Jonathan Pollard

An American who spied for Israel.

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On the morning of November 21, 1985, on the instructions of Israeli officials, Jonathan Jay Pollard and his wife Anne made their way to Israel's embassy in Washington, DC. They were admitted to the embassy compound, but after several minutes asked to leave. 

Upon exiting, they were arrested by waiting FBI agents. Jonathan was charged with conspiracy to commit espionage and Anne was accused of unauthorized possession of classified documents; both were imprisoned. Anne was released after serving three years of a five-year sentence. Jonathan was sentenced to life without parole and, to date, remains in a federal prison.

Intelligence Leak

Jonathan Pollard was raised in South Bend, Indiana, in a staunchly Zionist family. While working as an analyst for the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service, he became convinced that the United States was reneging on its commitment to provide Israel with vital intelligence at a time of increased security threats to the Jewish state.

In May 1985, after protests to his superiors were cursorily dismissed, he made contact with Colonel Aviem Sella of the Israeli Air Force, then on sabbatical in Washington. Pollard offered to provide him with intelligence material that would then be transmitted to LAKAM, Israel's Office of Scientific Liaison, headed by former Mossad agent Rafael Eitan.

Over the following months, Pollard provided Sella with more than 1,000 classified documents, containing information on Soviet arms shipments, Syrian missile technology, Iraqi chemical weapons production, Pakistan's nuclear program, Libyan air defenses, and assessments of PLO forces.

jonathan pollard

Despite Pollard's ideological motivation, Sella "corrupted" Pollard by giving him cash payments. Changes in Pollard's spending habits aroused his superiors' suspicions, and he was placed under surveillance. Fearing arrest, he notified Sella, who immediately fled the United States. Sella left no contingency plans for the Pollards.

Government Reactions

The Pollard case had potentially serious repercussions for the special relationship between Israel and the United States. While the United States may not have complied with its intelligence commitments to Israel, the Israelis had engaged in a serious breach of trust by spying on their ally. At first, Israeli leaders--including Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin--refused to take responsibility for the affair, claiming that it was a rogue operation.

Yet far from being disciplined, Pollard's handlers were promoted: Sella was appointed commander of Israel's second largest airbase, while Eitan was named CEO of Israel Chemicals, the largest government owned corporation. The government failed to return stolen documents to the Americans and rejected calls to establish a commission of inquiry. An investigation by the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee headed by Abba Eban found that grave errors had been made, but for security reasons did not release detailed findings.

The US government reacted with more severity. Pollard was held in solitary confinement and, while connected to a polygraph, pressed to identify other Israeli spies from lists of leading American Jews.

Although Pollard had been promised leniency in return for full cooperation with the government, in the wake of Israel's provocative response, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger submitted a secret affidavit to the sentencing judge. Although the contents of this affidavit have never been disclosed, some claim that it exaggerated the extent of the damage caused by Pollard to American security. 

Its impact was clear: both Pollards were given exceptionally severe sentences, on par with those handed down to enemy spies (for example the Walkers who, in the mid-1980s, were convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union).

Pollard is the only person to have received a life sentence for spying for an American ally. Against Pollard's claim that his intention had been to help Israel and the United States, the Justice Department responded that the laws on espionage did not distinguish between allies and enemy countries.

But in the long run, despite anger among administration officials and lawmakers, the Pollard affair did little long-term damage to Israeli-United States relations. In March 1987, President Reagan reaffirmed America's commitment to a strategic alliance between the two countries. Later that year, Congress renewed a $3 billion aid package and the administration formally accorded Israel the status of a major non-NATO ally.

The Jewish Community's Outrage

The implications for American Jews and their relationship with Israel were more harmful. According to a New York Times poll conducted in 1987, 61% of US Jews experienced anger and embarrassment over the Pollard case, while 54% believed the episode would trigger an increase in anti-Semitism.

Jewish leaders, including Tom Dine, director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the time, castigated Israel for its conduct during the affair. During a mission to Israel in March 1987, 60 prominent American Jewish leaders met face to face with Israeli officials and bluntly expressed their disapproval.

Writing the same month in the Jerusalem Post, Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri criticized the reactions of the American Jewish community. Rather than being motivated by concern for Israel, he claimed American Jews' reactions had more to do with fear of anti-Semitism and unease about their position in American society.

In contrast to the widespread sense that American Jewry had attained an unprecedented level of integration and security, the Pollard affair suggested to Avineri that US Jews felt no less vulnerable than their coreligionists elsewhere in the Diaspora.

Other Israelis, notably Abba Eban and Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem, disagreed, noting that U.S. Jews had a genuine grievance: Israel had compromised their loyalty to the U.S. in the eyes of the American public. The Pollard case contributed to ending the silence of US Jewish leaders on criticizing Israel in public. This change was to become evident after the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, when American Jews felt freer than ever to challenge Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Continued Developments

Pollard's ongoing incarceration continues to impact Israeli politics. Hundreds of Israeli and American politicians, religious leaders, and organizations have issued calls for his sentence to be commuted.  His name is frequently linked to campaigns for the release of kidnapped soldiers and MIAs and, indeed, he has been used as a bargaining chip in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. President Clinton pledged to release Pollard in the course of the Oslo peace process, but reneged on his promise after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995.

Releasing Pollard in exchange for Palestinian prisoners was floated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the 1998 Wye Plantation summit, but Middle East envoy Dennis Ross advised Clinton to continue holding Pollard as a valuable bargaining chip.

Pollard argues that Israel has not done enough to secure his release or even show support. His 1995 request for Israeli citizenship was turned down by Interior Minister Ehud Barak, and was only granted after the intervention of the Israeli Supreme Court. It took until 1998 for Israel to admit that Pollard had been an Israeli agent--again, as the result of the court's intervention--and even then this information was not presented officially to the American government.

In a November 2007 interview with Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Pollard claimed that Barak--then leader of the Labor Party--had lied to cover up military intelligence's involvement in the affair, and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has done nothing to help him, despite Olmert's claims that he is working secretly for Pollard's release.

Pollard is opposed to being freed in exchange for Palestinian terrorist prisoners; he has called on Israeli leaders to demand his unconditional release. "Nonetheless," he comments, "I have great respect and appreciation for the Palestinian leadership's dedication to freeing its prisoners. It is amazing to see how the Palestinians do not forget their own people. That is a lot more than I can say about the Government of Israel."

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.