Few people in the US know the name Mordechai Vanunu. 19 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 on April 21st of 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 emails, walking around East Jerusalem and the Old City and, in open defiance of his captors, talking to as many foreigners as he can.
We 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 internationals volunteering for ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), we were rebuilding a Palestinian home recently demolished by Israeli occupying forces. In that area alone 20 houses have been demolished in the last few years. 200 more are slated for destruction.
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, subject to constant and extreme psychological manipulation, including 11 years in solitary confinement, Mordechai Vanunu is a serious, even somber, man. He is also, somewhat surprisingly, tanned and strikingly fit, his compact body and strong North African features (he is originally from Morocco) exuding an imposing inner strength and integrity. 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 internationals, 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 Mordechai Vanunu. 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.
The Israeli Supreme court will rule on aspects of Vanunu's status on October 21st of this year. He is not allowed to leave the country, a thing he ardently wishes to do, until April 21, 2005, and is forbidden to visit any foreign embassies for fear he might seek asylum. It is uncertain what the court will do. Concerned voices from around the world can help this courageous spokesman for nuclear sanity. An encouraging development is a recent statement by vice presidential candidate John Edwards who said that a Kerry Administration would offer asylum to scientists who expose their countries' illegal weapons programs, precisely what Mordechai Vanunu did 19 years ago.Many legislators are presumably 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 anti-nuclear activists in New Mexico, the birthplace of this atomic madness, initiate a campaign to bring this remarkable man here as our proudly adopted son.
Mordechai Vanunu, along with journalist Seymour Hersh, recently received the Yoko Ono Peace award.