A Jewish Prisoner’s Longing for Zion

January 4, 2021

3 min read

I interviewed Jonathan Pollard in Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina just before Passover in 2005 as a correspondent for Makor Rishon newspaper. Pollard, then 50 years old, had already served 20 years of his life sentence. His wife, Esther, who we picked up on the way to the prison, was living then in a dark, small room in a cheap, malodorous motel close by.

A brief bit of small talk with her in the car revealed a bitter truth—she was as much a prisoner as Jonathan.

During the course of our interview, which took place under the watchful eyes of a naval intelligence officer who had flown down from Washington to monitor our conversation, Pollard shared his nightmarish tale. He began with his childhood in a patriotic American modern-Orthodox Zionist home. He spoke about his visit as a teenager to Dachau concentration camp and his trip to Israel in the summer of 1971. He spoke of his love for America, his love for Israel and the moment the two collided, when he felt compelled to choose Israel.

“It was something that happened during the ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ campaign. I can’t talk about it in detail,” he said, nodding at the monitor. He was able to say that he was a professional expert present at classified meetings between the United States and Israel.

“It was then that I discovered the amazing cynicism with which the U.S. regards Israel. As part of my work, I met with some Israelis. I took a couple of them aside and I told them, ‘We should be screaming to high heaven about this!’ One of them looked at me and asked, ‘Who is ‘we’?’

“I told him, ‘You know what I mean!’ He replied, ‘No I don’t know.’ And that is when it happened. That is when I understood.”

“What did you understand?” I asked.

“I understood that we are alone,” he said.

I asked him why he didn’t quit his job and make aliyah.

“I don’t know why I stayed,” he responded. “I wanted to see how bad bad really was. Like a car that slows down to watch a highway accident to see how bad the damage is. I couldn’t leave.”

Pollard paid for that fateful decision with 30 years in prison and another five years of conditional release during which he was barred from moving to Israel.

I asked him back then to describe his life in prison.

“I don’t want to go into detail,” he responded with a brief, sad sigh. “I will give you an impressionistic description of my life. Life here involves constant noise, endless noise that is impossible to imagine, all the time; constant violence; profanity, every conceivable type of profanity. There is no place to be quiet or to find quiet to read. You really have to be disciplined not to be provoked. You need to be disciplined to see when a situation is getting out of hand and to get away as quickly as possible. I have to be ready if my door opens at two in the morning.”

I asked Pollard what he thought about when he was sitting in his room.

“My dream is to be with my wife, at home in Israel. I am worried about my wife. She is a cancer survivor. But she refused to have chemotherapy because it would have destroyed any chance of having children. Do you have any idea of what it feels like for a husband to have to hear over the phone that his wife has cancer?” he asked with barely disguised desperation.

“I want to come home so that I can be with my wife, my people and my land. That is all I want. I love my nation.”

Thirty-five years after his initial arrest, 15 years after I met with him, early on Wednesday morning, Jonathan Pollard finally realized his dream, the dream of a Jewish prisoner longing for Zion.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate

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