The Wives Take the Heat

Ethel Rosenberg and Anne Pollard

There are parallels between the recent Pollard spy case and the Rosenberg espionage case of the 1950’s that should not be overlooked. Guilt or innocence aside, the fact remains that both cases involved young Jewish couples acting from ideological motivation. And, in both cases, it seems evident that the United States government used the female partners, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and Anne Louise Henderson, as pawns to wring further confessions from their husbands.

The cases of Anne and her husband Jonathan Pollard involve the passing of classified and confidential United States military information to agents of the Israeli government. The Rosenbergs were convicted in 1952 of divulging to the Russians secrets of the atomic bomb, and were subsequently executed for what J. Edgar Hoover termed “the crime of the century.”

However dissimilar the cases may be, both raise issues that should concern Jews and non-Jews alike. Basic personal freedoms may have been violated, the right to a fair trial may have been sabotaged, the safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment may have been subverted. Now it’s time to look systematically at other parallels between the Rosenberg and Pollard spy cases, especially at the way the U.S. government appears not just to have prosecuted the women for actual criminal conduct, but to have persecuted them in their role as wives.

Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915-1953) was born into poverty and remained there her entire life. Her parents were immigrants eking out a living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her father repaired sewing machines in the basement of the family’s tenement. Her mother, a religious woman who was reportedly cold and domineering, alienated Ethel early on with doctrinaire attitudes about work and responsibility. Ethel wanted to be a singer and actress; she hoped that performing would be her ticket out of the ghetto.

However, while struggling to make a living after high school graduation, Ethel became obsessed with the inequities of capitalism. By the time she met Julius Rosenberg, a like-minded neighbor studying to be an engineer, she had become a union organizer.

Born in 1960 to an affluent family in White Meadow Lake, New Jersey, Anne Henderson Pollard has a background vastly different from that of Ethel Rosenberg. Henderson’s father, who is not Jewish, is a public relations executive. Her mother, from a family of mostly Conservative and Orthodox Jews, raised the children Jewish.

When Anne was 19 her parents divorced and she moved to Washington, D.C. to live with her father. She began her public relations career with a job at the American Rifle Association. Evenings, she attended the University of Maryland. Meeting Jonathan Pollard in 1981, she found herself attracted both to his intellect and to his commitment to Judaism and Zionism. They married in 1985.

On November 21, 1985, Jonathan Jay Pollard, then age 32, was arrested by FBI agents outside the grounds of the Israel Embassy in Washington , D. C., after he and Anne, seeking asylum there, were turned away by Embassy staff. Pollard was charged with giving Israel information that had been classified secret by the United States government.

The next day, after visiting her husband in the D.C. jail, 25-year-old Anne was also arrested. She spent 95 days in pre-trial detention before being released with severe gastrointestinal and biliary disorders — conditions that have continued to debilitate her throughout her subsequent and current imprisonment.

A grand jury indicted Jonathan on the offense of spying for a friendly nation, but did not indict Anne, finding no evidence that she had been part of the espionage operation. Nevertheless, in exchange for a promise of leniency for Jonathan — a promise that the government later reneged on — both Pollards admitted guilt as part of a plea-bargain agreement with federal prosecutors.

Sixteen months later, Judge Aubrey Robinson III found Jonathan guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Anne was given two concurrent five-year prison terms for “conspiring to receive” and “possessing” classified documents.

In the 1952 case of United States vs. Rosenbergs, Julius, 33, and Ethel Rosenberg, 36, were charged as participants in an espionage ring whose purpose was to obtain national defense information for the benefit of the Soviet Union. Specifically, they were accused of stealing, through Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, blueprints for the devastating new atomic weapon that “might well hold the key to the survival of this nation…” according to Irving Saypol, the prosecutor in the case.

