On Nov. 21, 1985, at 10 a.m., Jonathan Pollard and his then-wife arrive at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He still recalls what happened in those moments, second by second, as if they had happened only yesterday.
He describes FBI surveillance, including agents with rifles and a helicopter. He says he got to the embassy and flashed the car’s lights at the guard, and the gate opened, saying, “They knew who we were.” He went in, and the gate closed behind him, leaving his FBI tail outside.
He got out of the car and asked, “Is this it? Am I home? This is sovereign Israeli territory.” And he was told: “Everything is fine. You’re home.”
Then, Pollard says, someone came out of the embassy and called over the security guard. A group of five or six people was speaking, and he saw them distance themselves from him, after they had been gathered around him, patting him on the shoulder.
“This isn’t good,” he said to himself. “They don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.”
Then the security guard told Pollard that under orders from Jerusalem, he was to use the main gate. Pollard told him he wouldn’t make it to the main gate, that there were 20 FBI agents waiting for him outside.
“Do you know what they’ll do to me?” he asked. “And he said, ‘Sorry, you have to leave.’”
Q: What did you feel at that moment? Disappointment, fear, anger?
“It was mostly confusion. Real confusion. So I said to him, ‘Do you know what they are going to do to me when I leave?’ Yes. ‘Do you know what they are going to do to my ex-wife?’ Yes. And I said, ‘You’re still telling me to leave?’ Those are the orders from Jerusalem. Leave. So I looked at him and I said, ‘Then shoot me.’
“I said, ‘I know what’s going to happen and I’m not prepared for this. Just shoot me. You’ll say that you thought I was a terrorist and it was a car bomb. Just do it now, quickly. Don’t think about it.’ And no, obviously, he didn’t want to do that, so as I turned around to go into the car, he said, ‘Excuse me,’ and I said yes, he said, ‘Your boss wants your last report.’
“So I stood there, thinking about this, and the only thing I was weighing at the time in my mind was my duty to Israel and my anger at this guy for his chutzpah.”
Pollard gave the guard a code word relating to his last report, then got in his car and left the embassy grounds.
The FBI stopped him immediately.
“They were very polite,” he said, recalling that as he cuffed him, he looked up “at our flag flying. It’s a slate grey sky, cold, bitterly cold, and all the curtains in the embassy are coming down, the Venetian blinds are coming down. Like an eye closing … And the only thing that I thought of at that time, strangely enough, was a song that the British played when they marched out of Yorktown. ‘The world turned upside down’—that’s what they played.”
Q: If you had said you refuse to leave, do you think the Israelis would have forced you out?
“They would have physically removed me. They had orders. They were good soldiers also.”
‘Everyone wants a selfie’
March 2021. Jonathan and Esther Pollard greet us on a quiet street in central Jerusalem and take us to their apartment, where they have been living since they arrived in Israel some three months ago. The government rented the apartment for them for a year from its owner, a Jewish American.
Pollard says the people in his new neighborhood are “wonderful.” When he needs to, he goes out to the small market on the corner, and sometimes he and his wife, Esther, go grocery shopping together. It’s hard for him to walk because of back pain and leg pain, he says, but it’s “hard to describe” the wonder of taking a walk with Esther.
“Everything is so wonderful, the sky is blue and beautiful,” he says. People talk to them, he says, and from the conversations, he gets the sense that “they know” that “someone was willing to sacrifice his life for them.”
One thing puzzles him: Why do people ask to take selfies with him? He laughs at the “nonsense.”
“When I went to prison, there were no smartphones and no selfies. Esther and I are both very private people, and privacy is important to us,” he says.
Esther adds: Friends invited us to come to them for Shabbat. But after Jonathan didn’t have a Shabbat table for 30 years, he prefers his own.
Israel Hayom‘s conversation with the couple lasts seven hours, over the course of three meetings. It’s hard to jam everything into one article, and certainly to lay out an affair that lasted 35 years, with so many details and changes. But what we heard was even harder.
Pollard, 66, speaks mostly in a calm voice. Only twice during the interview does his voice crack: when we speak about the children he and Esther did not have, and the horrors he experienced in prison.
He handles the questions we ask and goes into details about everything. Although he is trying to put the past behind him, because now he is “starting a new chapter, and this interview isn’t the end, but just the beginning,” he says that in his new life, there are “too many things” that reopen the wound.
Dozens of times during the conversation, he stresses that now he is home. And when he says, “We’ve come home,” he means to Israel, not his personal home.
A day before the interview, the couple visited the Western Wall for the first time. Then, they went to Har Hamenuhot, to the grave of former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who threw his support behind Jonathan from the beginning.
Pollard was excited that things have come full circle. He says it was “hard” to see the Western Wall plaza divided into pods because of COVID-19, but at the grave of Rabbi Eliyahu, he was deeply moved. “He treated me like a son and Esther like a daughter. Even better,” he says, adding that at the grave, he had the experience he had “hoped for.”
He knows only a few words of Hebrew but learns new ones each day. He is starting to take in what it means to live in Israel, including exhausting contact with the local bureaucracy, such as taking out an Israeli driver’s license.
“The last time I drove was on Nov. 21, 1985,” he smiles. Senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, under Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, are handling his matters personally.
But the main challenge facing them right now is Esther’s cancer and the treatments she is undergoing at the Hadassah Medical Center-Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. Esther says she’s alive, and that’s the most important thing, and adds that the couple has dealt with so many difficulties over the last 35 years, including questions about Jonathan’s life and death, and now this. She says it’s hard, painful and very complicated, but what keeps her going is that they have the possibility to simply be happy together.
Indeed, it appears as if they are making up for lost decades. Jonathan says that in New York, after he was released from prison, even though they were living in a one-room apartment, they learned to live together and enjoy each other’s company. He says that people “don’t believe” what conditions they were living in, but Esther made the apartment into a palace, and they were happy. He says he doesn’t go out much, to museums or cultural events. “I have my wife,” he says.
Q: Are you completely free now?
“Not completely,” he says, explaining that as far as the Americans are concerned, he is not allowed to discuss the specific intelligence he handed over. He says he was warned about that before he was released from prison. He is worried about what the Americans will do if he says something problematic.
Q: When you arrived in Israel, did you receive any warnings from the Israeli security establishment about your freedom of movement or things you are not allowed to say?
A mother’s tears
Jonathan Jay Pollard was born on Aug. 7, 1954, to a Jewish family in Galveston, Texas. From a young age, he showed amazing intellectual talents. Jewish identity had an important place in the family’s life, especially for him. He was deeply influenced by the story of an uncle who escaped Germany before the Holocaust and arrived in the U.S.
He says his uncle was on board a ship that reached the U.S. coast from Europe but was not allowed to drop anchor. The Jews in the U.S. refused to intervene, he says, in order to avoid looking like warmongers. “My uncle was forced to jump off a ship near Trinidad, and from there he swam ashore.”
His father, Morris, was drafted during World War II and was responsible for a biological warfare station in Texas. “Years later, he read about President Roosevelt’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz and allow Jewish refugees into the U.S., and broke down. Later on, he understood why I did what I did.”
At age 16, Pollard visited Israel for the first time, as part of a delegation of a science program for youth with the Weizmann Institute. At age 22, he completed a B.A. in political science at Stanford University. He registered for an advanced degree in law and international relations, but because he had already been hired for a job in Navy Intelligence, he did not complete that degree.
Q: Why didn’t you make ‘aliyah’?
“I don’t want to blame my mother for this, but my mother’s tears were pretty convincing.”
He convinced himself that what he needed to do was improve his abilities so that when he decided to “come home”—make aliyah—he could do well in any occupation he might choose. Business held no interest for him. What he wanted to do was serve in the army, handle weapons.
Q: Is it true that while you were a student you said you wanted to be a spy for the Mossad?
Pollard says no, but when he was a student, a professor had tried to recruit him to the CIA, but he declined.
Years later, he says, the CIA reached out to him again, and this time, he began the process. He says that in the interview he was asked many questions, including whether he had ever used marijuana. He says he responded with a smile, because he had done so years before while in college in California, “Like everyone did.”
This was something that ruled out many candidates for the CIA, including himself. And, he notes, he was also recruited for Navy Intelligence at their initiative—they were the ones who reached out to him.
Q: If you’ve mentioned drugs, there were claims that you were a drug dealer.
Pollard says “absolutely not,” and calls those claims part of the “character assassination” against him.
In 1979, Pollard was accepted into the Office of Naval Intelligence. He served at a base in Suitland, Maryland, near Washington D.C. In 1981, he met his first wife, and four years later they married. They lived at the Nelson Building, near Connecticut Ave. in Washington.
As Pollard earned promotions, he was exposed to increasingly classified materials—and more of it. At a certain stage, he had access to all the maritime and air movements of the Soviet military. Parts of the information had direct ramifications for Israel’s security. In his last position, he was stationed at the Navy Field Operation Intelligence Office of the Naval Intelligence Command as an analyst.
A first meeting at the Hilton
Esther pulls out two gas masks, the kind that was distributed in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. “These are thanks to the information Jonathan gave,” she says, explaining that Jonathan had supplied information about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons factories. Where did Israel get that information, she asks? “From him.”
