Jonathan Pollard makes aliyah to Israel 35 years after his arrest

For many in Israel, it was the culmination of decades of struggling for Pollard’s freedom.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Jonathan Pollard at Ben-Gurion Airport. (photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Jonathan Pollard at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Jonathan Pollard, who served 30 years in a US prison for providing classified information to Israel, arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport together with his wife, Esther, early in the morning of December 30. Descending from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson’s private plane, he knelt and kissed the tarmac, helping Esther to do the same, and they said the Shehecheyanu blessing together.
Waiting for them was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – in what was apparently a surprise welcome. “Now you can begin your lives anew in freedom and happiness. Now you’re home,” Netanyahu told Pollard. “What a moment. What a moment!”
Netanyahu then gave Jonathan Pollard an Israeli ID card (Esther already has one). Local press reports said he would receive a pension similar to that of retired Mossad agents.
“We are ecstatic to be home at last after 35 years and we thank the people and the prime minister of Israel for bringing us home,” Pollard said. “No one could be prouder of this country or this leader than we are and we hope to become productive citizens as soon and as quickly as possible and to get on with our lives here. This is a wonderful country. It has a tremendous future. It is the future of the Jewish people and we’re not going anywhere.”
Pollard, 66, was released in 2015 under extremely strict parole conditions, including a prohibition against leaving the US. In November, the US government decided not to renew his parole restrictions, and Pollard was soon on the plane.
For many in Israel, it was the culmination of decades of struggling for Pollard’s freedom. “The emotions are running high,” Adi Ginsburg, the spokesman for the Committee to Free Pollard, said in an interview. “I think all of Israel had a feeling of expectation that was concentrated in the moment that he touched down.”
Ginsburg said the Pollards themselves had requested a low-key arrival, and the timing of their aliyah was organized around Esther Pollard’s ongoing cancer treatments. From the airport, the Pollards went into precautionary quarantine against COVID-19, as all arrivals from the US were required to do, but they plan to move into an apartment they purchased in Jerusalem.
“They need quiet right now because of the complicated nature of Esther’s health,” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg has been active in the campaign to free Pollard – a former US navy analyst sentenced to life for being an Israeli agent – for 17 years, starting from when he was still a teenager. Pollard is, in fact, the only American to have been given a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally.
Ginsburg said that much of the information Pollard transferred was intelligence information that Israel was supposed to receive but was cut off after it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
“The US was angry and the intelligence cooperation stopped,” Ginsburg said. “Also, we know that [then-defense secretary] Caspar Weinberger had an anti-Israel position, and that the decision to make a symbol of Pollard was done intentionally.”
In addition, he said, Pollard’s life sentence was based on the mistaken assumption that Israel leaked information it had received from Pollard about Russian agents abroad, perhaps to encourage Russia to let Soviet dissidents emigrate. But many years later it became clear that the information came from Russian spies within the US administration such as Aldrich Ames, not from Pollard or from Israel.
A few Israelis – from former prime minister Ehud Olmert to American expert Prof. Gil Troy – argued that Pollard should not be seen as a hero or be given a hero’s welcome. They said he was well paid and did harm to American Jews, especially in the US government, who were suspected of dual loyalty to the US and Israel.
“The problem is that the brief photo-op welcome, to score fleeting political approval points, made the clearest statement possible that the accusations and suspicions of Jewish dual loyalty – from keeping Jews away from Middle East policy until the 1980s to [US President Donald] Trump referring to Bibi as ‘your prime minister’ when speaking to American Jews – are not only possible, are not only true, but are the official plan and policy of Israel,” said Gayle Meyers Cooper, a former Pentagon analyst who now works as a Middle East analyst in Israel. “[Netanyahu’s] action stated that the one Jew who he would turn out to personally welcome in the middle of the night is the one who betrayed his native country in service to Israel.”
Cooper worked at the Pentagon from 1997 to 2002 before coming to Israel in 2004. She said that while she does not believe that her career was impacted because by the time she joined the US government, there were several Jews – including former US ambassadors to Israel Martin Indyk and Dan Kurtzer, as well as longtime American diplomats Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller – in senior positions, others had been affected by the specter of dual loyalty.
Shmuel Rosner, an Israel writer and analyst, told the Jerusalem Press Club that while the majority of Israelis are happy that Pollard was able to move to Israel, the Pollard affair had been traumatic for American Jews.
“I would presume that most American Jews are happy to put this affair behind them, to see Pollard disappearing from the American scene and living quietly in Israel,” he said. “I think most of them hope that this will not become a huge celebration that will emphasize what Pollard did against his country.”
He said that the way Pollard came to Israel without fanfare showed that the Israeli government sought to play down his arrival.
“The government did not want this to become a media circus,” he said. “On the other hand, Mr. Netanyahu is going to want to get something out of it, to get some support and to count this as part of the long list of achievements that he wants to present to the Israeli public as we near the next Israeli election.”
There had been speculation that Pollard might enter Israeli politics, perhaps even in Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Ginsburg said that when he asked Pollard his question, his response was: “I’ve suffered enough!” ■