Few people in the United States know the name Mordechai Vanunu. Nineteen years ago, working as a scientist in the then secret Israeli nuclear weapons program at its Dimona facility in the Negev, a desert region in southern Israel, Mordechai Vanunu, in a brave act of conscience, revealed the existence of this program to the rest of the world.
For this service to humanity, Vanunu, who traveled to London to give his story to the Sunday Times, was eventually drugged and kidnapped in Rome by agents of Mossad—Israel's equivalent of the CIA—taken back to Israel and imprisoned for 18 years, 11 of those in solitary confinement. Released from prison earlier this year, Vanunu remains under tight Israeli control, unable to leave the country and forbidden to speak with foreigners. He stays in East Jerusalem in a guest house at St. George's Cathedral, spending his days reading, answering e-mails, walking around East Jerusalem and the Old City and, in open defiance of his captors, talking to as many foreigners as he can.
I had the honor of meeting Vanunu during a recent two-week stay in the West Bank town of Anata, just northeast of Jerusalem. A group of international volunteers for ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), we were rebuilding a Palestinian home recently demolished by Israeli occupying forces.
In addition to helping rebuild a home, we toured much of the country and met many front-line activists in what was essentially a 14-day intensive seminar on the Palestinian/Israeli situation. The meeting with Vanunu, not part of the scheduled activities, arose unexpectedly and we altered our plans in order to see him. It's not every day one gets to meet a genuine hero, though all Palestinians and Israelis working to bridge the chasm that divides their unhappy society are heroes in their own right.
As one might expect of someone who has lost nearly half his life to imprisonment, Mordechai Vanunu is a serious, even somber, man. It is clear, sitting before him, that one is not in the presence of an ordinary man. We asked many questions and he answered them patiently and in detail, his English more than passable, his voice deep and confident. Relationships with foreigners, are, for Vanunu, a lifeline to freedom and he cultivates them carefully.
When asked how he found the strength to survive his ordeal, Vanunu, who converted to Christianity years ago, revealed his adamantine will and unshakable moral conviction. He knew he was right, he said, and that his jailers were wrong. He refused to be broken, locked in a grim pas de deux with authorities, countering each psychological move with one of his own. When told that he couldn't speak with anyone, for example, he read aloud from the New Testament. He exercised, read, corresponded with friends and supporters (everything of course passing through censors) and listened to music. The goal of his keepers, Vanunu said, was to bend him to their will, hoping that he would emerge from captivity a shattered, repentant man. If this was indeed their purpose, it failed. Vanunu has proved himself tougher and smarter than they.
Vanunu's battle, however, is far from over. Insisting that he possess other "secrets" from their nuclear weapons program, Israel continues to make life difficult for him. Indeed, at 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, 30 armed Israeli police stormed the cathedral compound, supposedly a sanctuary, and re-arrested Vanunu, terrifying everyone in the process and confiscating his cell phones and laptops. The police claimed he was passing classified information to unauthorized parties and violating the terms of his release. He was subsequently released back to house arrest. It is difficult to understand how anything he learned 19 years ago has any relevance today, though he willingly states the obvious that given the enormous advances in technology, Israel's present nuclear arsenal, which 20 years ago was estimated as upwards of 200 warheads, can only be substantially greater and more lethal. Absurdly, Israel, which initially acquired its nuclear technology from the French, still refuses to acknowledge its nuclear capabilities.
On Sept. 23, Mordechai Vanunu, along with journalist Seymour Hersh, was presented with the Yoko Ono Peace Award. Daniel Ellsberg, author of the book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and The Pentagon Papers, said, "The only secret Mordechai Vanunu has left to tell the world is the one he revealed on the day of his release from 18 years in prison, April 21, 2004: ’I am a symbol of the will of freedom, that the human spirit is free. You cannot destroy the human spirit.' That is indeed the most dangerous secret in the eyes not only of Israel but of every state that withholds vital information from its own citizens, including the U.S. and England. Israel should let the foremost prophet of the nuclear age go forth to be honored throughout the world—and we call on them to do so—but even if it returns him instead to his 6-by-9 foot cell, Mordechai Vanunu will remain the most free man on earth."
Concerned voices from around the world can help this courageous spokesman for nuclear sanity. Many U.S. legislators are aware of Vanunu's case and if contacted by enough constituents might be emboldened to act on his behalf. Mordechai Vanunu has voiced a desire to live in the United States or Europe. How appropriate if antinuclear activists in New Mexico, the birthplace of this atomic madness, initiate a campaign to bring this remarkable man here as our proudly adopted son.
Ward is an Albuquerque peace activist. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.