Pollard adds that there were “existential threats” to Israel, and not just Saddam’s gas, that the U.S. was support to report to Israel under an intelligence-sharing agreement, but did not.
He says that when he raised the issue with his superior, he was told to forget about it, “that the Jews are really sensitive about gas.”
He says that there was an anti-Semitic atmosphere at the agency, and he faced a dilemma—should he leave everything and make aliyah, or should he, seeing the danger to his people and his country, do what needed to be done. He wondered if, once again, Jews would be targeted for extermination using gas.
“What do we mean by the words ‘Never again?’”
Q: Who initiated your first meeting with Aviem Sella in May 1984?
Pollard says he had a childhood friend named Steve Stern, with whom he shared his growing frustration over the Americans’ refusal to hand over information about threats to Israel.
At a certain point, he says, Steve asked him if he would like to help Israel, and when Pollard said yes, Steve suggested he meet with Col. Aviem Sella, an officer in the Israeli Air Force, who was spending a year studying in the U.S.
Pollard knew his name as the person who had planned Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and the strike on the Russian anti-aircraft system that Syria had deployed in Lebanon the following year.
Their first meeting took place at the Hilton Hotel in Washington. “We’re sitting there on the balcony because it was kind of confidential, it was O.K. I looked down and there’s one of my colleagues pulling out a security red stripe top secret; there’s a guy sitting across from him, taking it, looking at it, nodding his hand, and putting it in a briefcase.
“I said to Aviem, we have to get out of here now because I was sure there were pictures being taken. There was surveillance. So we went out the back. And we went to a park and I put my cards face up with him, as we say.
“I said I will not spy against the United States; he said, ‘No, we understand that.’ I said I would not compromise any American operations or technology. He said, ‘We understand that this is just for us. You know we’re being embargoed right now for intelligence.’ I said yes, I knew.”
Pollard had been present at many meetings with Israeli representatives as a representative of the Navy.
Pollard says that Sella asked him about many subjects and appeared to have been well-briefed. He confirmed what Sella asked him about.
“He said that’s why we were here. I made it very clear I didn’t want any money. Very clear, right off the bat, that this was not about money. I didn’t want any gifts, just to know if it was needed, if it helped. If not, [he should] get back to me and I’d try to improve the quality of the intelligence.”
Q: But you knew what the Israelis’ expectations were. You also knew that as far as the Americans were concerned, you couldn’t give classified information to a friendly state.
“I already stepped over the line.”
Sella sent Pollard’s offer to supply intelligence to Israel, and it was accepted. A decision was made for the Bureau of Scientific Contacts in the Defense Ministry, the office responsible for collecting intelligence from friendly nations that would handle the young Jewish American. The head of the bureau at the time was master spy Rafi Eitan.
And so, with this idealistic act, one of the most difficult affairs in the history of Israel, and possibly international espionage, began.
Pollard would eventually be caught and imprisoned for 30 years—an extreme and unprecedented punishment when compared to the other spies convicted of similar crimes, both before and after him.
It would shake U.S.-Israeli relations to the core and have massive ramifications to this very day. Israel’s legendary intelligence apparatus would suffer an indelible trauma, and U.S. Jews would suffer a shock that would overshadow how they were treated for generations to come.
A file from Military Intelligence
From the moment the contact with Pollard began, he emerged as an intelligence gold mine. He had access to many intelligence databases, and at the request of his Israeli handlers, he delved into them and extracted extremely valuable information for Israel.
He says that in the 14 months he was active, there were seven times when he handed over documents in a briefcase, in accordance with the requests made of him. Among other things, he says, he was asked to immediately notify Israel of any intention by Arab armies to launch a surprise attack.
At first, Pollard worked with Aviem Sella, and later was handled by Yossi Yagur. An employee of the Israeli Embassy, Irit Erb, rented a secret apartment near the embassy in which the documents Pollard smuggled out of his office were photocopied.
It was the time of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was supplying Arab countries with the best weapons available. Israel didn’t have satellites yet, so Pollard handed over the American satellite images.
He supplied intelligence about attempts by Syria, Iraq, Libya and Iran to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as ballistic missiles; about planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets; and about maneuvers by Arab armies and the Soviet Navy in the Middle East.
He also supplied aerial images of a PLO base in Tunisia that allowed the IAF to bomb it in 1985. Journalist Wolf Blitzer, who investigated the affair, quoted senior Israeli officials who said that the intelligence was critical to Israel’s security.
Q: Who wanted it more? Did Israel want your services, or did you want to serve Israel?
“It was back and forth. Look, when you see something you are collecting, when you see something that scares the hell out of you, and is a bona fide strategic threat to the existence of this country, you want more.”
Esther says that Rafi Eitan said in his last interviews that the quality of the intelligence supplied by Pollard was so good it was “almost addictive.” She says that Eitan intended to stop asking for it, but couldn’t because of the quality of the information.
Pollard says that is correct, adding that in a report from the Eban Commission, the government described the intelligence as “24-karat, pure gold.”
Q: So they asked for more and more? Specific things?
“It got to the point where I would show up to a meeting in a safe house and I would be given a folder, open the folder. Ehud Barak’s name was on there, and the collection priorities. All of it. Page after page after page. I said, ‘I’m one person; what do you want me to do? [They said], ‘You have to do this; this is life or death to the state; what kind of patriot are you?’
“I want you to understand something, this was not an offensive operation by us. It was defensive. There’s a big difference. And it was made very clear to me from the start, no American technology, no American war plans, no American codes, no American agents, anything. Fine, that corresponded with what my objectives were, to get the information to Israel.
“My expectations at the time were that once I accomplished that and they said I could, I would make aliyah. And that would be the end of it. But what happened as time went on [was that] the information that I was providing to Israel became more frightening.
“By the way, everything I’m saying, I was polygraphed on and was in a document that I submitted to the court. Every single thing I’m saying right now. I’m not going to say anything that was not in that public document.”
An Israeli passport for ‘Danny Cohen’
In the fall of 1984, Pollard was introduced to Rafi Eitan for the first time at a safe house in Paris. He flew there with his then-wife, Anne, supposedly to attend a relative’s wedding. The meeting would turn out to be a watershed moment for the mission, and after it, the spy’s activity would be expanded. But it would also expose the differences between him and Eitan, and plant the seeds that would eventually lead to the affair blowing up and Pollard paying a terrible price.
“Everyone” took part in the meeting, he says: Rafi, Aviem [Sella], himself and two more people, whose names he didn’t get. “This was the official handover between Aviem and Yossi Yagur, who later became my control officer,” he says.
Yagur was from the Bureau of Scientific Contacts, and his official role was defined as Israel’s “intelligence attaché” from 1980 until Pollard’s capture in November 1985.
Pollard says Eitan asked him to give him the names of American agents in Israel. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m giving you a direct order.’ I said, ‘I don’t care what you’re giving me. I don’t do that.’ He said, ‘You are being paid,’ and I wasn’t quick enough to understand what he was saying. He said, ‘You’re being paid; you do as I say.’ I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re paying me or not paying me; I am not doing that.’”
Q: Did you know the names of American agents in Israel?
Two weeks after the meeting in Paris, Pollard met with his handlers at the safe house in Washington. He was given an Israel passport in the name of “Danny Cohen” and made the transition from volunteer to agent, part of the bureau.
When he asked them why they had chosen that name, he was told, “We had an Eli Cohen in Damascus, so you are the Danny Cohen in Washington.”
“My first reaction was, hey, I don’t want the way it ended for Eli Cohen in Damascus, that’s not a good thing for me. He thought this was funny. I didn’t think this was funny at all.”
Pollard says that led to the question of what would happen if he were caught.
“The story at that time was, play for time, don’t take a polygraph. And I’m thinking to myself, you don’t know how it works in the United States. The first thing they do is sit you down on a chair and hook you up [to a polygraph]. That’s the first thing, so I said yeah, okay, and? They said, ‘Don’t admit to anything and we’ll extract you; we’ll get you out.’
“And I said, ‘Well, how do you intend to do that exactly? Because I live in a death trap. There are only two entrances; there are two ways to get in and out and they are both easily watched. It’s not like I’m living in an adjoining building, where you can cut a hole in the wall for me and I can gallop out the back door. I went through this whole thing. And Rafi just kept blowing me off.”
Even though Pollard acted out of ideology and never asked for money, after that meeting, Eitan ordered him to be paid $1,500 monthly. Later, his salary from Israel was raised to $2,500 a month as a sign of appreciation for his performance. Eventually, the financial compensation cast a pall over his version that he had not operated out of greed, and allowed the enemies that would pop up later on to make up false accusations against him.
Pollard claims that the money he received went to cover expenses incurred by the mission. He says he was the one who paid for plane tickets and hotels for all the team members in Paris, and for meals in restaurants. He says team members would come to his hotel to enjoy themselves.
‘You were given an order; complete it’
Q: Was there any moment you wanted to quit, and were forced to stay on because of pressure from Israel?
“Yeah. There was a moment that I felt this way. I was reminded of it when I read about the superb Mossad operation in Tehran to get the nuclear documents.
“I was asked to go to a facility that I had absolutely no right to go into. None, okay? And I had to come up with an explanation as to why I was going in. And it took me a couple of weeks to figure out a way of doing it. And I did it. And I came out and I stood by the car and I was waiting for somebody to come get me. I didn’t know how well the cover story would hold, but it did.
