Jonathan Pollard, who will be released from prison Nov. 21, 30 years to the day after he was arrested by FBI agents outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, once shared with The Jewish Week his reaction to reports — later proved false — that he was about to be freed in 1996.
It was during the Wye River peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and at one point President Bill Clinton was said to have sweetened the deal by offering to free Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy intelligence officer serving a life sentence after pleading guilty in 1987 to passing classified military information to Israel.
In one of many phone calls Pollard placed to editors and reporters at The Jewish Week in the mid-to-late 1990s, he recalled that his second wife, Esther, had phoned him in prison “at 7 in the morning” to tell him the news.
“Everybody here was very happy for me,” he said. “I’ve never shaken so many hands in my life. The guards, too, patted me on the back. The guards said, ‘You’re going home.’ … I was packing; I thought this was it. I packed my Chumash [Five Books of Moses], my tallit and tefillin and my wife’s pictures.
“Everybody was coming around my room asking for books, clothes, deodorant, food. Everybody was claiming things. That’s what happens in prisons.”
Pollard said his roommate, a Muslim, “embraced me and said, ‘Both our peoples are going home, isn’t it wonderful?’”
He was referring to the planned release of 750 Palestinian prisoners who were to be set free as part of the peace accord.
Pollard said he later “heard through my own channels that I would be leaving Saturday night and going to Israel with the prime minister on his plane.”
But later in the day he said he learned that Clinton had acceded to opposition to his release from the CIA.
“The room started spinning, I got nauseous and broke into a cold sweat,” he recalled. “My blood pressure shot up and I went and sat down at my desk and blacked out. I was out for about a minute or two.”
Pollard, who will be 61 on Aug. 7, doubtless heard many rumors since then about the possibility of his release. During his long years in prison, many American Jews changed their attitudes toward him from anger and embarrassment at the time of his arrest, which sparked heated debates about U.S.-Israel dual loyalty, to sympathy for the inordinately harsh sentence he received.
In Israel, too, there was a softening toward Pollard, whose notoriety embarrassed the country, and to his plight. In 1995, he was granted Israeli citizenship.
His case became a cause for many pro-Israel advocates. Even in recent years it was common for a speaker discussing Israel and the Middle East in the Jewish community to field questions from an audience and be asked first about the Pollard case. It evoked strong feelings on both sides of the issue, not so much over whether he was guilty of a crime but whether his punishment was unduly harsh.
Ken Lasson, a law professor and writer in Baltimore, was part of the small, informal team of pro bono attorneys who devoted countless hours seeking Pollard’s release. Lasson told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that “the average sentence for the crime Pollard committed was two to four years.”
“I always maintained he was guilty,” said Lasson, who was among the attorneys and supporters thanked by Pollard in a statement released Tuesday by his lead attorneys, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman. “It was the punishment that was so unfair — a gross violation of American justice. An American tragedy.”
Lasson said that over time he became convinced that anti-Semitism played a role in the fact that Pollard, who spied for Israel, an ally, languished in jail while others who spied for enemies of the U.S. were released sooner.
“What else could it be?” he asked. “I couldn’t see any other reason.”
Even before the official announcement on Tuesday that Pollard would be released on parole, the case was being debated again — this time focused on whether the timing was part of a White House effort to placate Israel over the Iran nuclear agreement.
U.S. officials denied the reports and noted that at the time Pollard was sentenced, a life sentence meant 30 years — and those 30 years come due Nov. 21.
Shortly before the parole board announced its decision to free Pollard, Abraham Sofaer, a former State Department legal adviser who led the team that gathered the information that led to Pollard’s conviction, said he hoped Pollard would be released.
“I think [30 years] is an adequate punishment,” he told The Jewish Week. “It is really a matter of rachmanis [compassion] now. There is no need to punish him [further], and no call to keep him in prison. He is not a danger to the U.S. whatsoever, and that is why I think the parole board should let him go,” he said. He added that he has no “respect” for Pollard because of his spying activities for which Israel paid him — both in cash and in gifts.
The total is believed to be about $21,000.
Sofaer said two key factors accounting for Pollard’s long sentence were poor legal advice at the time of his sentence and his unrepentant attitude after he was first imprisoned.
Initially, Pollard insisted that he was providing Israel with material that was critical to its defense and that he was passing on only material that was supposed to have been provided as part of bilateral agreements between the two allies.
Pollard, who had had high-level security clearance, told The Jewish Week by phone from his prison in Butner, N.C., in December 1998 that he knew exactly what classified material he was sharing with Israel and that he “went to great lengths to sanitize as much of the information as I could before I provided it to Israel.”
He maintained money was never an issue for him and he insisted that the U.S. deliberately withheld the information that was supposed to be shared with Israel in order to prevent the country from taking any more unilateral actions like its 1981 bombing of the nearly completed Iraqi nuclear reactor.
He also pushed back against the comments of four retired U.S. Navy admirals who called Pollard a “traitor” in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Pollard said that by calling him a traitor — a crime with which he was never charged — the admirals were “redefining the status of Israel with regard to the U.S. If I am a traitor, who is the enemy I served?”
He also denied suggestions that, if freed, he would resume his illegal conduct.
“I have given my word that I am remorseful and will do whatever I have to do to lead a constructive and honest life in the future,” he said.
Sofaer noted that in subsequent years Pollard was more mellow and was quoted as saying that he had “made a mistake and that he wants to go and live the rest of his life in quiet bliss.”
As a condition of his parole, Pollard must remain in the U.S. for five years. Noting Pollard’s expressed desire to settle in Israel, his chief attorneys, Lauer and Semmelman, said they would ask President Obama to permit him to move to Israel immediately upon his release. Such permission is not considered likely.
The attorneys noted that Pollard asked them to say that he is looking forward to being reunited with his wife and that he was thankful to his pro bono lawyers, the National Council of Young Israel and others in the U.S. and Israel who had championed his release.
In an interview before the parole board’s announcement, Pollard’s former wife, Anne, who was arrested with him in 1985 and served five years in prison, told the Voice of Israel that Pollard is “very ill and needs immediate medical attention.”
She added: “He has lost 30 years — his entire adult life. The world has changed so remarkably in 30 years. There was no Internet or cell phones. For Jonathan to grasp the real world will take some time.”
Stewart Ain is staff reporter and Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.