Interview: Jonathan Jay Pollard
America’s best-known Jewish prisoner has passed the 20-year mark of his life term for giving classified information to Israel. a Fervently supported by some, vilified by others, Jonathan Jay Pollard, the 50-year-old former United States Naval Intelligence officer, is largely ignored by most American Jews. Though his sentence recommends against parole, he prays for his release. In this exclusive interview, he talks about his case, his daily prison routine and the federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina, which he refers to as his “gated community.”
Q. In 1986, you pleaded guilty to one count of passing classified information to Israel and expressed remorse. Who is responsible for your serving more time for this kind of offense than any other American in history?
A. Unfortunately, I have to say the State of Israel. The political leadership. The Mossad. Not the regular people. And the leadership of American Jewry and those U.S. government officials who exploit this case to call into question both the loyalty of America’s Jews and the value of Israel’s strategic alliance with the U.S. To this long list I must add a number of congressmen and senators who do, in fact, understand the miscarriage of justice that has taken place in my case yet have chosen to remain silent.
Q. Do you believe more is at stake here than just your imprisonment?
A. The essence of my case goes to the promise made by George Washington centuries ago [to] the historic Touro Synagogue, that America’s Jewish citizens will always be treated equally in this new society.
My constitutional rights have been grossly violated for political reasons, but principally because I am a Jew. My main accuser was then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who has subsequently admitted that my case was ‘a very minor matter’ that was blown out of all proportion to serve other ends. President Clinton’s Mideast negotiator, Dennis Ross, has also acknowledged…that my sentence was too harsh and that I deserve to be freed unconditionally. Despite these critical admissions by key officials, here I am, still sitting in prison. In my case, the legal process has sadly been totally corrupted. This is not just me claiming this; it is Weinberger and Ross—two people who definitely know the inside story—saying it for all to hear. They have nothing to gain from their candor, yet they couldn’t be any clearer.
Q. Is any of the intelligence that passed through your hands relevant today?
A. Absolutely not. The very definition of intelligence must indicate that there is no longer one shred of relevance today.
Q. Why did the National Security Agency go to the trouble of sending an agent—who is sitting here with us—to monitor this interview?
A. You’d have to ask him. [The U.S. intelligence community] made a conscious decision to use me as a weapon against the Jewish community and especially against AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. These people oppose the special relationship that historically bound America and Israel together. My treatment was a means to an end, a way to end the role of Israel as a natural ally to the U.S. Why? One must ask who would want to challenge the special relationship. The answer could range from traditional anti-Semites who disdain both American Jews and Israel, to other interests that are players in American foreign policy, be they Arab regimes or oil interests.
Q. People convicted of crimes similar to yours typically get much shorter sentences, and even the prosecutor in your case did not recommend the maximum. Why do you believe you received a life sentence?
A. That question was actually answered in 1998, in an article by J.J. Goldberg, now the editor of the Forward. He quoted high-level sources in Washington who indicated that it was the Joint Chiefs of Staff who engineered my sentence, working through Caspar Weinberger to communicate with the sentencing judge. These sources stated clearly that my sentence had nothing to do with my guilt or innocence, but was intended solely to send a message to American Jews.
Q. I came across a lot of invective-filled articles by Seymour Hersh. Why is he crusading against you?
A. He is a guy who facilitates agendas of various parties in exchange for scoops…. He turns leaks, lies and fables into alleged journalism. And yet, ironically, even he quoted former C.I.A. chief George Tenet confirming that no information I ever gave Israel compromised the safety of any U.S. agent or was released to any third party beyond Israel.
Q. Can you describe your typical day at Butner?
A. I wake up at 5 A.M. I daven. I go to breakfast and come back to work as an orderly in my unit. That means I preoccupy my time with washing windows, waxing floors, cleaning toilets. I squeeze in radio time, mainly the BBC and NPR. I [also] read voraciously: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Jerusalem Post, The Economist, Washington Post, MIT Technology Review and a full range of Jewish publications. I read books. Now I’m reading a biography of Orde Wingate, the Christian Zionist supporter of the Yishuv before the state was created. I write every single day—in longhand, since we have no computer, much less Internet access, about projects I want to do, things I would like to build in the future. I call my wife, Esther, at least once a day, but only for a few minutes since I’m limited to 300 minutes maximum each month. I have lunch and keep reading and writing once work finishes at 3:30 P.M.
Q. What do you eat?
A. Real kosher food is virtually nonexistent. I am able to buy some limited items such as rice crackers and canned tuna from the commissary out of my own pocket. If and when it is available on the prison menu, I try to eat tofu and soy products—no matter how badly they massacre it in the preparation. Other than that I [end up] eating lots of rice and beans. I am grateful to Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel who, in spite of endless obstacles, tries valiantly to help me maintain my religious needs, ranging from financial assistance for buying kosher food to holiday and spiritual needs.
Q. Is there any sense of Jewish community in this facility?
A. No. Regrettably all kinds of weird people here say they are Jews for reasons that are spurious and self-serving. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two or three actual Jews in this prison. I try to keep to myself. I have learned that I cannot trust anyone, but I do have a very small number of friends.
Q. What have been your lowest and highest points in prison?
A. My low points were clear—the day my mom died, the day my mother-in-law died and the day that Esther was diagnosed with breast cancer. The high point was definitely my unauthorized marriage to Esther, which has sustained me ever since.
Q. You’ve had a long time to envision your first day of freedom. What does it look like?
A. I want to be alone with Esther, to talk to her. Without time constraints, without constant supervision. I want to embrace Esther and kiss her the way a man should when he is holding his reason for living in his arms. I will take her by the hand and walk toward our future together, under an incredibly blue Jewish sky. I hope to create a Jewish home and family in Israel.
Q. And your longer-range goals?
A. I want to be a productive Israeli. I would love to pursue projects involving effective utilization of water and energy, and I study these issues in depth in prison to prepare for that day. I very much want to create a work environment for me in our home in Israel as a means of enabling me to be close to Esther. In this way and through these efforts, I intend to leave a better legacy for the name Jonathan Pollard than I have done until now.
Q. What concerns you most in the Middle East today?
A. I am especially troubled by Iran’s march to nuclear weaponry. I realize that this is a function of its quest to secure domestic energy needs, but the dark side is definitely the destructive powers they covet acquiring. In the 30’s, Hitler told everyone who would listen what he wanted to do to both the world’s democracies and to the Jewish people. Few paid attention to his threats. Today we all have a second chance to prevent the kind of death and insanity represented by Iran’s current leadership before they have a chance to carry out their wild threats. But the world needs the will to enforce effective economic embargoes and sanctions and the willingness to act immediately to prevent the Iranian nuclear option. This is an American challenge more than any other.
Q. What’s your take on the war in Iraq?
A. I think it is incredible that this is the very first American president since John F. Kennedy who has made building democracies around the world a national U.S. priority. People may disagree over the tactics, but I don’t see how anyone can deny that this is one of the noblest goals that America can possibly have.
Q. Do I detect a positive reading for President Bush?
A. I have no doubt the president means well. He is trying to do his best in the face of very difficult challenges. I think we should cut him a little slack as he does his utmost to strategically defend the United States both domestically and internationally.
Q. What message would you like to send the people reading this?
A. I am asking every single person to become actively involved to help secure a measure of justice in my case. Doing so will bring honor to both the United States and the American Jewish community. I also urge every reader to communicate their concerns about the injustice of this case to their congressman and senators…. May we, as a people, merit to see justice speedily and finally done, and the open wound, which has festered for 20 years, be healed, for the good of both America and Israel.