Middle East


The Vanunu Opera

Mordechai Vanunu's business card

Mordechai Vanunu's business card.

If East Jerusalem had an unofficial mayor, it would be nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.

When the church bell rings at noon at the Anglican Cathedral of St. George’s in East Jerusalem, not far from the Damascus Gate in the Old City, chances are it’s Mordechai Vanunu ringing the bell. From that vantage point, he looks down on the Jerusalem courthouse where he was originally sentenced to eighteen years in prison for divulging Israel’s nuclear secrets.

The card he handed me a few weeks ago says “Kidnapped in Rome 30-9-86.” Beside his name is the famous photo of his hand — taken from the back of the police van when he was kidnapped.

Since Vanunu is not allowed to leave Israel, the Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem has given him sanctuary at St. George’s Cathedral.

He can often be found wandering down Nablus Road with groceries in his hand.

"I want to be a free person, and have a free life. I want to get out of Israel and live near a university. I want to experience the new reality of freedom - eating in restaurants, meeting people, having human contact and being among human beings," he says. "I was treated like this because I am a Christian."

Here at the American Colony Hotel across from the bookshop and sometimes at the Jerusalem Hotel, nuclear whistleblower and international celebrity, Vanunu can often be found drinking a Taybeh beer talking with friends and others who will listen. After spending 11 1/2 years of his 18 years in solitary confinement no one can blame him for wanting to be social.

His life story reads like an opera.

Mordechai Vanunu was born in Marrakesh, Morocco into a large Jewish family, which immigrated to Israel in 1963 when he was nine years old. He served in the Israeli military and became a sergeant before being given an honorable discharge. After a year of university, he became a nuclear technician at the Dimona nuclear “research center” in Israel’s Negev desert in 1976.

Vanunu began studying philosophy and geography at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva while continuing his work at the nuclear reactor. He began to get more politically involved and together with Jewish and Arab students formed a group called Campus. The authorities began to take notice of him for his ties to various organizations including the Movement for the Advancement of Peace. He was publicly supportive of an independent Palestinian state and for equal rights between Jews and Palestinians.

Even while he was working at the Dimona plant he was taken to Tel Aviv and interrogated by the Shin Bet about his political activities and his sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

As the years went by he grew increasingly troubled by the fact that the Dimona facility harbored an underground plutonium separation plant operated in complete secrecy. He began to realize his work was part of Israel’s nuclear bomb program and before leaving Dimona in 1985 began taking extensive photographs inside the factory. At that time he had made no decision about what to do with the close to 60 photographs he had in his possession.

Traveling between Haifa and Athens on a cruise ship, he met a Canadian writer who encouraged him to go public with his story.  But he was still confused as to what to do. 

Traveling through Asia, Canada and the U.S. with the film in his backpack, Vanunu made his way to Sydney, Australia, where he found solace in the company of the St. John’s Angelican Church community. He converted to Christianity in Sydney and was baptized in July 1986. His conversion estranged Vanunu from much of his family. Happy to leave his nuclear experiences behind him, he became a cab driver and was very involved in church activities, including discussions on peace and nuclear proliferation.

While in Australia, Vanunu met a Colombian freelance journalist working at the church named Oscar Guerrero and shared his story about his thoughts and evidence on Israel’s nuclear plans. Guerrero encouraged Vanunu to go public with his story.

After unsuccessfully courting the Australian press, Guerrero flew to Europe hoping to sell the story. A British newspaper, the London Sunday Times in England appointed investigative journalist Peter Hounam to the story. Hounam flew to Sydney and met with Vanunu to assess the credibility of his claims.

At some point, Vanunu had a falling out with Guerrero and met in London with Hounam and other nuclear scientists in the peace movement. (Hounam, incidentally, was thrown into an Israeli jail for 24 hours and deported a few months ago after arranging a story between Vanunu and the BBC.)

The London Sunday Times delayed publishing the story and Robert Maxwell's Daily Mirror wrote a scathing article calling Vanunu a hoaxer. Unbeknownst to Vanunu, an editor passed on the pictures to the Israeli Embassy in London to get an official confirmation. By this point, Vanunu was under Israeli surveillance in London.

In September 1986, Vanunu met "Cindy", a Mossad agent who he thought was an American tourist, who lured him to Rome. At the Rome airport they were met by a man “Cindy” called a friend and taken to an apartment where he was attacked and drugged. Though there were points of consciousness, Vanunu says that he didn't have full cognitive ability during the ordeal.

Shocked and traumatized, Vanunu regained consciousness briefly in the car where he tried to attack the driver but his kidnappers again overtook him. He was taken to a beach where he was delivered by commando motorboat to a yacht on an abandoned beach and taken to Israel. He was handcuffed to his bed and sick for much of the two week trip - he still thinks that the British, French and American secret service were involved in his kidnapping.

While at sea, the article about the Dimona nuclear plant was published in the London Sunday Times on October 10th, 1986. Nobody knew where Vanunu was.

He arrived in Israel along the coastline and to this day still doesn't know where he sailed in. He was taken to Mossad headquarters and interrogated and put into prison. He was unable to make phone calls or talk to the press. A few weeks later he was allowed to have a lawyer and phone family members. Israel finally admitted to having him in custody in November of 1986.

When Vanunu talks about his treatment by the Israeli press at the time, he gets noticeably livid. He feels he was unfairly vilified in Israel during his trial in 1987. He was convicted to 18 years for treason and espionage at a closed trial.

For the first two years of his sentence, his light was kept on all the time and he was later put under video surveillance. He was belittled by guards and regards his early years there as nothing short of psychological torture. He had several episodes of depression during his first five years in prison.

After 11 1/2 years of solitary confinement, he was allowed to mix with other prisoners but was treated similar to a Palestinian prisoner without the same rights or privileges as other Jewish prisoners. He was segregated from other prisoners for the last six years of his sentence.

"They keep your light on, have a camera in the cell — they control when you get your food, when you can see your visitors, when you get water and when you can see your mail," says Vanunu.

Mordechai Vanunu, after 18 years in prison is still not a free man. The current conditions of his release forbid him to approach foreign embassies, speak with foreigners, give public talks or have a passport. His phone calls and movements are being monitored by the Shin Bet Security Service. He has to give Israeli authorities 24 hours notice before leaving East Jerusalem in order to get security for himself (he has been the subject of numerous death threats since his release).

He now says, "They didn't succeed in breaking me."

Vanunu still has strong opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and still supports equal rights between Jews and Palestinians. He says that the Muslim fundamentalists are playing into the hands of the Israeli right and that the situation is getting worse. He wants to move to the United States, another English speaking country, or his birthplace of Morocco.

With the U.S. and Britain having recently waged a war in Iraq built on a case against nuclear proliferation, Vanunu's release highlights the nuclear debate in the Middle East — the U.S. will actively support its allies in obtaining nuclear weapons, but will go to war with nations that don't fall under the American sphere of influence. As U.S. and Iranian interests clash in the coming years over nuclear weapons, this divide will continue to be highlighted.

The 49-year-old Vanunu, after 18 years of prison has lost little of his combativeness and his commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. His battles with the state are far from over given the present conditions of his release, but he is committed to achieving his freedom.

The Mordechai Vanunu opera is far from over.