Despite A Life Sentence In Prison – Jonathan Pollard Refused Suicide As A Solution

Jonathan Pollard - Freed From House Arrest
Jonathan Pollard

Excerpt from

‘You’re smart, finish it’

Pollard says that at one point in his sentence, when he was at Butner Federal Prison, someone from Israel he didn’t know came to visit him. The man was “official” enough to be allowed in, and was with a lieutenant colonel from the National Security Agency.

“The conversation took a very strange turn. He [the Israeli] said to me, you consider yourself a patriot. I said I’d like to think so. He said, well, you’re causing the country a lot of pain right now. And you’re causing a lot of problems. I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘If you’re a real patriot, a real patriot would do the honorable thing.’ I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m confused, what is the honorable thing?’ He said, ‘You know, you’re a smart boy.’

“I still didn’t understand what he was saying. It was the lieutenant colonel, the American, that started yelling at him, ‘How dare you? Are you out of your mind?’ And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He [the American] said ‘He wants you to kill yourself.’

“I looked at the Israeli guy, and I said to him, ‘Is that what you want me to do?’ His answer was very quick: ‘If you’re a real patriot, that’s what you would do.’ The lieutenant colonel got up, grabbed him by the back of the neck, and threw him out. He said, ‘I’ve been in this business many, many years, I never thought I would live to actually hear what just happened.’

“He said, ‘Don’t hurt yourself, you don’t do anything to yourself, you stay alive and you’ll get home.”

The state of Israel hired attorney Richard Hibey to defend Pollard. Some might say, to put up a show of defending him, after they burned him. Intensive talks between the two countries resulted in a plea bargain that included a sentence of 10 years in prison for handing over documents.

Pollard says he never trusted him, that Hibey cooperated with the interrogators. To test him, Pollard says he intentionally told him lies, a bunch of stories. He was called in to take an FBI polygraph the next day, and the interrogator asked him the same things he had told his lawyer.

Hibey also forced him to sign the plea bargain, Pollard says. “I’m in the courtroom, my ex-wife is in a wheelchair, slumped over, bleeding, I’m about to take my plea. Hibey said, ‘Look at your wife, you want to have her blood on your hands? If she goes back to prison, you know she won’t live another month.”

Pollard says he wanted to fight, because without the documents the Israelis returned, there was no case against him. “Many years later when I talked to another lawyer, he said if I’d refused to sign [the plea bargain], they would have had no evidence.” But Pollard said that Hibey was looking out for the Israeli government’s interests, and forced him to sign.

Q: Why didn’t you hire someone else?

He says the judge wouldn’t allow him to do so, and asked Pollard if he accepted the plea bargain of his own free will.

“I said ‘No your honor, they’re threatening to kill my wife and the document is a lie. It’s perjured testimony.’ He said, ‘Well, you have a difficult decision to make, you’d better make it now.'”

Pollard says he looked at Anne, looked at the situation, and his lawyer made signing motions. “I said, OK, I’ll sign it,” he says.

But the affair didn’t end when Pollard signed the plea bargain. It only opened the door for the US to exact the mother of all revenge against someone it believed had betrayed it.

In those years, 24 American agents were exposed and executed in the Soviet Union. A secret memo that the prosecution put before the judge accused Pollard of handing them over. According to the conspiracy theory, which was expounded in reports and books by journalists hostile to Pollard, he had given the Russians the agents’ names so that they would make it easier for Russian Jews to leave the USSR.
Only in 1994 was the story that Pollard was the one who supposedly handed American agents to the KGB finally debunked. That year, the Americans exposed the highest-ranking Soviet mole in the CIA, Aldrich Ames, who admitted to exposing the agents. Ames was sentenced to life in prison, which he is still serving.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger asked the judge to Violate the Plea Bargain

A few days before the sentencing, the administration took another step to destroy Pollard. Although State Department Legal Adviser Abraham Sofaer had himself signed off on the plea bargain, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger asked the judge to violate it.

In a special memo he sent to the judge, Weinberger wrote that it would be “hard to imagine worse damage to national security than what Pollard caused.”

That was the final nail in the coffin of the biased trial. Although the sides had agreed on a 10-year prison sentence, the prosecutor said in his summation that Pollard would “never see the light of day,” and that is what happened. The judge rejected the deal and sentenced him to life in prison, with a recommendation that he not be allowed clemency – a completely disproportionate punishment for the crime of which he was convicted. It was already clear that tinges of latent anti-Semitism had sealed his fate.