“I understood why the information was needed, but they put me in horrible jeopardy. And I passed word back to Rafi that I hoped this information was worth the life of an agent, because if it isn’t, they squandered me for nothing.
“And he wrote back, through Yossi Yagur, ‘I gave you an order; this is not subject to negotiation; complete your order.’
Q: Why did you keep working with Rafi Eitan if he treated you that way?
“Because I wasn’t working for him. The cause was greater than anything else.”
Q: Did you feel any sense of pride?
“You have to understand my psychology. I was relieved and thankful that I could help.”
Q: What do you see as the difference between Yossi Yagur and Aviem Sella?
“For me, they were both nice guys. They were both very well-educated. They were both appreciative. It didn’t make a difference. The thing with Aviem as an operator was he knew exactly how important certain information was and he could fine-tune the request in terms of what a pilot needed.”
Q: Did you know, in real-time, what Israel was doing with the information you gave it?
“The only one that I was aware of was Tunisia, because I was sitting in my office, making arrangements to find out if the flight had been discovered. I had a number to call that would have allowed the planes to be called back.”
Q: What did you feel after the strike?
“It wasn’t anything personal. I felt relieved. I felt proud of the guys who flew that long mission.”
Q: But you were part of it.
“No, I felt relieved that we finally hit these bastards in a way that counted, and if I felt anything, it was profound sadness afterward that the target of our raid [Yasser Arafat] had escaped what he deserved.”
Q: Looking back, do you regret what you did?
Pollard says he thinks about that a lot, but asks what he should regret—helping his people and his land? He says that at his synagogue, there were two flags: a U.S. one and an Israeli one. “That’s how I was raised.”
Pollard says he does regret not being “more effective,” and he regrets that the Israeli government treated him the way that it did, and that the American government used him as a “weapon” against Israel.
But he is not sorry for working for his people and his homeland. He says that given the information he had, he had no other choice. Israel was supposed to have received the intelligence from the U.S. according to an agreement that was in place, but when Israel asked for it, the U.S. said it didn’t exist.
Pollard says that denying its existence was “much worse” than not handing it over.
The intelligence was “so critical to our existence,” he says. It was intelligence that would win a war and something that could not be neglected.
Esther says, “The gas masks. I like to use this example, because it’s the easiest for people to understand. Before we had gas masks and chemical antidotes and secure rooms and sealed rooms, we were building bomb shelters. How did we suddenly know to start getting gas masks and chemical antidotes?
“Because Israel did not want to acknowledge Jonathan; they kept this very quiet. Nobody ever officially explained how we suddenly have gas masks or how we suddenly have security rooms. And if you go in the Education Ministry, and you go into the library and try to find [the] information they teach children in classrooms, there’s not a word about him,” she says.
Jonathan says: “There was an incident where Israeli defense officials came through the Pentagon and asked about a certain facility in Iraq that they heard was producing poison gas during the Iran-Iraq war. The Americans told them it didn’t exist. We didn’t have a satellite at the time. Because it was a war, we weren’t flying Phantoms, RFEs over Iraq at the time. Okay, so you trust the Americans. So I was asked to find out before the delegation left. So I found out.”
Pollard said he went to the safe house. “I walked in, and my team was standing there; there were three people standing there. A nice big floor. I asked them to move the furniture and I started pulling out evidence at putting it down. It covered the entire floor.
“Yossi Yagur looked at me—I’ll never forget this as long as I live—and said, ‘Jonathan, it’s sometimes better to deal with reliable enemies than unreliable friends. We were told this doesn’t exist.’ I said, ‘Well, you were lied to.’”
Q: What you’re describing is the United States deliberately hiding from Israel information regarding an existential threat.
“Yes, that was just one of them. Lying about it,” he says. “It wasn’t just the sin of omission; it was the sin of commission, as well.” Pollard says that when people wax poetic about Israel’s “great friends, the Americans,” he tells them that friendships don’t last forever.
Q: At what point did you conclude they were hostile to Israel?
“I always knew, because my father, who was wise in his ways, kept telling me: What you think you know about the relationship is a myth.”
‘Pin it on the Pakistanis’
Much like Eli Cohen, who during his last visit to Israel already sensed he was about to be caught, Pollard was very worried at his last meeting with Rafi Eitan in the summer of 1985.
The bureau chief was hospitalized at Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva after undergoing eye surgery.
If what Eitan said in an interview with Israeli investigative journalism show “Uvda“ in December 2014 is to be believed, he concluded in August 1985 that the operation should be stopped. But he said that a request had come in from a Military Intelligence official to obtain information about gas manufacture in an Arab country.
Eitan’s widow mentioned the country by name—Iraq. The official who asked for the intelligence was apparently then-head of M.I., Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak. Pollard says that he was afraid to leave Israel when the visit was over and had a “bad feeling” on the plane.
He told his then-wife, Anne, that he’d get off the plane if he could.
Pollard says he told Eitan and the other team members that he was not in friendly surroundings—he was behind enemy lines—and that was how the operation should be treated.
“Rafi Eitan basically told me, ‘If you get caught, make sure that it’s pinned on the Pakistanis.”
“I said, ‘How the hell am I supposed to do that?’ He said, ‘You’re a smart boy; you figure it out, but just make sure before we rescue you that the dirt stays on the Pakistanis.’
“So I thought about it and I did what I could. I went to diplomatic parties, officially at the Pakistani Embassy. I had pictures taken with the defense attaché, very personal pictures with him, with arms around each other, everything. They were in the apartment, prominently displayed.”
Pollard says the last order he received from Yagur, in the autumn of 1985, was to obtain a list of the Iranians’ air-defense equipment that they could use to defend Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf.
“This was in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War. I looked at Yossi and said, ‘Are you mad? The Iranians? What are we talking about?’ That’s when I was introduced to the arms-per-hostages deal that was then being conducted. I said, okay, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I got it.”
‘Water the cactus’
In the fall of 1985, the noose around Pollard began to tighten. His work colleagues noticed he was handling documents that didn’t pertain to his work in suspicious circumstances, and they began to wonder about it. He worked out a code with Anne that he would use to let her know he’d been caught.
“About a week before I was arrested, I noticed lots of strange things happening in the office. My safe was open, and this was very dangerous. It’s a double cipher lock safe, and it was open. My desk was in disarray and I went to report it immediately to the security officer. He was just very blasé about the whole thing, [said] ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I was greatly troubled.
“That night I came back very late to the office. We were always working late so nobody noticed. And I put a ladder up over my desk. I don’t know what made me do it, but I did. And I moved the tile, the acoustic tile, and there’s a camera, pointing right down at the desk. So I put the ladder away and I left. And I had a hard talk with myself driving home.
“Part of my brain said, ‘Run, now, run.’ I had the ability to do it at that point. The other half of my brain said, ‘No, you have to run the risk and get this final information, the one they asked for at the embassy.’
“And I said I thought I could run that risk. That was a very tragic mistake. If I’d been a cold-blooded agent, I would have just disappeared at that point. If I had made the wrong decision, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”
On Sunday, Nov. 18, Pollard arrived for his standing meeting with the Israelis, not far from the embassy, but no one opened the door.
The next day, Pollard was summoned for questioning by the FBI. Two days later, with inspiring sang froid, he told the people interrogating him that he was spying for Pakistan. They wanted to know who his contact was. “I was ready with that. I knew the people in the Pakistani Embassy that were involved in intelligence and defense, and I gave them their names,” he says.
Q: At any point in time, did you give the Pakistanis any information?
“No, never. I was never charged with that.”
Q: And what about contact with China and South Africa?
“As part of my job, I dealt with a lot of countries in an official capacity. The prosecution realized that there wasn’t anything on which to hang a charge of real damage.
“There were two charges that constituted the actual damage. One, that I had given Israel information that undermined the United States’ ability to receive a quid pro quo. And the second one was because the Americans felt that the Arabs felt that I had made Israel too strong. That’s it in black and white. If only.”
Q: Did your handlers ask you to supply information Israel could use to defend itself in exchange for information from other countries?
“No. Never. The information was always specific to our needs.”
Q: Did you give them the names of American agents?
“You have to look at my charge sheet. I was specifically indicted for giving classified information to an ally, Israel, without intent to harm the United States. The law differentiates between someone who intends to harm U.S. national security and someone who doesn’t.
“I could have given away very sensitive intelligence information that could and would have caused extreme damage to the national security. War plans, codes. If any of that material had been transmitted to Israel, I could have and should have been indicted for intending to harm the country, because I should have known that compromising this kind of intelligence this kind of information would do irreparable harm to the national security. I wasn’t.”
Pollard says he was only convicted of handing over intelligence that caused diplomatic harm.
“I never ever agreed to, nor did I ever implicate anybody else in the case. Never. They came to me with the name ‘Aviem Sella.’ And that’s when I took the polygraph [wire] off. The FBI guy said, ‘Don’t worry, they told us everything about it.’”
Pollard and his then-wife saved Sella and his wife, Yehudit, at the last minute, and apparently Yossi Yagur and Irit Erb, too, from the clutches of the American investigation.
