Did Jonathan Pollard Safeguard Israel or Betray America?

We’re Curious…

Last week, Jonathan Pollard, the American who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel, arrived in the Jewish State. Pollard was arrested in 1985 for passing a range of classified documents to Israel while working as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst. 

Pollard, who has long expressed a desire to move to Israel, was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995. With the termination of his five-year parole period last month, the former spy was free to leave for Israel.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted Pollard and his wife, Esther, at Ben Gurion Airport. Netanyahu handed Pollard an Israeli identification card and recited the shehecheyanu prayer of thanksgiving and the matir asurim (freeing of prisoners) blessing.

Upon arriving in Israel, Pollard said: “We are ecstatic to be home at last after 35 years…No one could be prouder of this country or this leader [Netanyahu] than we are, and we hope to become productive citizens as soon and as quickly as possible.”

Pollard’s case has generated both activism and ambivalence within the Jewish community. Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians, from across the political spectrum, have lobbied for Pollard’s release for years. Young Israeli activists have also organized “Free Pollard” campaigns to raise awareness about his plight and lobbied the Israeli government to help.

According to Stewart Ain of The Forward, many American Jewish groups were silent upon Pollard’s arrest. However, leading Jewish organizations such as Hadassah, B’nai Brith, the Conference of Presidents and the Union for Reform Judaism have since called for his release.

Who is Jonathan Pollard, and why is he regarded as a hero by some Jewish leaders and a traitor by others? How is the Jewish world reacting to Pollard’s arrival in Israel?

Background on Jonathan Pollard’s Spying Career and Punishment

Pollard began sharing classified documents with Israel starting in 1984 and was arrested by the FBI on November 21, 1985 (at age 31). According to a damage assessment by the CIA, Pollard delivered the material on a biweekly basis, including suitcases filled with sensitive information about Arab, Pakistani and Soviet military capabilities.

According to the redacted, public version of the CIA report, the “sheer quantity” of disclosures posed a threat to U.S. intelligence sources and collection methods. The report also declared that “Pollard’s operation has few parallels among known U.S. espionage cases.” 

Some believe Pollard was motivated by money in addition to his allegiance to Israel. He was paid approximately $50,000 for providing U.S. intelligence secrets to Israel over the two years he worked as a spy, according to an officer serving at the Pentagon at the time of Pollard’s arrest. Pollard also offered classified documents to Pakistan, South Africa and Australia, another one of America’s closest allies.

According to reports from The Jerusalem Post, Pollard shared information the Israelis should have been receiving, but which then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger withheld. Weinberger was often critical of Israel in general and commented that Pollard’s “loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States.”

In 1987, Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of providing classified information to a foreign government and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He ultimately spent thirty years behind bars. This was considered excessive: According to historian Gil Troy, “most Americans caught spying for allies serve two to four years,” and “many Americans who spied for the Soviet Union barely served a decade.”

Pollard was “the only American ever sentenced to life in prison for spying for an ally,” according to The New York Times. Some believe the disproportionately long sentence he received was motivated by antisemitism on the part of some involved in the case.

Every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has raised Pollard’s case with American presidents and members of Congress. Netanyahu has requested Pollard’s release in meetings with both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Pollard left prison on parole in 2015. In November 2020, the U.S. Justice Department announced that he had completed his parole, one of the Trump administration’s last gestures to the Jewish State.

Pollard’s Move to Israel: Diverse Views From the Jewish World

A majority of Israeli politicians celebrated Pollard’s arrival as a homecoming. Netanyahu said on Twitter: “I was excited to receive Jonathan and Esther Pollard upon their arrival to Israel and to give Jonathan an Israeli ID card. Now they’re home.”

Gideon Sa’ar, who recently left Likud to form the New Hope party and challenge Netanyahu’s rule, said, “Welcome home, Jonathan,” while Israeli president Reuven Rivlin tweeted, “Welcome home to Jonathan and Esther Pollard!”

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was one of the few politicians to call for a more measured reception for Pollard, saying: “I suggest we lower our level of excitement because it doesn’t help with the American defense system, which sees the Pollard affair as an unacceptable incident that violated acceptable codes between Israel and the U.S.”

Outside of Israeli politics, Jewish leaders and influencers expressed a wide range of views on the issue. Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish HaTorah, with headquarters based in Jerusalem, commented that Pollard served 35 years in prison and parole for giving intelligence to Israel “that everyone admits saved lives.” Burg continued: “The strength of the Jewish Nation is that for 3,000 years we have never abandoned a Jewish brother or sister. Welcome home Jonathan and Esther.”

French-born Israel and Jewish activist Rudy Rochman, who lives in Israel, argued that Pollard “selflessly put his country and people before his residence” and that those who regard Pollard as a traitor “likely don’t understand what a Jew is. Noting that “Jews are the native people of historic Judea/Israel,” he wrote that although Jews should “respect” their host countries in the Diaspora, “that doesn’t mean that they must forget or ignore who they actually are.”

Expressing the opposite point of view, Israel Waismel-Manor, a political science lecturer at the University of Haifa, maintained that Pollard is not a Zionist hero and was driven by ego and money:

Similarly, Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz argued that the Pollard affair is a betrayal of both the U.S. government and American Jews. He wrote that the situation put American Jews, “as a collective and as individuals, in the invidious position of having to defend themselves from the suspicion of divided loyalties.”

Historian Gil Troy argued in his column in The Jerusalem Post that Israelis should avoid all fanfare when welcoming Pollard because “even though the U.S. punished him unfairly, he [committed] crimes against Israel’s cherished ally.”

Underscoring that Jewish tradition regards humiliating a friend as one of the gravest sins a person can commit, Troy wrote, “Spying is lying. Spying against enemies wraps you in glory; spying on friends clouds you in muck… Israelis should acknowledge the complexity of Pollard’s deeds, for Americans and American Jews.”

Israeli-American journalist Caroline Glick made the case that since his arrest, Pollard has been both the symbol and cause of the divide between Israeli and American Jews, noting that a majority of Israelis celebrated Pollard’s arrival while “American Jews bristled both at the news and the happiness with which Israelis greeted Pollard’s arrival.”

Glick added that the reason why the American Jewish community at large failed to support Pollard was “because his plight reminded them of their weakness.” His excessive punishment “brought home the fact that despite America’s warm welcome to the Jews, America wasn’t the new Promised Land. The Israelis had a point about the Diaspora.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial board welcomed Pollard to Israel and expressed hope that his arrival will now “put an end to one of the most difficult chapters in U.S.-Israeli relations, one that should never have been written in the first place, as Israel should never have employed an American Jew to spy on its greatest ally.”

The Bottom Line

After serving 30 years in prison plus five years on parole for sharing U.S. intelligence with Israel, Jonathan Pollard is now living in the Jewish State. Just as his case has generated both activism and ambivalence within the Jewish community over the past three decades, his arrival in Israel prompted a wide range of views from the Jewish world. 

A majority of Israeli politicians celebrated Pollard’s arrival as a homecoming. Outside of Israeli politics, some Jewish leaders suggested Pollard should be honored for his commitment to the Jewish state above his country of residence. Others argued that he is not a Zionist hero, but is a traitor who caused severe damage to the United States, the U.S.-Israel relationship and American Jews. 

Historian Gil Troy called on Israelis to practice “a more mature, nuanced nationalism,” concluding: “Let’s toast the good Pollard’s information did for Israel’s security — discreetly — without rubbing our American friends’ noses in it.”