A hero’s welcome, but spy Pollard is no hero

Benjamin Netanyahu greets Jonathan Pollard on the tarmac as he lands in Israel
Benjamin Netanyahu greets Jonathan Pollard on the tarmac as he lands in Israel

In all the flurry of articles celebrating the end of 2020, one news story perhaps did not get the attention it may have sought. That was the arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport on December 30 of a heavily bearded and be-kippah-ed man and his wife. 

The couple’s arrival was quite out of the usual. Not every prospective immigrant gets to land in Israel in a millionaire’s private plane, or greeted — in the middle of the night, mind you — by the prime minister.

But this was no ordinary couple. This was the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife Esther, arriving in Israel after Pollard had served nearly 30 years in prison in North Carolina, followed by a further five years on parole in New York. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after pleading guilty, the year before, to working for the Israeli government and delivering large amounts of classified information to them. He was a US Navy intelligence analyst at the time.

Israel, undoubtedly, behaved very badly to Pollard in the days and weeks in which he and his then wife, Anne, were being chased by the FBI. The couple — yes, Anne was also involved in spying and got a five-year sentence for her trouble, serving three years before her release — sought refuge in the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. After guards were instructed to bar the gates to the couple, the Pollards were arrested outside the embassy.

Interestingly, Pollard began his spying activities in 1984, while none other than Benjamin Netanyahu was deputy head of mission at the Washington embassy. By the time of the arrests, Netanyahu was in New York where he was Israel’s ambassador to the UN. It is hard not to wonder how much he was aware of Pollard’s actions at the time.

Pollard appears to have been Israel’s most inept secret agent but America’s draconian treatment of him — he remains the only American to have received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally of the US — raises more questions than it answers.

In 1993, while still in prison, Pollard divorced Anne — who now lives in Tel Aviv — and almost immediately married a Canadian woman called Elaine Zeitz, who had been part of a team campaigning for his release. She changed her name to Esther and the couple became, separately, strictly observant. Two years later, in 1995, Pollard was given Israeli citizenship, though it is worth noting that he admitted having hawked intelligence material, sometimes successfully, to countries other than Israel during his spying days.

As is often the way with these issues, the Pollard case became a cause celebre of the right-wing — though Shimon Peres met Esther, and promised to raise the subject when he went to the US to meet Barack Obama. The millionaire who provided the private plane to bring the Pollards to Israel? Of course, long-time right-wing Bibi-backer, Sheldon Adelson.

And now, the icing on the spying cake. The prime minister, having triggered Israel’s fourth election in two years, is looking everywhere for some sort of electoral advantage. The Israeli press is now reporting that Bibi is hoping to put Pollard in a prestigious fifth slot on the Likud list for the March elections.

Here’s the thing. Jonathan Pollard — and I can’t say this enough — is not a hero. He was a traitor who allowed the question of dual loyalty, during his long incarceration, to hang unnecessarily over America Jews and diaspora Jews in general. It is to be hoped that he will refuse the tempting offer to be involved in frontline politics. No Prisoner of Zion, he.

The Pollards, if they have any sense, should embrace a life of obscurity as soon as they can. Like I say, “if”.

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.