It was June, 1997. The phone rang. My 10-year-old daughter handed it to me and said with a knowing smile: “It’s Jonathan.” His now familiar voice was, as usual, strong; his speech articulate; his humor sharp; his range of knowledge impressive; and his preoccupation with his plight understandable. It was not the first of our conversations, which he initiated because he was not permitted to receive calls. Invariably he spun an elaborate web of expectations and frustrations, entwined around his forlorn hope that some new tactic, meeting, petition or — perhaps — miracle would finally end his nightmare and set him free.
At first, my daughter was mystified by this unfamiliar “Jonathan” who, for no apparent reason, had become a regular caller. I tried to explain: “He is Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew who spied for Israel. He was caught, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.” Had she been a few years older I would have added more.
As a naval intelligence analyst, Pollard had realized fifteen years earlier that his government was intentionally withholding essential military information from Israel. Passing classified material to an Israeli military official he betrayed his own country for the Jewish state he loved, whose national security he feared was in serious jeopardy. In turn, he was betrayed by Israel, who ran an American Jew as a spy but closed its embassy gates in Washington when Pollard desperately sought asylum.
Israeli indifference was matched by American mendacity. In a plea- bargain, Pollard agreed to forgo a jury trial, which the American government strongly wished to avoid. He was promised leniency in return but Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, convinced that only life imprisonment would adequately protect American security interests, reneged on the government pledge.
On appeal, a federal judge condemned the government’s breach of its plea agreement as “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” But his two Jewish colleagues (including Ruth Bader Ginsberg) voted to deny Pollard’s petition. The leaders of Jewish defense organizations rushed to distance themselves from Pollard lest they be accused of dual loyalty. In a belated gesture of responsibility and contrition, Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1997.
While the United States and Israel dallied Jonathan Pollard remained imprisoned. President Obama, like President Clinton before him, rejected appeals for commutation of Pollard’s sentence from former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was reported that Vice President Biden told his Commander-in-Chief: “Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”
Fortunately for Pollard, it was not up to Biden. Arriving in Israel as a free man early Wednesday morning, he descended the steps from his plane with his devoted wife Esther who for decades had labored relentlessly for his freedom. Welcomed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, he kneeled and recited the Shehecheyanu blessing of gratitude. Thirty-five years after his arrest Jonathan Pollard finally was home.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019