“The FBI arrested me outside the office. I asked to call my wife, Anne, because Aviem and his wife were waiting to have dinner with us at a restaurant in town.” He says his main concern at that moment was to get Sella out of the country, because he did not have diplomatic immunity.
He saw himself as disposable, whereas Sella was a hero, a “strategic asset” for Israel.
“I was just a soldier,” he said.
He says he called Anne and apologized for not being able to come to dinner, and uttered the code they had made up only a few days earlier: “Water the cactus,” which meant that he’d been caught and she needed to leave town immediately.
Pollard says she evaded the FBI and got to Sella, who “of course” left her behind—but, he says, that is a story for another time. Pollard says that Anne was supposed to have been moved out of the U.S.
Sella left the U.S. immediately and rushed to update Rafi Eitan—not necessarily in that order. A mere 24 hours before Pollard was exposed, Eitan notified then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that an Israeli spy in the U.S. was about to be exposed. Pollard was allowed to go home, under heavy surveillance and bugging, and could not flee.
The next day, he would be interrogated again, but another 36 hours would go by before he was arrested. Could he have been saved at this stage? Did anyone think of it?
‘Come to the embassy tomorrow’
After questioning him, the FBI allowed Pollard to go home. He says that agents had raided the apartment and found the Pakistani pictures, the money and everything else. He looked out the window and saw agents everywhere.
He says that he had two American phone numbers to call in case of an emergency that he had been given at the meeting in Paris.
Pollard says he had used pay phones on the street to contact the Israelis and receive instructions. On the fateful evening, he and Anne went out for a walk, and clearly saw that they were being followed. He said he entered a phone booth and made the call. “The phone number had been disconnected already. That wasn’t a good feeling.”
He tried another number. It was already clear that the FBI was following him, he says, but he had no choice other than to make the call, since it was the pre-cellphone era.
Q: Whom did you call? Whom were you supposed to speak to?
Pollard doesn’t know. The number was a Washington one that he’d never called. After numerous tries, a man picked up. Pollard explained the situation and was told, “We know there’s a problem.” Pollard says he was asked to “keep talking,” to allow the other members of the network time to leave the country.
The next day, Nov. 20, Pollard was taken in by the FBI for another round of questioning, in which representatives of Navy Intelligence, where he had worked, took part.
He described what he had done, but switched the names of his Israeli handlers to Pakistanis he knew, as per the cover story. It worked. Later, the chief investigator, Ronald Olive, wrote that until Pollard entered the Israeli Embassy, he and his colleagues had believed that he was spying for Pakistan and didn’t know about his connection to Israel.
That evening, too, Pollard was allowed to go home, and went for a walk with Anne to make phone calls so he could call the Israelis. He says he called the same number and told the man who answered that he had admitted to being a Pakistani spy, and he was waiting for the escape plan. He was told that there was no escape plan, and his orders were to come to the Israeli Embassy at 10 a.m.
“The only thing I said in return was, ‘Are you crazy? Are you insane?’ I said I’d confessed to being a Pakistani spy;I was prepared to go to jail as a Pakistani spy. ‘You’re telling me to come to the embassy?’” Pollard was told that those were the orders.
He said he was “ready for extraction.”
“I’m ready to be taken out [of the country],” he told the man, who answered, “There is no extraction.”
Q: So why did you go to the embassy?
“When you are in that situation, you want to believe people, because you have no escape. I was scared half to death at this point.”
In the hours that followed, Anne made another mistake. In an attempt to cover her tracks, she gave a neighbor a suitcase full of documents, telling her that she and her husband were leaving town, and would she keep it until they returned. But the neighbor was the daughter of a high-ranking naval officer, and when the couple was arrested, she contacted the FBI and gave them the suitcase.
‘Rafi Eitan buried me’
The next morning, the couple arrived at the Israeli Embassy and were turned out, on orders from Israel.
Q: When you were turned out of the embassy, what thoughts went through your head?
“I felt real fear for what our country could become. Israel. My only country. Any country that could do this to a loyal agent was capable of anything. I grew up on this myth that you never leave a soldier behind, which is bullshit. We do. It’s not just me. No. Those two boys in Gaza [fallen soldiers Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, as well as captives Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed]. It’s been happening since the Lavon affair. And even before that, there were cases like that.”
According to what Rafi Eitan told “Uvda,” he was the one who, from the “red phone” at his Tel Aviv home, gave the order to “throw him out.” Immediately thereafter, he went to update Peres, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Eitan took full responsibility and immediately resigned as head of the Bureau of Scientific Contacts.
As for Aviem Sella, Israel—despite its promise to tell the whole truth—hid his part in the affair for a long time. When the Americans learned about it, they were once again furious, and even now, there are high-ranking American officials who believe that Israel has not revealed the entire truth about the affair.
Sella, who at the time was considered a future candidate for the commander of the IAF, was later forced to give up his appointment as commander of the Tel Nof Airbase and resign. After the affair was exposed, neither he nor Eitan ever set foot in the U.S. again.
Eitan later claimed that an escape plan had been prepared for Pollard and Anne, and that they had a few days to escape.
“Pollard sentenced himself when he came to the embassy with suitcases full of documents,” he said.
Pollard flatly denies these claims, and says he did not bring any documents with him, and that his suitcase contained only “clothes and medicine.”
Eitan wrote and deleted a chapter about Pollard in his autobiography, The Secret Man. His widow, Miriam, wrote in the introduction that the “Pollard affair stuck in Rafi’s throat for 34 years. It never let him go, and he never let it go.” She says that Eitan took his secrets with him to the grave, mainly to defend the political echelon that had handled Pollard.
Pollard thinks differently. He says Eitan “had to” delete the chapter about him, because it contained “the truth—that he abandoned me, he lied about me, he buried me and he did everything he humanly could to make sure I never came home.”
Q: To the best of your knowledge, what specific secrets did he delete?
“Two big secrets. One, he could actually have given an accurate account of how much the government knew at the time and agreed to … Because from what I understood later, he was kind of bragging, discussing the information coming in, and bragging in front of the Mossad representatives, saying, ‘Look what we did; where were you?’
“Number two, he could actually describe in great detail exactly what intelligence was in this affair. Something I can never do.”
In response to these statements, Rafi Eitan’s family said, “Out of respect for his memory, total confidence in his integrity, wisdom and motivation, which were solely for the sake of Israel—we as a family continue his path of refraining from any comment about Pollard.”
Q: Have you called Aviem Sella since you were released or since you arrived in Israel?
Q: Would you like to meet with him and with Yossi Yagur?
Pollard says he is happy that they both managed to get out of the U.S. and return home, and that when he heard about it, he felt relieved, and wishes them all the best.
Q: Are you angry at them?
No, he says, he feels nothing toward them. According to Pollard, it’s “in the past,” and he is happy about that.
Q: But Sella was an agent.
“Of course. I mean, he was in this funny position of being an agent, but he was also a pilot. A hero pilot, no less.”
Neither Aviem Sella nor Ehud Barak responded to Israel Hayom‘s requests to comment.
Information about Iran and the Contras
Pollard’s arrest caused a seismic shock. At the time, Israel had a national-unity government, and with a war in Lebanon and boundless inflation, the U.S. was giving Israel diplomatic backing and defense aid that were very vital.
In a report on the affair from the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, then-committee chairman Abba Eban wrote that Pollard’s exposure had created real fear that Israeli-U.S. relations could fall apart. Shamir later told his confidant, Avi Pazner, that he had never had “such a difficult conversation” with then-Secretary of State George Shultz.
In an attempt to do damage control with the Americans, everyone involved—Peres, Shamir, Rabin and Rafi Eitan—decided to do all they could to bury the affair and shift the blame to Pollard.
In a telegram to Shultz, and in a cabinet meeting, Peres claimed that Pollard had explained he was a U.S. intelligence envoy and displayed credentials to prove it. But the Eban Commission report determined that this version was “imaginary and groundless.”
Peres said explicitly at the time that it was “best not to investigate” the affair. He and Shamir put all the blame on Eitan and knowingly lied in describing Pollard’s handling as “partisan, without permission and without authority.” This whitewashing led to another series of lies by official Israeli representatives.
On Nov. 30, 1985, at 3:30 a.m., nine days after Pollard’s arrest, Shultz called Peres. Both sides reported the conversation, but not the secret agreements Peres made that would later seal Pollard’s fate.
According to the Eban Commission, Peres shrugged off responsibility for the agent and claimed that he had been operated without permission. He promised to tell the U.S. the entire truth about the affair and allow it to investigate everyone involved, but never kept these promises.
A promise that was kept was the return of the documents Pollard had supplied to Israel—in other words, to supply U.S. prosecutors with crates of evidence about the extent of his work.
The Eban Commission wrote that Peres’s agreement to return the documents Pollard had handed over was “fundamentally wrong” and caused major damage, as they formed the basis of Pollard’s eventual conviction and life sentence, despite Israel’s claim that it had received assurances from America that they would not be used against Pollard.
Pollard says that he tried to use the information he had about the administration’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair to avoid prison. He says he told one of the investigators about the affair, which still had not been made public, and told him to go check with the White House and tell them that if he was released, he would keep his mouth shut.
He says that two nights later, at 2 a.m., the door of the jail cell opened. Two people he didn’t know, without I.D. tags, not in prison guard uniforms and wearing sunglasses, told him to get dressed and leave by the back door.
