New documentary series explores the Pollard affair

A documentary series about Jonathan Pollard will feature interviews with American FBI agents and Israeli Intelligence officials and politicians who have never spoken about these events before.

JONATHAN POLLARD arrives at the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York City in 2017. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
JONATHAN POLLARD arrives at the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York City in 2017.
(photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

Jonathan Pollard is one of the most divisive figures in the history of US-Israel relations and his life is the subject of Pollard, a fascinating four-part documentary series that starts broadcasting on Kan 11 on Wednesday nights at 9:15 p.m., beginning on February 2.

To some he is, and will always be, a hero, while others see him as a traitor. Pollard, an American-born former US Navy Intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life imprisonment for passing classified documents to Israel, was released in 2015 after serving 30 years. Eventually welcomed to Israel by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late 2020, he currently lives in Jerusalem and, sadly, lost his wife, Esther Zeitz Pollard, on Monday. They married in the early 1990s and she crusaded tirelessly for his release. 

This series, which was created by Omri Assenheim and directed by Gilad Tokatly and Shany Haziza, will likely disappoint his most ardent supporters, since it presents him as troubled and misguided. It features interviews with American FBI agents and Israeli Intelligence officials and politicians who have either never spoken about these events before, or have talked about them only briefly. While there are a few clips from old interviews and excerpts from his journals, Pollard’s voice is otherwise absent, but the series is still gripping. 

The first episode goes into Pollard’s background and shows that he was deeply influenced by the fact his mother lost family in the Holocaust. Jewish classmates from South Bend, Indiana, recall routinely facing antisemitism while they were growing up, which also shaped Pollard’s worldview. They remember Pollard as an outstanding student and something of a nerd. 

When he attended Stanford University, serious problems emerged. According to the series, he was a heavy drug user and once was found walking around campus, brandishing a gun, high on hallucinogens and shouting that people were out to get him. 

 AN UNDATED photo of Jonathan Pollard prior to his arrest for spying for Israel.  (credit: REUTERS) AN UNDATED photo of Jonathan Pollard prior to his arrest for spying for Israel. (credit: REUTERS)

After college he applied to work at the CIA and was turned down, but he was accepted as an analyst for the US Navy. But there were signs of trouble early on. At one point, he applied for a job at AIPAC, but according to columnist Douglas Bloomfield, who was the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the group, Pollard “had delusions he wanted to be the next Moshe Dayan, maybe the Jewish James Bond, in other words, he wanted to be a hero... We decided he was crazy and that anybody who hired him was even crazier and we were not that crazy.” 

But once he met Israel Air Force colonel Aviem Sella, he finally had the connection he longed for to start helping Israel and for a while, he seemed to be living his dream, until his activities raised red flags with some of his colleagues. The episodes that focus on how the FBI closed in on him are riveting.

THE FORMER Israeli officials who handled his case do not come off very well. Former Foreign Ministry deputy Roni Milo recalls that then foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir gave the order for Pollard to be kicked out of the embassy. Former official Yossi Beilin, says, “The more that the story unraveled, the crazier it was... Someone meets with a senior officer in the IDF and he says to him, ‘Listen, I’m ready to spy for you in America’ and he says, ‘Wow.’ ... And when he gets caught, he goes straight to the Israeli Embassy...” 

He pauses to laugh. “You say, this can’t be, it’s like a comedy. But it’s a tragedy.” His words make sense, but his laughter speaks volumes about the attitude of the Israeli government to Pollard at the time of his capture. 

In the aftermath of the scandal, it seemed for a time that the alliance between Israel and the US might be ending. Uri Simhoni, an IDF attache in Washington, recalled that John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy, felt betrayed and said, “Have I ever said ‘no’ to you about anything? My door is open, why do you come through the window?” Then defense secretary Caspar Weinberger (who often emphasized that he was only half Jewish) said that he wished Pollard could be executed. 

Many involved question why Pollard received a life sentence for spying for an ally, when some who spied for hostile governments received many fewer years behind bars. James Olson, former CIA chief of counterintelligence, said he “does not exclude the possibility that there was antisemitism” involved in the harsh sentence. 

Pollard offers some insight in a clip from an interview in prison in which he quotes from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: “I never met a man who had better motives for all the trouble he’s caused.”