2,000 letters that never arrived

“There were a lot of hands on the keys of my jail cell,” Pollard says, and some people wouldn’t have minded if he had died.

At the end of the 1990s, Esther Pollard managed to meet with Rafi Eitan for the first time, and he told her he regretted only one thing in the entire affair. “I thought it would be something very highbrow, very moral and he said, ‘My only regret is that when Pollard came into the embassy I didn’t order a bullet put through his head, then there would have been no Pollard case. That’s my only regret.”

Eitan did not deny the account.

Pollard served the first seven years of his sentence in the US Federal Prison in Marion, Illinois, one of the most secure federal prisons at the time. In 1994 he was moved to Butner Prison in North Carolina, where conditions were slightly less stringent. He stayed there until his release in 2015.

Q: Is there anything that has changed in you because of prison?

“Yeah, I’m actually, I believe, a better man. Why? Because when I was in prison I realized very quickly that I was the representative of Jews because I was really the first Jew a lot of guys had ever met. I was also a representative of the State of Israel, because of who I was, and I was also her husband, and there were many instances where I declined to do something in prison, whether it was gambling, or whether it was drinking, anything that would number one bring dishonor on our marriage, number two bring dishonor on this country.”

US prison authorities are known for being tough, but Pollard, for reasons that are not hard to guess, encountered the most extreme version of that. Some 2,000 letters that he wrote to Esther over the years left the prison but were intercepted in Washington and never reached her. What’s worse, letters he sent to his mother in the last month of her life never arrived.

“When my mother, aleyah hashalom, was dying, I asked for permission to write to her. And they said, okay, fine, you can write letters to your mother. So what does a son say to a dying mother? Everything that you can. I wrote many times during the day, every time I could, I wrote. I don’t know how many letters there were, but there were a lot. So she died. And a little while after that the chief of security came in and asked to see me.

“He said, are you feeling okay today? He said, I want you to keep control. Okay. And he pulls up a bag with all the letters in it. He said they were never sent out of Washington. He said, just so you know, they X’d out the stamps so you can’t use them again.’

“What kind of animal does something like this? What kind of animal stops a letter from a son to a dying mother?”

Q: How did you spend your time in prison? How did you stay normal in prison?

“What does a normal person do in an abnormal situation? He creates his own reality. My reality centered around my wife. I was going to do whatever it took to return to her as sane as I could be and normal.

“I didn’t have writing privileges. I had 200 minutes of phone conversation a month, and the beginning was more like 30 minutes.

“Our doors couldn’t be locked. Insane. That meant my roommate and I, hopefully you got a good roommate, would have to switch during the evening. An hour on, an hour off, in front of the door with a knife.”

“I lived every day, I woke up in the morning, I said my prayers, and I got my knife, [made of plexiglass to evade the metal detector], I put it in my special pocket, and I went out.”

Pollard says he never knew what would happen, or whether he would return to his cell safely.

One time in the prison dining hall, he saw a man get stabbed. “Somebody just sitting next to me, talking to me, I don’t know the guy, next thing I know he has a knife in his neck, his head is on the table, and there was blood. I had to pick up my tray and leave.

“I was sent to the adjoining unit to get toilet paper, and you could die in prison for toilet paper. I had a big box of it. So as I was walking back, I heard a noise and I turned the corner and the entire hall, maybe 25 meters [82 feet], was a warzone, the Blacks and the Mexicans were killing one another, knives, everything, there was blood everywhere.

“An officer was on the ground, he was stabbed, and I’m holding a box that’s worth dying for, many times over. And at the end of the hall is my friend, my roommate, and an officer behind steel plexiglass were just shaking their heads, looking at me like ‘You’re dead.’ So the door locked behind me and there’s really nothing else to do at that point. I had a knife. But I’d be dead before I pulled it out.

“I just said the Shema [Yisrael prayer] the whole time walking down that hallway. I didn’t look to the right, I didn’t look to the left. I stepped over the blood and the bodies, and I kept going straight down the hall, and I finally got to the door, and the officer opened it up and let me in. And I turned around and I said, ‘Here’s your toilet paper, I hope it was worth it.'”

Pollard says he once saw someone get his head bashed in, his eyes knocked out. “And I have to step over him, looking at the murdered, and the murderer looks at me and says ‘How are you doing?’ and I said a lot better than him. And walked on.