“I ran as hard as I could, and as far as I could, and I hid in a broom closet,” he says.
“A couple of days after that, I found out that the hostage-rescue unit from the FBI was waiting outside the back door with an order to shoot the first person who came out the door. This was in the newspaper.”
‘You’re smart; finish it’
Pollard says that at one point in his sentence, when he was at Butner Federal Prison, someone from Israel he didn’t know came to visit him. The man was “official” enough to be allowed in, and was with a lieutenant colonel from the National Security Agency.
“The conversation took a very strange turn. He [the Israeli] said to me, ‘You consider yourself a patriot. I said, ‘I’d like to think so.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re causing the country a lot of pain right now. And you’re causing a lot of problems.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘If you’re a real patriot, a real patriot would do the honorable thing.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m confused. What is the honorable thing?’ He said, ‘You know; you’re a smart boy.’
“I still didn’t understand what he was saying. It was the lieutenant colonel, the American, that started yelling at him, ‘How dare you? Are you out of your mind?’ And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He [the American] said, ‘He wants you to kill yourself.’
“I looked at the Israeli guy, and I said to him, ‘Is that what you want me to do?’ His answer was very quick: ‘If you’re a real patriot, that’s what you would do.’ The lieutenant colonel got up, grabbed him by the back of the neck, and threw him out. He said, ‘I’ve been in this business many, many years. I never thought I would live to actually hear what just happened.’
“He said, ‘Don’t hurt yourself; you don’t do anything to yourself; you stay alive and you’ll get home.”
The state of Israel hired attorney Richard Hibey to defend Pollard. Some might say, to put up a show of defending him, after they burned him. Intensive talks between the two countries resulted in a plea bargain that included a sentence of 10 years in prison for handing over documents.
Pollard says he never trusted him, that Hibey cooperated with the interrogators. To test him, Pollard says he intentionally told him lies, a bunch of stories. He was called in to take an FBI polygraph the next day, and the interrogator asked him the same things he had told his lawyer.
Hibey also forced him to sign the plea bargain, Pollard says. “I’m in the courtroom, my ex-wife is in a wheelchair, slumped over, bleeding, I’m about to take my plea. Hibey said, ‘Look at your wife;you want to have her blood on your hands? If she goes back to prison, you know she won’t live another month.”
Pollard says he wanted to fight, because without the documents the Israelis returned, there was no case against him. “Many years later, when I talked to another lawyer, he said that if I’d refused to sign [the plea bargain], they would have had no evidence.” But Pollard said that Hibey was looking out for the Israeli government’s interests, and forced him to sign.
Q: Why didn’t you hire someone else?
He says that the judge wouldn’t allow him to do so, and asked Pollard if he accepted the plea bargain of his own free will.
“I said, ‘No, your honor, they’re threatening to kill my wife and the document is a lie. It’s perjured testimony.’ He said, ‘Well, you have a difficult decision to make; you’d better make it now.’”
Pollard says he looked at Anne, looked at the situation, and his lawyer made signing motions. “I said, O.K., I’ll sign it,” he says.
But the affair didn’t end when Pollard signed the plea bargain. It only opened the door for the U.S. to exact the mother of all revenge against someone it believed had betrayed it.
In those years, 24 American agents were exposed and executed in the Soviet Union. A secret memo that the prosecution put before the judge accused Pollard of handing them over. According to the conspiracy theory, which was expounded in reports and books by journalists hostile to Pollard, he had given the Russians the agents’ names so that they would make it easier for Russian Jews to leave the USSR.
Pollard says that the day his verdict was handed down, someone from the State Department entered the courtroom and delivered a document to the judge and prosecutor.
“He opens up his briefcase, hands the judge a piece of paper, whatever it was, and walks out. The judge reads it, hands it to the prosecutor. The prosecutor starts laughing, comes over to the table. Puts the paper down and looks at my lawyer, says, ‘Huh, your client is getting f***ed.’ I would have liked Israel to care enough about our Russian brothers and sisters to have considered doing that.”
Pollard reiterates that he never burned any agent.
Only in 1994 was the story that Pollard was the one who supposedly handed American agents to the KGB finally debunked. That year, the Americans exposed the highest-ranking Soviet mole in the CIA, Aldrich Ames, who admitted to exposing the agents. Ames was sentenced to life in prison, which he is still serving.
Pollard says that Ames was also the one who came to the court the day of his conviction and gave the judge the document accusing him of burning the U.S. agents.
A few days before the sentencing, the administration took another step to destroy Pollard. Although State Department Legal Adviser Abraham Sofaer had himself signed off on the plea bargain, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger asked the judge to violate it.
In a special memo he sent to the judge, Weinberger wrote that it would be “hard to imagine worse damage to national security than what Pollard caused.”
That was the final nail in the coffin of the biased trial. Although the sides had agreed on a 10-year prison sentence, the prosecutor said in his summation that Pollard would “never see the light of day,” and that is what happened. The judge rejected the deal and sentenced him to life in prison, with a recommendation that he not be allowed clemency—a completely disproportionate punishment for the crime of which he was convicted. It was already clear that tinges of latent anti-Semitism had sealed his fate.
2,000 letters that never arrived
“There were a lot of hands on the keys of my jail cell,” Pollard says, and some people wouldn’t have minded if he had died.
At the end of the 1990s, Esther Pollard managed to meet with Rafi Eitan for the first time, and he told her he regretted only one thing in the entire affair. “I thought it would be something very highbrow, very moral and he said, ‘My only regret is that when Pollard came into the embassy I didn’t order a bullet put through his head, then there would have been no Pollard case. That’s my only regret.”
Eitan did not deny the account.
Pollard served the first seven years of his sentence in the US Federal Prison in Marion, Illinois, one of the most secure federal prisons at the time. In 1994 he was moved to Butner Prison in North Carolina, where conditions were slightly less stringent. He stayed there until his release in 2015.
Q: Is there anything that has changed in you because of prison?
“Yeah, I’m actually, I believe, a better man. Why? Because when I was in prison I realized very quickly that I was the representative of Jews, because I was really the first Jew a lot of guys had ever met. I was also a representative of the State of Israel, because of who I was, and I was also her husband, and there were many instances where I declined to do something in prison, whether it was gambling, or whether it was drinking, anything that would number one bring dishonor on our marriage, number two bring dishonor on this country.”
U.S. prison authorities are known for being tough, but Pollard, for reasons that are not hard to guess, encountered the most extreme version of that. Some 2,000 letters that he wrote to Esther over the years left the prison but were intercepted in Washington and never reached her. What’s worse, letters he sent to his mother in the last month of her life never arrived.
“When my mother, aleyah hashalom, was dying, I asked for permission to write to her. And they said, okay, fine, you can write letters to your mother. So what does a son say to a dying mother? Everything that you can. I wrote many times during the day, every time I could, I wrote. I don’t know how many letters there were, but there were a lot. So she died. And a little while after that, the chief of security came in and asked to see me.
“He said, ‘Are you feeling okay today? I want you to keep control.’ Okay. And he pulls up a bag with all the letters in it. He said they were never sent out of Washington. He said, ‘Just so you know, they X’d out the stamps so you can’t use them again.’
“What kind of animal does something like this? What kind of animal stops a letter from a son to a dying mother?”
Q: How did you spend your time in prison? How did you stay normal in prison?
“What does a normal person do in an abnormal situation? He creates his own reality. My reality centered around my wife. I was going to do whatever it took to return to her as sane as I could be and normal.
“I didn’t have writing privileges. I had 200 minutes of phone conversation a month, and the beginning was more like 30 minutes.
“Our doors couldn’t be locked. Insane. That meant my roommate and I, hopefully you got a good roommate, would have to switch during the evening. An hour on, an hour off, in front of the door with a knife.”
“I lived every day. I woke up in the morning. I said my prayers, and I got my knife, [made of plexiglass to evade the metal detector], I put it in my special pocket, and I went out.”
Pollard says he never knew what would happen, or whether he would return to his cell safely.
One time in the prison dining hall, he saw a man get stabbed. “Somebody just sitting next to me, talking to me, I don’t know the guy, next thing I know he has a knife in his neck, his head is on the table, and there was blood. I had to pick up my tray and leave.
“I was sent to the adjoining unit to get toilet paper, and you could die in prison for toilet paper. I had a big box of it. So as I was walking back, I heard a noise and I turned the corner and the entire hall, maybe 25 meters [82 feet], was a warzone, the Blacks and the Mexicans were killing one another, knives, everything, there was blood everywhere.
“An officer was on the ground, he was stabbed, and I’m holding a box that’s worth dying for, many times over. And at the end of the hall is my friend, my roommate, and an officer behind steel plexiglass were just shaking their heads, looking at me like, ‘You’re dead.’ So the door locked behind me and there’s really nothing else to do at that point. I had a knife. But I’d be dead before I pulled it out.
“I just said the Shema [prayer] the whole time walking down that hallway. I didn’t look to the right; I didn’t look to the left. I stepped over the blood and the bodies, and I kept going straight down the hall, and I finally got to the door, and the officer opened it up and let me in. And I turned around and I said, ‘Here’s your toilet paper; I hope it was worth it.’”
