(JTA) — Esther Pollard, who spent decades fighting to see her husband live free in Israel after being convicted for spying on the United States, has died at 68.
Pollard died in Jerusalem Monday from complications related to the coronavirus, the Times of Israel reported. She had also been battling breast cancer.
Pollard, née Elaine Zeitz, became acquainted with her husband while leading the Canadian branch of the movement for his release. They married at Butner prison, in North Carolina, in 1994, and she assumed leadership of the worldwide movement campaigning on his behalf.
Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987. Esther Pollard — who changed her first name as the pair grew more religious together — was his most tireless advocate, speaking to Jewish groups and meeting with Israeli and U.S. leaders. She was able to list names, off-the-cuff, of other convicted spies who had served far less time for crimes that she and Pollard claimed were more far-reaching. She went on a hunger strike in 1996 and was excoriating in her criticism of the U.S. Jewish and Israeli establishment for what she called the abandonment of her husband.
“We’re very religious people,” she told a supportive radio talks show host, Dean Rotbart, in 2006, speaking of herself and her husband. “And we understand that ultimately, the only one was going to set Jonathan free is God Himself. And God doesn’t need AIPAC or Israel for you or me to do it, he can do it himself. So then, what is He waiting for? What He is waiting for is for men to be his partner in doing the right thing.”
Her advocacy resonated in Israel. Each time an Israeli prime minister visited Washington and visited with a president, he knew that inevitably an Israeli reporter would ask him afterward if he had pressed for Pollard’s release.
The couple was finally united with a degree of freedom in 2015 when President Barack Obama’s administration did not contest his appeal for parole. However, he was restricted to residency in New York, and the couple was unable to achieve their dream of moving to Israel until Dec. 30, 2020, when the Trump administration opted not to extend the terms of parole.
Pollard’s pleas to be by his wife while she got treatment for her cancer outside his area of restriction may have helped play a role in the Trump administration’s decision to drop objections to his travel. Her illness delayed their departure for several weeks, so the pro-Israel billionaire couple, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, flew them to Israel on a private jet, where then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the couple on the tarmac.
“I did not imagine in my worst nightmares that I would lose Esther,” the Times of Israel quoted Pollard as saying on Monday. “After decades of fighting for my release, I felt so helpless that I could not help her in her struggle for life.”
Esther Pollard did not hold back in accusing Israel’s government and the Jewish establishment of corruption, but more often than not, the leaders she reviled gave her a pass.
“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Esther Pollard, a woman whose devotion to, and love for, Jonathan Pollard became a symbol of strength, determination and faith,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement.