Hero or traitor? A new docuseries explores Jonathan Pollard’s controversial legacy

This gripping four-episode series tells the story of Pollard and the profound impact his actions had on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel, leaves a New York court house following his release from prison early on Friday after 30 years on November 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When it comes to espionage and international relations, few names evoke as much controversy as Jonathan Pollard. A former U.S. intelligence officer, Pollard was convicted of spying for Israel in the 1980s, sparking debates about loyalty, betrayal, and national security. 

Was Jonathan Pollard a hero or a traitor? A new docuseries, “Pollard,” delves deeper into the largest espionage scandal between Israel and the U.S. 

Released in February 2024 in the U.S., this gripping four-episode series tells the story of Pollard and the profound impact his actions had on the two countries’ relationship, through in-depth interviews and eyewitness testimony.

The show builds suspense like a true-crime documentary, giving viewers an exclusive look into the history of the Pollard affair.

Unpacked spoke with Israeli filmmaker Omri Assenheim to learn what drew him to Jonathan Pollard, why this story is relevant today, and what went into producing a series on such a controversial topic.

Who is Jonathan Pollard?

Jonathan Pollard was born in 1954 in South Bend, Indiana. He came of age during Israel’s Six-Day War and dedicated his life to supporting the Jewish state.

Pollard made headlines in 1985 when he was arrested for sending Israel a range of classified documents while working as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst. These documents included sensitive information about Arab states, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union’s military capabilities.

In 1987, Pollard pleaded guilty to spying for and providing top-secret classified information to Israel. He was sentenced to life in prison for violating the Espionage Act, a sentence that sparked controversy due to its severity compared to similar cases.

According to a damage assessment by the CIA, Pollard delivered suitcases filled with sensitive information to Israel on a biweekly basis.

After spending 30 years in prison, Pollard was released in 2015 under parole conditions. He later moved to Israel with his wife, Esther.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Jonathan Pollard at Ben-Gurion Airport on December 30, 2021. (Photo: Prime Minister’s Office)

Pollard’s legacy is mixed: On one hand, some regard him as a hero who risked everything to serve Israel out of his love for the Jewish state. Others, however, view him as a traitor to the U.S., believing he spied on Israel’s greatest ally for financial gain. 

The affair also caused a significant strain in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Read more about the Jonathan Pollard affair.

What drew Assenheim to Pollard’s story?

In each episode, filmmaker Assenheim interviews former senior officials from the U.S. and Israel, including FBI agents and former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Some of the high-profile interviewees had been silent about what really happened for almost 40 years, up until now.

Assenheim grew interested in Pollard’s story when he was a journalism fellow at Stanford University in 2019, where Pollard was an undergraduate decades prior. 

He learned about Pollard’s story during a fateful conversation with former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who was then a professor at Stanford’s business school. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State during the Pollard spy case, shared insights during an informal discussion in his office. This conversation inspired Assenheim to create a show about Pollard.

“What drew me to the story was that a 13-year-old boy is telling himself that he’s going to be a spy against his country and a spy for Israel, and he fulfilled his dream,” Assenheim explained. 

What message does Assenheim hope the docuseries conveys?

In Assenheim’s view, Pollard is both a hero and traitor, and he aimed to present a balanced narrative without labeling him as one or the other. “I wanted to tell a story and share the details of both sides,” Assenheim said, adding that what the audience concludes is up to them.

Assenheim also aimed to challenge the audience’s preconceptions about the case, encouraging them to consider its complexities. For Israeli viewers, Assenheim wanted to portray the betrayal felt by many Americans, exemplified by figures like former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger

For American viewers, the filmmaker wanted to present the Israeli perspective on the story, highlighting the diverse perspectives within Israel.

A Hebrew sign in support of Jonathan Pollard reads, “We want Pollard at home,” Feburary 19, 2007. (Photo: Tamar Hayardeni/Wikipedia Commons)

While some Israelis viewed Pollard as a hero, protesting his arrest with ‘Free Pollard’ signs, others criticized the espionage tactics and the strain they caused on U.S.-Israel relations. The film also highlights the rationale behind recruiting Pollard and the significance of the information he provided for national security.

With the U.S. release of the show, Assenheim wondered how it would be received by an American audience. “Will they like it? Will they think it’s important? Maybe they will say we shouldn’t show it in America,” he mused.

Why is Pollard’s story relevant in 2024?

U.S. President Joe Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid the war with Hamas. (Photo by Miriam Alster / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

Assenheim believes that the release of the show is timely, as the U.S.-Israel relationship is currently being tested during the Israel-Hamas War. The Pollard affair serves as a historical precedent that sheds light on the complexities of this alliance.

Historically, Israel has struck a delicate balance in its relationship with the U.S., seeking to maintain its independence from the U.S. while relying on continuous aid from its greatest ally. 

The Pollard affair marked a significant point in this relationship, exposing underlying tensions and the limits of trust between the two nations. 

By revisiting the Pollard affair, the documentary provides insights into the challenges and dynamics of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which remain relevant today as the two allies navigate differing views on various aspects of the Israel-Hamas War.

The making of a real-life spy show

A significant challenge Assenheim faced in making the documentary was persuading the interviewees to discuss the Pollard affair, a topic many wished to leave in the past. For them, it was not a proud moment in their careers and they preferred to distance themselves from it.

Some key figures — including Pollard’s wife Anne and Aviem Sella, a former Israeli Air Force officer and Pollard’s handler when he was a spy — wouldn’t speak to Assenheim at all. 

Others, like FBI agents Lydia Jechorek and Lisa Redman, were initially hesitant to share information with Assenheim, skeptical of an Israeli journalist’s motives for inquiring about Pollard after so many years. However, Jechorek and Redman eventually became two central figures in the show.

Their interviews revealed that questions remain about what exactly happened in the Pollard affair, such as whether Pollard was the only Israeli spy in the U.S. at the time.

The U.S. officials expressed certainty that he wasn’t the only spy, while Israeli officials remained tight-lipped, leaving the truth uncertain.

“Pollard” is now streaming in the U.S. on Chaiflicks.

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