Pollard says he once saw someone get his head bashed in, his eyes knocked out. “And I have to step over him, looking at the murdered, and the murderer looks at me and says, ‘How are you doing?’ and I said, ‘A lot better than him,’ and walked on.
“Esther knows all these stories. And worse ones. Have you ever seen somebody with their intestines out? Let me tell you how that happens. He’s a mule bringing in drugs, and he didn’t get rid of them fast enough, so they cut him open and they pulled his intestines out and took the drugs out of his intestines.”
‘They trusted me because I wasn’t a rat’
Q: Were you ever beaten? Were you physically harmed?
“No. I was in a peculiar situation, I didn’t talk. I didn’t turn state’s evidence against anybody. And pretty much everybody knew that. And the society that we have in prison, sorry, we had in prison, values certain attributes that other people [in] normal society don’t understand, or wouldn’t recognize.”
Q: Were there incidents when you clashed with other prisoners?
“I had an incident where I went out on the yard and there was an elderly black gentleman, he collapsed and I ran over. I was giving CPR, I was giving mouth to mouth, I was doing everything.
“Fifteen minutes later, the ambulance comes, and as I loaded this very nice gentleman, very nice guy, up on the ambulance, I noticed that his shoes were missing. And I just went crazy, and I was screaming at all these Black guys. I said ‘You’ll roast in hell for what you did. You stole the shoes of a dead man. A decent, kind man. You stole his shoes. You’ll all go to hell.’”
Q: How did people in prison react to the fact that you were an Israeli spy?
“At one point I’m walking across the compound and all the black guys were giving me high fives. ‘Yeah, you’re the man, you’re not the Jew anymore, you’re the man.’ I asked my roommate what happened and he said, ‘You didn’t hear the news this morning?’ I said no. He said, ‘Oh, NPR and CNN announced that sources in the Drug Enforcement Agency have identified you as the Israeli mafia’s drug kingpin distributing cocaine in Washington.”
“I said, ‘Seriously, if I had that kind of money, you think I’d have this dog of a lawyer that I had?’ So he was laughing.”
But these lies persist, Pollard says, including rumors that he and Anne spent all their money on drugs. “I’m drug tested every week, like I’m going to do drugs,” he says.
“The guy I eventually lived with for eight or nine years, ex-Army, great guy, innocent, totally innocent of his charges of attempted murder. And everybody in the prison knew it. He’s still there.”
Q: How did the prison management treat you?
“The prison administration was actually okay with me because I wasn’t a rat. I wasn’t a rat, so I was trusted. There was one really bad warden that I’ve had to go to war against. One of the other inmates nearly killed him, so he was out of my life, thank God.
“I never changed my thinking when I was in prison,” he says. “I tried to maintain whatever sense of decency and compassion I have.”
Pollard shared what was on his mind with the prison wardens.
“An inmate in my factory came to me begging for help. He was a mental patient; he had committed murder, but he was schizophrenic, and he said they put him on medication, and he was hearing voices telling him to kill himself. I said I’d go talk to his psychiatrist about it. I did. I was warned off. ‘You’re no doctor, you come to me again, I’ll have you locked up.’
“About a week later, he was late for work. My manager told me to go get him, and I said I wouldn’t. Why? Because he’s probably dead. If I find him, I’ll be sent to the hole [solitary confinement] for six months while you investigate it. You come with me.
“And there he was, hanging. So at the memorial, I was asked to say a few words, because I was kind of his mentor in the factory. I said what was on my heart. I said, ‘We have a murderer in this audience.’ And of course we had a lot of murderers.
“No, we have a member of the staff that’s a murderer. Then it got quiet and I pointed to the doctor, and I said, ‘You murdered this guy. You should be wearing khaki; you should be wearing a prison number just like the rest of us. You’re a murderer. Then the warden got everybody out of the chapel, and he came to me and he said that was very interesting, and the last statement I’d ever make in the prison chapel. But he knew it was true.”
But sometimes, he says, the guards could be humane. In 2001, after filing a petition, he was brought to a Washington court, where the judge gave instructions to the guards not to allow Pollard to eat or shower while he was in Washington. He was to take part in the legal proceedings and then immediately return to prison.
“I was taken back to the Arlington prison, which was across the river in Washington. The captain of the prison said the judge’s orders were no food, no clean clothes, no shower.
“The day of the hearing, I hadn’t had anything to eat for 48 hours. The marshal said, ‘This is my last day, and I think this is wrong. I’ll keep my back to the camera and you’re going to eat my lunch. I said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ He said, ‘Because you’ve always treated me with respect.’ So he fed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and an orange and grape juice, with his back to the camera.”
Q: Did you ever think of committing suicide?
“No, look. Jews don’t commit suicide, they buy retail. Seriously, I never ever thought of that, for two reasons. One, what it would do to my wife, because the act of suicide is a cowardly act, and I would be abandoning my wife, and it would be the ultimate act of betrayal to my wife to do something like that. Second of all, I don’t like the message that it would send to the goyim.”
Q: You read a lot of books in prison.
“I have 10,000 books sitting in a container in Ashdod, and I had 7,000-8,000 from my first prison that somehow disappeared, I don’t know what happened to them. And my first library, which was at home, sorry, in Washington (old habit) was about 6,000 volumes. I remember when the FBI walked in and looked at it, they said, ‘My God, why do you read so much?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I just like to learn things, that’s all, you should try it.’”
The first letter from Esther
In 1990, Pollard divorced his first wife and partner in espionage, Anne, who had been sentenced to five years in prison, but was released early because of health problems.
Pollard had known Esther from his youth, but he didn’t know it until later in life. She was born and raised in Canada as Elaine Zeitz, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish family. In the late 1980s, she was teaching English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as part of her master’s degree.
Esther says that one day when she was in Jerusalem, someone gave her an old copy of the Jewish Press newspaper. She wondered why someone would give her an old copy, put it in her bag, and forgot about it. She says that that weekend, she was on her way to visit family and was bored on the bus, so she took out the paper and started reading it.
She saw a printed request to write to Jonathan Pollard, which noted that “he enjoyed it.” She didn’t know who he was and had never heard of the affair but thought it would be an act of kindness. She put it on her to-do list and forgot about it. After a few months, just before she returned to Canada, she found the article.
One day, Esther says, she was sitting in a cafeteria, writing Jonathan a letter, but didn’t have too much to say since they didn’t know each other. She later returned to Canada and began working on her M.A., but planned to make aliyah.
Then, all of a sudden, two letters from Jonathan appeared in her mailbox. He had numbered the envelopes, but she read the second one first, which included all the information about his case, and then the first one, which was personal.
“And I should be very honest, when I first pulled the letters out of the mailbox, what was the first thing I said? I don’t have time for this now. I was finishing another degree, and I was back in school teaching, I just came back from Israel and I don’t have time. Anyway, God had other ideas.
“The first envelope was the wrong one; it was the one with the information on the case, and I’m not a politically active person in Canada. I’m a typical Canadian Jew. We tend to be indifferent to politics unless it’s Israel.
“I read it and I went into shock. How could this happen? How could this be? This is America. America doesn’t do things like this. Then I opened the second envelope, which was a personal letter from him, and again I went into shock, because I expected it to be from a man who was bitter and angry and hurt and disappointed. And the whole letter was so filled with love of the land and love of the people, just so full of light, I was blown away.
“I took his first letter to work the next day. I was working teaching in a bilingual learning center for children with learning disabilities and social and emotional issues. I showed the letter to my assistant, and I said, ‘This is the kind of man I could marry.’ She said, ‘Already? One letter, you marry?’”
She began to write back.
Q: And after a few letters, you discovered you knew one another?
Pollard: “Eventually. ‘When did you go to Israel, what did you do there?’ And then, suddenly… wait a second…”
Esther: “Oh, you are him.”
Esther: “So, over the course of the next few years, I wrote him more than 2,000 letters, which I have copies of. He answered my letters, but I never got them, ever.”
She says that she only ever received five other letters from him. “Some of them were not really letters; they were postcards that were written in microscript.”
The prison authorities stopped all of Pollard’s letters early on. The couple made up for it in the phone calls he was allowed, during which it turned out that they had met in Israel when they were young, as part of a program for Diaspora Jewish youth. It turns out that they had a lot in common—love for the nation, love for the land.
‘Children are everything’
Esther devoted her entire life to Jonathan. She influenced him to become religious, and become close to Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. They married in 1993.
Esther Pollard made aliyah in 2005, and for 10 years, while journalists reported that she was living a life of luxury at the government’s expense, she was living in a one-room apartment that she had been offered by a Jerusalem widow on Bezalel Street in Jerusalem. She insists she never received a penny from the government.
For four years straight, she read Psalms for him at the Western Wall. She took on public leaders and authority figures in Israel and the U.S. for how they had treated Jonathan and for what she described as their abandonment and betrayal of him. Some people criticized her for her harsh style, and even claimed that it was hurting attempts to get him released.
“I never wanted to be his spokesperson. I wanted to be his wife, I wanted to be his lover. I wanted to be his friend. I did not want to be his spokesperson. But when we realized that there was an agenda, and it was really hostile to his ever getting out of prison, he said to me, ‘You have to do this for me.’
“There came many points in time where, unfortunately, the agenda of the government of Israel was not our agenda,” she says.
