|Andre Ware, left, plays the Navy boss of Jonathan Pollard, played by Ben Mehl.|
“I am one of a kind and you need me,” Jay Pollard announces to his Navy intelligence superior in the off-off-Broadway play “The Law of Return.”
He describes his Navy mission as the obligation “to save lives for a safe home.” But which lives and what home? Playwright Martin Blank does not present any clear-cut answers in this crisply written and directed play (Fourth Street Theatre in the East Village) about the notorious American spy who still is serving a 30-year sentence for espionage on behalf of Israel.
Was Pollard a traitor to the country of his birth and to the nation that entrusted him with its secrets when he passed information to one of its closest allies? Was he a righteous Jew who did everything necessary to protect the Jewish homeland, a country where he finally felt at home? Was he a naive weirdo who imagined that as the smartest guy in the room he would never get played by opposing security services?
Jonathan Jay Pollard pleaded guilty in 1987 of passing classified intelligence to Israel while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he is eligible for parole after 30 years and may be released next year. His ex-wife Anne was convicted and sentenced to five years; she served more than three and then emigrated to Israel. Jay and Anne Pollard subsequently divorced and Mr. Pollard now is married to Esther Zeitz.
Ben Mehl captures Pollard’s narcissism and arrogance as well as his deep insecurity in a twitchy, intense performance, from the opening moments when Pollard visualizes himself as Tony Manero from “Saturday Night Fever” to his desperate attempts to protect himself and Anne when the FBI finally closes in on him. Veteran actor Joel Rooks is just as effective in his seasoned portrayal of Israeli spy Rafi Eitan, who convinces Pollard to cross the line and give up information about U.S. ship positions, and Andre Ware brings dignity and charm to the role of Steve Harris, Pollard’s Navy boss, who waffles between affection and exasperation with his odd-duck analyst.
The Pollard case is a quintessential example of the special divided-loyalty burden Jews have borne since the emancipation and especially since 1948. Can Jews be loyal subjects of their countries while still fully committed to the survival and safety of Israel? Blank examines that conundrum, but adds the possibility that Pollard was driven as much by his own psychological needs to be important, to be admired, to be noticed, as by ideology.
The Pollard we meet in “The Law of Return” is an egotistic naif, a man so convinced of his own superiority that he cannot imagine that either the United States or Israel is manipulating him for their own interests. And then there is Anne, the woman whom Pollard seems desperate to please at any cost, a character we never see. We only hear Pollard addressing her, against the sound of running water.
Blank did not include in his play the most damning evidence against Pollard – that he attempted to pass secret documents to a variety of other countries, including Pakistan and South Africa; that he accepted large sums of money for the documents; that he was driven by a constant need for cash rather than Zionist idealism. Instead, he focuses on Pollard’s deep suspicions about the world’s malign intentions toward the Jews and Israel and his palpable excitement at the prospect of espionage. These indeed may be the defining characteristics of spies. You have to love the game to play it. But how well did Pollard play it? He downloaded so many files that he attracted suspicion, and he seemed to have no understanding of human nature, surely a requisite of a successful spy.
We recently have seen young Americans lionized for fighting and tragically falling in Israel’s latest war in Gaza. The American Jewish community seems united in viewing them as heroes. If they tried to help Israel win by selling military secrets, would they still be heroes? A finalist in the 2013 Jewish Plays Project, “The Law of Return” has received productions in Frederick, Maryland, and Jerusalem, and this New York production poses that question in a lively and lucid way.