As the FBI’s Olive explained, “When an individual decides to cross that line and to betray their country it is so hard—it’s almost impossible—to stop them.”
Jonathan Pollard was 33 years old when he was arrested in 1985, and just 18 months into his job. Two years later, he was found guilty of one count of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment. It is now 27 years since 1987, and Pollard is still in jail. No American convicted of spying for an ally of the United States has ever been imprisoned for as long. This is a central argument made by those who support him. They point out that that many other Americans convicted of spying for other countries have received more lenient sentences. They argue that Pollard is receiving a disproportionate punishment. They now ask that he be released, having served his time. As his second wife, Esther, told reporters while addressing the president, “Mr. President, all that Jonathan and I are asking for is your compassion.”
Almost 30 years since the American naval aid was caught passing classified documents to Israel, the case of Jonathan Pollard remains a cause célèbre in the Jewish state. Indeed in 1995, the Israeli government granted Texas-born, Indiana-raised Pollard Israeli citizenship, although he was thousands of miles away incarcerated in North Carolina. The Israeli government continues to call for his release. Although sentenced to life imprisonment, Pollard will be considered for parole in November 2015, when he will have been jailed for 30 years. He may therefore be released from prison in 20 months, so it seems now would be a good time for the US to use freeing Pollard in negotiations with Israel. As his possible parole date approaches, the effectiveness of leveraging his release in negotiations presumably lessens.
Pollard, and the world, now finds an unlikely situation in which he—hero to some, villain to others, and a convicted spy—could soon be released in an attempt to kick-start the stalled Middle East peace process. This has made him no less controversial a figure. He is an American-Jew-turned-Israeli citizen found guilty of passing classified documents to Israel for cash. He is the only person in American history to receive a life sentence for spying for a US ally. He is a painfully divisive figure. But he is now the man whose release many hope will lead to movement toward a solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
Whatever one’s opinion on Jonathan Pollard and his case, it is hard to disagree with Ronald Olive’s conclusion: that it’s “a disastrous story of literally a spy who should never have been.”