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Putting the Jonathan Pollard Story on Stage

Infamous 1986 spying case plays out in NYC production of The Law of Return

Tal Kra-Oz
August 20, 2014
André Ware, left, and Ben Mehl in “The Law of Return,” Martin Blank’s play at the Fourth Street Theater.(Hunter Canning)
André Ware, left, and Ben Mehl in “The Law of Return,” Martin Blank’s play at the Fourth Street Theater.(Hunter Canning)

Jonathan Pollard has spent the past 27 years in a North Carolina prison cell, pleading guilty in 1986 to spying for Israel. But for the past few weeks he—or, rather, an actor pretending to be him—has been treading the off-off-Broadway boards in The Law of Return, a play by Martin Blank in a production directed by Elise Thoron at the 4th Street Theatre.

Mostly eschewing any attempt to build tension, as the story’s real-life conclusion will come as no surprise to all but the most oblivious theater-goer, the play is a character study of three men: Pollard, a civilian, works as an analyst for American naval intelligence officer Steve Harris (Andre Ware), while at the same time passing on increasingly sensitive intelligence to Rafi Eitan (Joel Rooks), the storied Israeli spymaster behind the capture of Adolf Eichmann.

Pollard himself is portrayed by Ben Mehl; though he is probably much thinner than Pollard ever was, he more than manages to embody and humanize a man who long ago became larger than life. At least, he embodies a very specific version of him. This Pollard is socially awkward, too clever for his own good, and possessing the sort of unhealthy appetite for secrets that would set off alarm bells in any sane intelligence agency. It’s certainly a plausible characterization—and in Mehl’s portrayal, a believable one.

Blank’s artistic decisions regarding Pollard’s motives have the potential to be more controversial. There are two narratives regarding Pollard. According to the first—Pollard as traitor—the motive was cash: after he was turned down by a number of other foreign intelligence services, Israel took him under its wing and rewarded him royally for his services. The second sees Pollard as an Israeli patriot who acted out of frustration with the fact that American intelligence vital to the well-being of the Jewish state was not being shared. Adherents to the first narrative accuse Pollard of historical revisionism: he became a Zionist only in prison, to court the sympathies of the Israeli public. Adherents to the second narrative accuse the former intelligence chiefs of propagating lies about Pollard out of sheer vengefulness and alleged anti-Semitism.

Martin Blank’s Pollard is decidedly a Zionist patriot, if not a particularly thoughtful one. “I was not interested in making a staged documentary. Though I tried to stick to the facts, such are they are,” Blank told me via e-mail. “It’s tricky because there is so much misinformation (or at best selective disclosure) about Pollard. From those that never want him out of jail. And those who want him released. And then, there is information that is still classified, like his sentencing memo.”

If nothing else, this Pollard makes for better drama. As Eitan begins to demand intelligence relating to American forces and capabilities (rather than those of Israel’s enemies), Pollard can no longer pretend to merely be a self-styled replacement for botched intelligence cooperation between the countries. He is quickly coaxed into becoming more of a traitor than he ever bargained for.

Finally, inevitably, Pollard is discovered by his employers and betrayed by his handlers who bar his entry to the Israeli Embassy. Blank’s version heightens the spectacle somewhat unbelievably, with Pollard physically tossed off the embassy grounds by Eitan. Both on stage and off, though, Pollard was refused the protection of the titular Law of Return, which promises sanctuary and citizenship in Israel to all Jews.

That betrayal, made very tangible in the play, and Pollard’s sympathetic characterization, must have contributed to the warm reception the play received when it was performed at Jerusalem’s English-speaking Center Stage Theater a decade ago. “Israelis were familiar with the case, and often came in with very strong feelings on the topic,” Blank said. “There was much audience debate as people left the theater.”

In what now seems like ancient history by Middle Eastern standards, Pollard’s release-by-pardon, heretofore rejected by a long line of American presidents, was reportedly considered seriously by President Obama less than six months ago, in an attempt to jump-start the stalling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Somewhat surprisingly, Israel didn’t take the bait. Perhaps Pollard, who is up for parole late next year, is no longer the symbol he once was. But as The Law of Return demonstrates, his story is still the stuff of compelling drama.

The Law of Return runs through August 24th at the 4th Street Theatre in New York City

Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.