As we start the year 2023, it is important to remember pivotal events that occurred over the past year. One of the those was the death of Esther Pollard, who passed away due to coronavirus complications.
I remember Mrs. Pollard as we begin this New Year because of her tireless efforts to save her husband Jonathan Pollard from life in jail without parole for the crime of passing intelligence documents to Israel, documents which were pivotal to Israel’s security.
In the early 1980s, Jonathan Pollard was a US Naval intelligence analyst who discovered that Syria, Libya, Iraq and Iran were developing weapons of mass destruction with the intent of attacking Israel. After notifying his superiors, he learned that the US intelligence establishment had decided to withhold this information from the Israeli government, despite Jerusalem being entitled to it based on a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries. Once aware of the American betrayal, Pollard warned Israel of the threat and became Israel’s spy in Washington, DC. But in the end he was caught and given one of the harshest sentences ever for spying for an allied country.
Growing up in America, I was raised hearing about Esther Pollard’s tireless efforts to free her husband, who had been handed an antisemitic sentence. No one had ever been so severely punished for spying for an ally. When I lived in Washington, DC and discussed Pollard with other American Jews as a high school kid, they told me to avoid discussing him, as it could get me into trouble. As a rebellious teenager, this got me even more interested in Pollard’s story, and I read everything I could get my hands. I admired what he had done, and did not understand why other American Jews refused to stand up for him.
When I grew up, I came to appreciate that many American Jews lived in fear because of what happened to Pollard. In many ways, he was America’s Alfred Dreyfus. He was threatened into signing documents that incriminated him. He was tortured and spent seven years in solidarity confinement, where the conditions were so harsh that everyone but him ended up committing suicide. He was denied the right to have children and had to break the rules to get married. Just as Alfred Dreyfus was saved only after suffering immensely, the same was the case with Jonathan Pollard. This made me a huge fan of Esther Pollard’s campaign to free Jonathan, and I was was greatly saddened when she passed away this past year. Basically, all of Jonathan’s life was dedicated to helping Israel, and in the end he did not even get the chance to grow old with his beloved wife here. The tragedy of it all is overwhelming, and makes his decision to protect Israel in the way he did all the more outstanding.
Over the past year, I learned the hard way after the death of my late husband that we are all going to die one day. There is no coming back afterwards and that gives our choices a lot of weight. Our choices are of course irreversible. You cannot undo what has been done. Some decisions we make have grander consequences than others. For example, who we marry, where we live, what we do for work, what ideas we stand for, what battles we fight. That is the lens through which we live our life.
Earlier this month, Jonathan Pollard addressed the Tel Aviv International Salon, stating: “When you come face to face with your worst nightmare, you have a couple of options at your disposal. You can look away, do more investigation and contact people to fix it or you can get directly involved yourself.”
Looking away is not a viable option. That’s how we lost six million Jews during the Holocaust. Growing up, I had a Holocaust survivor for a Hebrew teacher and I eternalized the atrocities that occur because of the indifference of the world, the same world that stood by and watched as six million Jews were butchered. And then, later on, this same world stood by and watched the Rwanda Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, the Khojaly Genocide, the oppression of Bahais and other minorities in Iran, and essentially did nothing. Sadly, the principle of NEVER AGAIN was seldom implemented.
Break the law to save lives
Pollard also grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and for this reason felt that he could not remain silent. He also could not “resign, go to Israel and live with the consequences of what he found.” He knew a lot of people could die and it would be because of his silence. So, he decided to break the law in order to save lives, thus violating the undeclared intelligence embargo that the United States had declared against Israel.
The operation to seize intelligence documents from the US was initiated by the State of Israel because an agreement between the two countries was being violated by one side. In this context, spying on an ally can be justified. Israel was just reclaiming what they had a right to receive. “After Israel raided Iraq’s nuclear reactors, the US decided that they would no longer share critical intelligence for Israel’s national security because Israel angered Washington’s Arab allies,” Pollard explained.
So, an agreement was abrogated and Pollard decided that something had to be done about it, for Israeli lives were at stake. He in the end decided that “the lives of Jews in Israel were more important than his own life.” He sacrificed his freedom so that other Jews in Israel could live. As a result, after he was secretly married to Esther in prison, he had to wait 23 years for them to live as husband and wife, and barely got to spend time with her in Israel before she passed away, the woman whom Jonathan knew from a youth program, who sent him letters of encouragement in prison and gave him hope during those dark times.
The world has moved on
After Esther’s tragic death, Jonathan married a friend of hers. He then went on to create a special school in Esther’s name that promotes Jewish education, where even non-religious Jewish children can learn to appreciate their Jewish heritage: “Esther taught me that if a Jewish child growing up in Israel doesn’t know our history and doesn’t feel a connection to the glorious tradition and heritage of our people, even the best intelligence and weapons will be of no use.”
As we start a new year, we should remember how such a woman of valor left everything in Israel and went to America to take up the case of defending the Dreyfus of our times. We should remember how much one man sacrificed so we in Israel can live safely today. And we should never forget how much Israel owes to the brave stance taken by Jonathan Pollard at a time when Israel was in a precarious situation.
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