“Esther knows all these stories. And worse ones. Have you ever seen somebody with their intestines out? Let me tell you how that happens. He’s a mule bringing in drugs, and he didn’t get rid of them fast enough, so they cut him open and they pulled his intestines out and took the drugs out of his intestines.”

‘They trusted me because I wasn’t a rat’ …

Q: Did you ever think of committing suicide?

“No, look. Jews don’t commit suicide, they buy retail. Seriously, I never ever thought of that, for two reasons. One, what it would do to my wife, because the act of suicide is a cowardly act, and I would be abandoning my wife, and it would be the ultimate act of betrayal to my wife to do something like that. Second of all, I don’t like the message that it would send to the goyim.”

Appendix: Excerpt from – The Torah Approach to Suicide
Among the greatest human tragedies is suicide. Suicide is often motivated by excruciating pain. Yet among the survivors, the pain it causes is no less, bringing feelings of guilt and anguish that are almost unbearable. The deep wound of shame and guilt rarely heals.

The one instance of suicide mentioned in the Tanach is that of King Shaul, whose selection as king of Israel is mentioned in the Haftarah of Parashas Korach. Defeated in battle, Shaul took his own life rather than fall into the hands of the enemy:

“Then Shaul said to his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.’ But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him” (I Shmuel 31:4-5).

Shaul’s circumstances, as we will discuss below, are very different from the classic cases of suicide. However, we take the opportunity to discuss the Torah approach to suicide, and associated laws—in the hope that they will never be relevant.

What are the parameters of the prohibition against taking one’s own life? What are the halachos concerning mourning over a suicide? What is the significance of the motivation behind the action? We will address these questions, among others, below.

The Prohibition against Suicide

In Parashas Noach we find the following verse: “And surely your blood of your lives will I demand an account; at the hand of every beast will I demand it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man” (Bereishis 9:5).

Commenting on the verse, Rashi explains (based on the first words of the verse: “And surely your blood of your lives will I demand an account”): “Although I have permitted you to kill an animal, I will require your blood, from one who spills his own blood.” According to Rashi, the verse thus includes a prohibition of suicide.

The source for this derivation is from a teaching of the Gemara (Bava Kama 91b), which wishes to derive the prohibition of self-injury from the verse (and defers that the verse might be referring specifically to one who kills himself). The teaching is also explicit in Midrash Rabba (Bereishis Rabba 34:13).

The Rambam likewise mentions the scriptural derivation for the prohibition against suicide: “But a person who hires a murderer to kill a colleague … and a person who commits suicide are all considered to be shedders of blood; the sin of bloodshed is upon their hands…. Which source indicates that this is the law? … The verse continues: ‘Of the blood of your own lives I will demand an account.’ This refers to a person who commits suicide” (Rotze’ach 2:2-3).

The Rambam adds that although one who kills himself is “considered to be a shedder of blood,” and “the sin of bloodshed is upon his hands,” nonetheless “[he is] not liable for execution by the court.” Rather, his punishment is death at the hands of Hashem – misah biydei Shamayim.

Of course, a person who successfully commits suicide cannot be put to death by a human court, and the statement of the Rambam means only to distinguish between the prohibition of murder and that of suicide.

There is a popular conception whereby somebody who suicides forfeits his portion in the World to Come. The source for this is the Rambam (Laws of Repentance 3:6), who writes that one who spills blood does not have a portion in the World to Come. In the above halachos the Rambam includes somebody who commits suicide in the category of “one who spills blood,” and it follows that he does not have a portion in the World to Come.

Attitude to Suicide

The Mishnah in Avos writes (4:21): “Against your will you were fashioned, and against your will you were born; against your will you live, and against your will you die – and against your will you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Life is thus not merely a gift, but also a responsibility. We are required to safeguard our own lives because they are not our property to forfeit at will (as Rav Moshe Feinstein writes, Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:59; see also Radvaz, Sanhedrin 18:6). Torah law describes man as Hashem’s agent, charged with living his life to the fullest.

Based on this approach, it is obvious that suicide is a heinous crime – indeed, one of the most heinous crimes of all. The very purpose of life is to face up to the challenges life throws our way, and not to escape them.

Sometimes challenges can be overwhelming and we do not judge anyone. But without a doubt, if a person has a challenge, he can withstand it.


Some people who have suffered far less than Pollard have tried to commit suicide due to their “problems”. The intent of this post is to encourage those individuals not to commit this severe transgression in the future by learning from the experience and the outlook of Jonathan Pollard.