Esther also says that the clashes with the government created alienation between Jonathan and his brother, Harvey, and sister, Carol.
“The government of Israel enlisted everybody in the family to carry the same line,” Esther says.
Pollard: “One of the things that was most hurtful to me during this entire period of time is what the successive governments of Israel did to my wife. They understood that the most dangerous weapon I had was a wife who could speak Hebrew fluently. And they did everything they humanly could to discredit her, to undermine her, to wreck her credibility and to lie shamelessly about her.
“You know, I read stories at the time based on information from Israeli government sources that my wife was receiving millions of dollars, living in a beautiful luxury house. I finally forced Esther to show me where she lived here. But this was a dump. I walked in, I looked at this and I had to walk outside and put my head in my hands. This is where she had lived for 10 years.
“I brought this up with government representatives. I said, ‘Did you see where she lived? And they said, ‘Well, yeah.’ I said, ‘Then why did you leak those stories?’ He didn’t answer.”
Pollard and Esther speak honestly about the heavy price they paid by not being able to have children while he was in prison for 30 years. Esther says, “This has been one of our greatest tragedies and sorrows.”
“In Israel, people understood the idea that a basic human right is to bring children into this world. In America, it’s exactly the opposite. The minute you’re arrested and convicted, you no longer have any rights, and you certainly have no right to have children. We pleaded with successive governments to give us a break, to give us a chance, an opportunity to have children.”
Pollard: “Any way. Any way. If anybody tells you that men don’t have a need for children as much as women do, they’re lying. Because children are everything. I asked repeatedly. There wasn’t a year that I didn’t submit a petition, something, for permission to have a child. It was always denied.”
“There are state prisons that allow cohabitation, that allow [conjugal visits] and the prisons are quieter, because nobody wants to lose that privilege.
“I would say that one of the highest prices that both of us paid was not having children. I would say that’s an accurate statement. Losing the most productive years of my life pales in comparison to the loss of [not] having children.
“Living 30 years with absolute fear and dread every day that it could be your last, pales in comparison to not having children. And I try to explain this to people and I’m kind of shocked at the kind of indifference people show to the whole issue of having children.
“The latest example is the Yemenite children’s affair. We all know what happened. Please, we’re not children. We’re not naive. And for the government to just let the court decide? I met somebody here in this room from the government last week. I said, ‘All these people want is an apology. They just want you to say you’re sorry.’
“I said as far as compensation, it’s not your right, and it’s not the right of the court to determine what the compensation should be. They lost children. You know how they lost them, stolen, sold, murdered, buried, abandoned, who knows what happened to them, and you’re saying, ‘We’ll let the court determine how much money a child is worth.’”
‘The character assassination began in Israel’
The calls for Pollard’s release in Israel began as soon as he was put in prison. But as the years went by, it seemed that American Jews weren’t ready to forgive him. The U.S. defense establishment fought back every time the issue of his release was brought up, and often, it was the Jewish establishment that led the opposition.
Dennis Ross, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, admits in his book The Missing Peace that he thinks Pollard was wronged in his trial, but nevertheless recommended to Clinton in 1998 that he use Pollard to try and wring concessions out of Israel on a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Ross wrote that Pollard received a heavier punishment than other people who committed similar crimes and that his release would be a boon to Israel. Ross also wrote that he told Clinton he didn’t have many cards like that in his deck and the president would need it sooner or later, so he should use it.
But it wasn’t only the Americans who were alienated—it was also the Israeli establishment. Under the false narrative that Pollard hadn’t been an official agent, the government refused to grant him Israeli citizenship. Only petitions to the High Court of Justice filed by Esther and a group of activists forced the Rabin and Netanyahu governments to do so in the 1990s.
Along with the lack of acknowledgment, there were numerous unofficial leaks. Pollard has read everything written about him over the years and says attempts at character assassination originated from Israel, not the Americans, and aimed to “destroy my credibility, and my character and my reputation. They described me as an adventurer, somebody who was totally out of control. Every dirty story that has subsequently come out by the Americans or here in Israel by low-grade so-called media personalities has been based on those lies. They didn’t realize that by defaming the agent, you defame his cause.”
Pollard brings up claims that he was a drug dealer, a rumor spread by someone who called himself a college classmate, but whom none of Pollard’s friends remembered.
Pollard’s father hired a private investigator to look into the rumor, and it turned out that the FBI had hired the “classmate” to slander him. “If I was a drug dealer, where’s the evidence, and why wasn’t I tried for it?” he asks.
Esther: “I stopped reporting to anyone here or telling anyone in the media how sick he was, because I was getting an awful lot of feedback and a tremendous sense that certain people in government would be very happy if he died.”
Q: In the CIA report and other places, it says that Israel opened secret Swiss bank accounts for you.
Pollard confirms that Rafi Eitan had sent him to open an account, but he wasn’t the owner of it. Moreover, he says, if accounts were opened in his name, he’d like to know where the money is, because he’s been “broke” since he got out of prison.
Welcome to New Jersey
Only when Pollard had been in prison for 25 years did public figures in the US start commenting publicly about the unreasonable punishment he had been given and the false, unproven accusations leveled at him.
Former CIA director James Woolsey, former assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, congressional representatives and others—including the Jewish community—called on former President Barack Obama to end his prison term. Obama agreed only to commute it to 30 years, meaning that Pollard would be released on Nov. 20, 2015, 30 years to the day after he was arrested.
Pollard says his release was part of Obama’s attempts to settle Israel and Jewish public opinion after the nuclear deal with Iran was signed in the summer of 2015.
Pollard says that Obama adviser Ben Rhodes met with senators who opposed the Iran nuclear deal and opened the conversation by mentioning that Jonathan Pollard was probably going to get paroled.
Pollard says this was an attempt to divert their attention from the Iranian issue and make Israel out as an entity that had damaged U.S. national security in an attempt to weaken Jerusalem’s arguments against the deal.
Then, he says, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch went on TV everywhere calling him the “worst spy,” but saying that the U.S. had to let him go. She said the U.S. wished it could keep him in prison until 2045.
Q: What did you go through ahead of your release?
“The night before I was released, they moved me to the prison hospital, out of concern for security,” he says. Then his prison officer sat down with him for a heart-to-heart chat, something he’d never done. Pollard says the man was very happy he was being released and brought him kosher food, and he ate like he hadn’t eaten for 30 years.
Then, he says, two NSA officials arrived and warned him that his release would not be a pleasant experience. They told him there were a lot of people who wanted to stop it.
He was taken to a local airport in North Carolina, where his lawyers were waiting with a plane that belonged to Daniel Abraham. Only at one minute after midnight did they remove the cuffs from his hands and feet and told him he was free to go. When the plane took off, Pollard worried that the change in air pressure would cause his legs to bleed.
Esther was waiting for him in New Jersey, not having been able to get to North Carolina because of inclement weather. When he deplaned, he heard someone at the airport say something he never thought he’d hear: “Welcome to New Jersey.”
Pollard says his release wasn’t a moment of unmitigated joy. He says he was happy to see Esther, to hold her hand in private, without being watched. He said she had made their tiny apartment in New York into a “palace,” but was exhausted and afraid of what might happen.
“My back hurt, my legs were bleeding. I was afraid I was going to die,” he says.
He still had an electronic GPS surveillance bracelet on his ankle and was only allowed to walk around a small area in Manhattan. As for work, he was not allowed to be employed anywhere where there were computers, and what job could he do, he asks, without a computer?
Esther says people thought they’d be dancing for joy, but they were busy with questions of life and death, and the authorities had treated them “brutally.” She says that the night after he was released, neither of them slept. She says they had been asked to go to appear at the parole office three hours after they arrived in New York, rather than the customary 72 hours given to any other prisoner.
After five years living under heavy restrictions in New York, it took personal approval from former President Donald Trump to lift them and allow Pollard to make aliyah. Even that simple step, which for other prisoners happens automatically, entailed a battle.
Then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and Israel Hayom owners Dr. Miriam and the late Sheldon Adelson enlisted to help put an end to the Pollard tragedy.
On the last day of his parole, they were waiting for a message telling him to come to the courthouse to have the bracelet removed. It was the eve of Shabbat. “Finally, Mark Meadow put the hammer down on the Justice Department and I finally got a call with minutes to spare [before Shabbat].”
Q: If you hadn’t made it in time, would it have been blocked?
“They would have had to go to court … I had already asked my rabbi if I could go ahead and get the GPS taken off [on Shabbat], and he said, ‘Yes, of course. You go down. You get it done and you go home, you don’t wait.’
“I called Mark Meadows later and I thanked him profusely for his help in this matter. And the guy answered in a way that absolutely humbled me. His sincerity and his decency were just overwhelming. They were manifest and obvious that this guy was the real deal. And what he said was to the effect of ‘When you go home, make us proud.’
“I didn’t get a call from anybody in the Jewish establishment who said that.”
Three months later, on Dec. 30, 2020, more than 35 years after he was arrested, Pollard and his wife, Esther, took off in the Adelsons’ private plane. At 2:59 a.m., when the plane’s wheels touched down, he recited the Shehecheyanu blessing.