The Pollard and Greenglass families reacted very differently to Anne and Ethel’s respective trials. In Anne’s case, her family closed ranks to support her, rallying active sympathy for her from all across the United States. When Ethel Rosenberg came to trial, however, her family recoiled from her, withdrawing their support and hoping to pressure her into a confession of guilt that would speed the process of trial and plea bargaining.

Unlike Jonathan and Anne Pollard who admitted their guilt, the Rosenbergs, to their deaths, steadfastly proclaimed their innocence. There is still much public expression of doubt as to their guilt, based on skepticism that a trial with such wide political implications conducted at the height of McCarthyism and the Cold War could possibly be fair. David M. Oshinsky, author of a major work on McCarthy, says, “Ethel could have taken the heat off herself by admitting guilt. She had a way out. I think the Pollard/Rosenberg comparison is a good one.”

Perhaps the prevailing political mood is what most significantly separates the two cases. “The climate of the times then as compared to now is vastly different^’ says Edith Tiger, director of the Emergencies Civil Liberties Committee, an organization dedicated to defending the Bill of Rights against infringement. “There was an anti-Communist hysteria in the land when the Rosenbergs were arrested. Russia had just begun the Korean conflict, and Americans thought it meant the start of World War III.”

Tiger says the atmosphere surrounding the Pollard affair was not the same, that in 1987 the nation was not on a Communist witch hunt reminiscent of 1952, and that the plight of the Pollards has not engendered mass outrage. “The Pollard case hasn’t become a worldwide cause in the way the Rosenberg case did” she says.

On the other hand, the fact that both the Pollards and the Rosenbergs were idealistically motivated (Zionism and Israel’s security are central themes in the Pollards’ lives; Communism was viewed by the Rosenbergs as the great equalizer) seems to link the two cases. But, as Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer for the Pollards, points out, “Russia, the enemy, was not entitled by treaty to that information, which was information that would have directly harmed the United States. Pollard’s information couldn’t have harmed this country, as Jonathan knew, and wasn’t intended to harm it. His information was material that Israel, at that point, didn’t have but should have had, by U.S./Israel treaty agreement,” he says.

However, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told the judge that he wanted to “dispel any presumption that disclosures to an ally are insignificant.” According to allegations made by Pollard family members, Weinberger, who is known for his pro-Arab stance, wanted, through the Pollards’ severe sentencing, to drive home a point. “Weinberger said very specifically that he wished to send a message to Israel and to Jews in America,” Anne’s father, Bernard Henderson, says.

Anne, who was found guilty of two relatively minor offenses, was handed a surprisingly harsh sentence. “She is being held under very unusual conditions that apply to her and to nobody else in the prison system” Bernard Henderson says.

“They want Jonathan to name names, to implicate others” Henderson says, “and they think by making Anne suffer, her husband will come around.” According to journalists who met with Anne during a recent furlough in New York, reports of her physical weakness are accurate.

“Like Ethel, Anne’s role in her husband’s espionage activities was peripheral” Dershowitz says. “In the Rosenberg case, Ethel, who supposedly knew of Julius’ spy work and typed some of his papers, was given an outrageous sentence. She should have gotten a year, maybe five years at most. But they sacrificed her. They tried to use her in the same way they’re using Anne. Basically the government murdered Ethel in order to try and get Julius to confess.”

Evidence of the lever strategy in the Rosenberg case has been documented. No such documentation has been found in the Pollard case. Still, according to Henderson, Jonathan’s captors continue to remind him of his wife’s deteriorating medical condition, in the hope that her proper treatment and care can be bartered for his “complete confession.”

The question the public should be asking now is not merely “Is Anne Pollard guilty?” but “What is the extent of Anne Pollard’s guilt?” Even if guilty, does Anne Pollard’s punishment fit her admitted crime? Should she continue to be jailed, in view of her deteriorating physical condition and her peripheral role in the case, or is the U.S. government guilty of double jeopardy, jailing her not only for her admitted crime, but also for being a devoted wife?

June Barsky is a freelance writer based in Teaneck, New Jersey.