National Jewish Theater

Some dared call it treason. For Jonathan Jay Pollard, it was one way to deal with the anti-Semitism he had experienced in the Navy. For 17 months–before he was caught, on November 21, 1985–this naval intelligence analyst was a spy for a small Israeli intelligence operation in Washington, D.C., to which he gave thousands of pages of classified documents.

The ardent Zionist offered a strange defense: the United States had failed to share with its ally crucial information such as defense technology and secret intelligence on the arming of Arab lands on Israel’s borders. Pollard argued that “assisting the Israelis did not involve or require betraying the United States”; he only wanted to provide “information on the Arab powers and the Soviets that would avoid a repetition of the Yom Kippur War.”

The American court rejected this appeal: even when it was done for a close ally, spying was criminal. In March 1987, the 32-year-old Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment; he’s now in the maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois. Pollard’s 26-year-old wife recently completed a sentence for assisting the espionage; he’d pleaded for mercy for her, saying he had “sacrificed her . . . on the altar of ideology.”

Ideology is very much on trial in Gordon Rayfield’s Bitter Friends, a taut, troubling 80-minute political drama at the National Jewish Theater. Appropriately, for a play that explores its protagonist’s divided loyalties, the backdrop is a map of the world rent in two; in the middle hangs the seal of Israel–onto which the U.S. seal is later projected.

Rayfield depicts Pollard–here called David Klein–as a confused but implacable idealist. His father, a gunrunning hero during Israel’s birth struggle, had filled him with stories of courage and sacrifice. (Later, like a hurt little boy, he bellows, “I was always told to put the Jewish people above myself!”) Klein imagines himself a modern Maccabaeus ready to sacrifice all to protect his motherland. Still, he’s always aware of how his actions will play with the friends of Israel. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, for instance, he refuses to admit he was recruited by Israeli agents. He may go on trial–but Israel never will.

According to Rayfield, that’s just how Israel wanted it. The Israelis violated a plea-bargaining agreement in which Pollard would have received a 15-year sentence and served only 2 years: Israel was supposed to produce “Ephraim,” Pollard’s contact at the Israeli embassy, and never did. (His real name was Irit Erb, a secretary who copied the documents and passed them to Israeli intelligence services; the information allowed Israeli planes to circumvent radar detection when they bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunisia in October 1985.)

Erb and Pollard’s two other contacts quietly left the United States, and Israeli leaders denied any knowledge of the operation, calling all three a “rogue” spy team. The play’s bitterest irony is that the imperative of Israeli security–the good for which Pollard risked everything–provided Israel with the perfect excuse to deny responsibility for its hired spy. (Adding to the indignity of a close ally spying on the United States is the recent disclosure that the Mossad, Israel’s CIA, kept vital information from U.S. intelligence, including knowledge of an imminent attack on the American barracks in Lebanon; and on October 23, 1983, 241 marines and sailors died in their sleep.)

Because Israel insisted that it would not “submit to blackmail” and because American Jews did not rise up in outrage to defend Pollard, the ex-spy is left out in the cold –and gets the maximum sentence. By the end of the play, David Klein is indeed a man without a country, his idealism ruthlessly exploited, then discarded by the nation he served so much better than his own. Despite pleas to Klein from a rabbi (a family friend who narrates the action) and his wife, Helen, Klein pursues his martyrdom to its ugly end.

The rabbi points the lesson: like the argumentative Moses, Jews should not be afraid to ask questions; Abraham’s unquestioning willingness to kill his son for his god is no goal for a free citizen. As the rabbi sees it, Klein was “wrong to sacrifice his life for politics,” especially when “today a hero has to defend his life against the state.”

In the inflexibly passionate Klein Rayfield sees a man closer to a hero than to a fanatic or soldier of fortune. To do so, he’s had to simplify the story. Though Rayfield acknowledges that Pollard was recruited, he omits the fact that he spied for profit–$10,000 plus a salary of $1,500 a month, which was later increased to $2,500. In the spring of 1985, Pollard and his wife also received a free vacation in Israel. This is a far cry from Klein’s Spartan idealism–he is not paid; he acts because he loves Israel, and for the same reasons he loves the democracy he betrays.

But what makes a gadfly play like Bitter Friends useful and even a tad dangerous is the questions it stirs up, not the liberties Rayfield takes with the facts.

Certainly he respects the feelings of Klein’s victims. Rayfield’s pathetic, caught-in-the-crossfire “hero” may be a lonely, self-appointed savior who struggles to escape the corruption of both countries–but his impure sacrifice takes its human toll. You see it in the fury of Klein’s mother when she learns that her son lied to her about not having been recruited, in Helen’s struggles to keep her marriage from becoming one more casualty of Klein’s martyrdom, and in the rabbi’s desperate efforts to make sense of it.

The pell-mell action in Terry McCabe’s crisp, conscientious staging is so urgent that the actors, rather than lose momentum, speak their lines in the dark while the props are being changed. The impassioned performances generate their own heat. Best of all, McCabe keeps the story as open-ended as possible, refusing to force the onstage life into polemics.

The play’s embattled “hero” is the best illustration of McCabe’s refusal to pigeonhole. Brian Shaw offers us a coldly resolute David Klein in the midst of a personal maelstrom–a zombielike zealot or an incorruptible freedom fighter, depending on how you want to see him. Victoria Zielinski’s frightened Helen returns us to humanity, hitting home the agonized discovery that her husband’s dual loyalties don’t include her at all. (Even the compassionate divorce he offers her feels otherworldly.) As David’s tormented mother, Pauline Brailsford pulls off a similar inspired writhing.

Gary Houston plays the Israeli ambassador with unctuous ardor, emphasizing the official persona at first in order to strip it later: he delivers a grand tirade in which he reviles the rabbi for supporting Israel only when it’s successful (that is, when it pleases the goyim). Richard Burton Brown is poignant as a hapless congressman who runs into a brick wall when he argues with an arrogantly anti-Semitic federal prosecutor, played by Mike McKuen with imperious efficiency.

Holding the tale together is Bernard Beck’s aphoristic, folksily charismatic rabbi. Beck takes a potentially cloying role and, in contrast to Klein’s rigidity, warms it enough to make the good man’s lectures seem to flow from deep within.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.