“First of all, I didn’t know Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] was going to be there. It was very nice. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t prepared any statement at all. I turned to Esther, and I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to say? She said, ‘You’ll think of something.’
“So I got off the airplane and it was instinctive on my part to just get down and kiss the ground. And actually to bless the land, which is what I did.”
Esther: “We were very excited.”
Pollard: “What was I thinking? That I was completing a circle with my wife.
Netanyahu met them at the airport. Pollard says they were excited to finally be home after 35 years, and that they thank the people of Israel and the prime minister of Israel for bringing them home.
They say no one could be prouder of Israel, or its leader, than they are. They are committed to becoming “productive citizens” as soon as possible. Israel is a great country with a glorious future, they say—the future of the Jewish people, and “we aren’t going anywhere.”
The problem for American Jews
The Pollard affair embarrassed Israel, enraged the U.S. and subjected American Jews to shame and a sense of threat. Pollard’s decision to spy for Israel, especially the ideological justification for the act, hit the deepest and most sensitive nerves of U.S. Jews and awakened the most frightening demons.
In those years, Jews in influential positions were suspected of using their position to favor Israel’s interests over those of the U.S., so many Jews saw Pollard as supplying ammunition to those who sought to hurt them. Not only did U.S. Jewry not defend him; they also avoided him like the plague. Even when the Israeli government started to acknowledge their responsibility, Jewish leaders didn’t lift a finger to help him. The Israeli spy didn’t do much to help himself when he and his wife voiced their opinion about them.
“Their attitude was, ‘Get the hell out of our face. You already showed where your loyalty was.’ And I always have an argument with these people. I said my loyalty is to the Jewish people and the Jewish state. And they said, ‘Well, you don’t belong here.’ I said, ‘Barur [obviously]. I don’t belong here, neither do you. You should go home.’ Their answer was, ‘We are home. This isn’t exile, this is the United States.’
Pollard says that after he was arrested, the FBI gave him a book of names of prominent pro-Jewish people, their addresses and phone numbers. “It reminded me of the book the Nazis had for the invasion of England with names of Jews. I was told to put a checkmark next to a name if I suspected they had connections to Israeli intelligence. [They said], ‘You won’t have to give evidence, you won’t have to give testimony in court, nothing, just put a checkmark next to their name.’ I didn’t touch it.”
Q: Do you remember the names?
“Of course. I remember because at the time they were screaming and yelling for my head. They said they had no problem with my life sentence. No one in the Jewish community had a problem with the life sentence.”
Pollard says he once asked a Jewish leader who came to visit him in prison what would have happened if he had brought the evidence of danger to Israel to him, rather than to Aviem Sella. He said, ‘I would have offered you coffee, and I would have kept you there and would have had the FBI come and arrest you as an agent provocateur.’ What? When people say, ‘Never again,’ do they understand what that means? No. No. They don’t understand what that means.”
Q: Jews in the U.S. accuse you of dual loyalties.
“If you don’t like the accusation of double loyalty, then go the f*** home. It’s as simple as that. If you live in a country where you are constantly under that charge, then you don’t belong there. You go home. You come home. If you’re outside Israel, then you live in a society in which you are basically considered unreliable. The bottom line on this charge of dual loyalty is, I’m sorry, we’re Jews, and if we’re Jews, we will always have dual loyalty.”
“American Jewry has one major problem—they consider themselves more American than they do Jews.
“My father was a very highly decorated army officer during World War II. He graduated from college with a veterinary degree and he was in the US Cavalry, and he got accepted into Yale medical school.
“So he traveled with my mother to Yale, to New Haven, in uniform. He walked into the admissions office and the dean of admissions took one look at him, and said, ‘What’s your real name?’ My father said ‘Pollard.’ ‘No,’ the dean said, ‘What’s your real name?’ So my father said, ‘Polanski.’ So the dean said, ‘Jew, huh?’ He said they had one too many and my father would not be admitted. My father said he’d already been accepted. The dean said, ‘One too many.’”
Q: If a young Jewish naval intelligence officer today is asked by the Mossad to work for Israel, and calls to ask for your advice, what would you tell him?
“I’d tell him, not doing anything is unacceptable. So simply going home is not acceptable. Making aliyah is not acceptable. You have to make a decision whether your concern for Israel and loyalty to Israel and loyalty to your fellow Jews is more important than your life.
“Because you know what would probably happen to you if you get caught. It will be hell. But you have to look at yourself every morning in the mirror, and you have to live with yourself. If you do nothing, and you turn your back, or simply make aliyah and go on with your life, you’ll be no better than those Jews who before and after the destruction of the Temple said, ‘It’s not my responsibility.’”
Q: So you recommend that he should do what you did, and pay the price.
“I need him to go in with his eyes open.”
Q: When you joined naval intelligence, did you ever expect to find yourself in the situation you wound up in?
“No. If I’d known, I would not have joined naval intelligence. I wouldn’t have gone into the intelligence field. My father, may he rest in peace, begged me not to. He knew I was too idealistic and too pro-Israel to turn away. After I was arrested he came to see me and said, ‘I understand why you did what you did, and I love you for it, and I will never abandon you.’ And that was the only thing he ever said to me in all the years that I was in prison, and it really changed him.” Pollard says he has yet to visit his father’s grave and recite the Kaddish.
‘I don’t need an apology’
In spite of everything he has been through and the difficulties of adjusting to life in Israel, Pollard is passionate about continuing to help the Jewish people. He says he was raised on stories about Ari Ben Canaan and the Exodus. The stories left out incidents such as the Altalena. Today, Pollard says he did what he did for the sake of the people and the land—not necessarily for Israel, and “certainly” not for the Israelis governments, which he says abandoned him.
Q: Why do you think they abandoned you?
“Maybe I am too nationalistic for them, maybe I am too proud as a Jew for them, maybe because I wear a kippa, maybe because of my right-wing views. Maybe they’re just jealous for some crazy reason. I don’t know. It’s a psychology that I don’t understand, but not only did Israel abandon and betray an agent, and try to bury him with the lies, the media also participated and is still participating in it.”
Q: Maybe the governments were worried about the future of Israeli-U.S. relations?
“Think about something, some man comes up to you, looks at your wife, slaps her across the face—are you going to be afraid to hit him back? There comes a point in time where you have to draw a line and you say no, this is not right. You touch my wife, you insult her, you hit her, I’m going to hit you and you’ll never forget it.”
Q: Would you like an apology from the government?
“No. I don’t want any apology for myself. I want a rock-solid guarantee that they will never do this again to anybody else. That they will abandon an agent in the field, they will never betray him, they will never give evidence against him, that they will never lie against his wife, they will never undermine his credibility, that they will defend the agent, they will protect the agent, and they will get the agent home as quickly as humanly possible. That’s the only thing I want.”
Q: Do you think Israel learned a lesson from your case?
“Absolutely not. Because a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Because the government as an institution has not learned its lesson. You don’t lie to the Israeli people. You don’t lie to the people working for you. You don’t misrepresent things. I’m sorry, it sounds naive, but that’s the way I believe. So if you ask me if they learned their lesson, a civil answer is ‘no.’ A complex answer is ‘hell no.’”
Q: Are you angry?
“No. My father, may he rest in peace, told me that if you walk down the route of vengeance and anger and retribution, you have to be prepared to dig two graves, one for the object of your hatred, and the other one for yourself.
“If I believed that all Israel was the government, I wouldn’t feel the way I do now. I would be angry, I would be enraged, I would feel horrible. I would feel betrayed, and I would feel disgusted. I don’t know how I could stay here, but I never ever believed that the actions were for anything or anyone other than the land and people of Israel. And to this day, the land and people of Israel have stayed loyal to me.”
“I have too much to be happy about right now. My wife is still alive, and I’m with her, and we’re home. And we have a future. This is not the end of the story. I promise. As old as we are, this is the beginning.”
Pollard says that he is closing a circle with Esther, and that what happened to them was a tragedy, not of their choosing, but 35 years later, they are home. “How could I be angry? How could I not be happy?”
‘Let the wound heal’
And indeed, they think about the future. Along with one of their lawyers, the Pollards have set up a new company whose goal is to make Israel energy independent. Pollard believes that his own abilities and those of his partners will get them to that goal.
At the same time, he and Esther are hoping to put the past behind them and allow the wound to heal. When asked if he intends to write a book about the affair, he says no, because in a book, he would have to write the truth, and there are many things that still cannot be said, as well as things that Israel, the U.S. and U.S. Jews are not ready to hear.
Q: Can you travel to the U.S. if you want to?
“If I’m suicidal, yeah.”
Q: How would you define yourself today?
“I’m Esther’s husband. That’s number one. I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew living in his land. And I’m an engineer who’s developing renewable energy projects.
Q: An Israeli agent? There are people who would be proud of that.
“There’s nothing proud about this case.”
Q: A day or two after you landed in Israel, they said you would be joining a party and going into politics. Where did that come from?
“It came from people who were trying to create reality. I have always said, from the very beginning, I want nothing to do with politics. I am not going into politics. At all.”
Q: What would you like written on your tombstone?
“The only thing I’d like on my tombstone is that I love my wife more than life itself and I love my land and people. Period. If that is what I’m remembered for, in that order, then I’d be very happy.”
Q: Israel is a land of milk and honey. What would you add to that?
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.