The Vanunu Campaign and Its Lessons

In November 1992 I traveled from the UK to the US, to join Sam Day Jr. for a speaking tour on behalf of the Vanunu campaign. By that time Mordechai Vanunu had been imprisoned for five years, held in a small cell in total isolation. Our tour began in Madison, Wisconsin – Sam Day’s home town – and proceeded to Chicago, Boston, Urbana-Champaign, Philadelphia, New Haven. and New York. Mostly we spoke to campus audiences, though here and there we joined other gatherings, such as the Middle East Justice Network that was meeting in Boston.

It was on this tour that I discovered the strength and depth of the Jewish adherence to the State of Israel and its policies – an adherence that often overrode convictions about nuclear armament, international peace, and human rights. We met senior Jewish academics whose names were associated with opposition to the war in Vietnam and to US intervention in Latin America, and even appeared among opponents of nuclear weapons – but who took a very different line when it came to Israel’s nuclear arsenal and to Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who revealed the truth about it.

This was not long after the first war launched by the United States against Iraq, in the course of which Iraqi Scud missiles had fallen on Israel. This was repeatedly mentioned as proof that the enmity of the Arab countries towards Israel remained as strong as ever and that the Jewish state was fighting for its survival. Ergo, Israel needed these fearsome doomsday weapons for self-defense.

After a while I shifted the emphasis of my statements from anti-nuke to pro-whistle blowing. I pointed out that American, British, French, Chinese, and Russian citizens knew what they had by way of nuclear weapons, and even knew where they were stored. Israelis, on the other hand, were kept in the dark. The case of Vanunu, I pointed out, linked two issues which are universally regarded as everybody’s business and that no government can hide under the pretext of internal affairs – namely, weapons of mass destruction (chiefly nukes) and human rights. Here, too, the subtle difference between Jewish and non-Jewish members of the audience quickly came to the fore. Weapons of mass destruction and human rights concerned everybody – yes, but not in relation to Israel. (There are, of course, individual exceptions to the rule – notably Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky.)

Years passed. Mordechai Vanunu languished in prison. The campaign to free him had been launched in London by his brother Meir, working from the attic of Akiva Orr’s house. Before long such persons as Bruce Kent (the founder of CND), Peter Benenson (founder of Amnesty International), Ben Birnberg (the well-known human rights lawyer), playwright Harold Pinter, actress Julie Christie, psychiatrist Andrew Wilski, and others joined the campaign and formed the Vanunu Trust.

The European Parliament adopted several resolutions calling on Israel to free Vanunu. In the US, Sam Day – formerly editor of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The Progressive – gathered supporters among the Nuke-Resisters, the Catholic Worker activists, and others. The Norwegian Peace Bureau, led by attorney Fredrik Heffermehl, repeatedly proposed Vanunu for the Nobel Peace prize, as did Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference (themselves Nobel laureates). Mordechai Vanunu received the Right Livelihood Award (a.k.a. the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize), which was followed by other peace and freedom prizes. The Sunday Times continued to support the man who had enabled it to publish the first authoritative report on Dimona and Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But most of the attention was in Europe and the European media and institutions. In the US the mainstream media continued to ignore – or marginalize – Vanunu and the subject of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The most prominent American to express strong support for Vanunu was, and remains, Daniel Ellsberg, whose disclosure of the so-called Pentagon Papers had hastened the end of the Vietnam War.

In Israel, however, the case of Vanunu remained marginalized. Only in recent years, as the subject grew more pressing – because of the focus on the Middle East in connection with WMDs, and Mordechai’s approaching release – did the media begin to turn its attention to Israel’s “Man in the iron mask.” It was noticeable that each time something positive happened, e.g., Vanunu’s renewed nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, his honorary doctorate from Tromso University (Norway), something nasty was sure to crop up in the tabloids. Once Yediot Ahronot published on its front page a story by Ron Ben-Yishai, according to which Mordechai Vanunu was caught passing the Arab prisoners at Shikmah prison notes with instructions on how to make bombs…. The libel suit against both the newspaper and the journalist is still pending.

The Long Ordeal Draws to a Close

Recently the same newspaper published new “revelations” by a former convict, who said that Vanunu celebrates each time a suicide bomb goes off in Israel, and that he wishes an atom bomb would fall on that country. This is the worst kind of incitement – the families of the victims of these terror attacks, hearing that Vanunu was rejoicing in their tragedy, would no doubt hate his guts, and the forces of darkness in this country probably hope that one of the bereaved, or a sympathizer, would do a Jack Ruby. Indeed, one correspondent wrote in Maariv’s website that he would like precisely this role. A vicious campaign, led by some of the better-known Israeli columnists and broadcasters (e.g. Dan Margalit and Eitan Haber) literally bayed for Mordechai’s blood.

Out of Prison – Not Yet Free

It was against this background that the moment came and Mordechai Vanunu, flanked by his two loyal and devoted brothers, Meir and Asher, emerged through the prison gate into the spring sunshine. He raised his hands in the air with the V sign, and told the world he was the same man who had been captured and imprisoned in 1986, and that he was proud and happy with what he had done.

The crowd outside was a seething mass of friends and supporters, bearing posters thanking Mordechai Vanunu and throwing flowers at him and at the car that took him away – and an ugly crowd of furious, raging men (and a few women), who shouted curses and imprecations, called for Vanunu’s blood, and burned posters bearing his portrait.

Vanunu is out of prison, but he is not yet free. A vindictive state refuses to let its victim go. The restrictions imposed on him – derived from emergency regulations dating from the British Mandatory Government in 1945 – are now being challenged before the High Court of Justice, and we shall see if they stand. Don’t hold your breath – the High Court of Justice generally accedes to the demands of the so-called security services. But perhaps it will surprise us this time.

On Wednesday, April 21, in the evening, we supporters of Mordechai Vanunu finally met the man we had campaigned for all these years. Meeting Mordechai, I was struck with amazement by his calm, dignified, yet warm manner with the crowd of supporters who met him at the Anglican Church hostel in Jerusalem. He hugged and kissed each and every one of us, remembered each of us personally from correspondence and his brothers’ reports. We were all moved to tears and quite overwhelmed with joy.

Later I read some of the vile and vicious stories in the Hebrew press, and saw that Maariv, in its website, asked the readers what they thought should be “done about Vanunu.” One of the options offered was: Kill him.

It was then that the thought came to me how much like the Cosa Nostra Israel had become. The Sicilian mafia was – like Israel and its Jewish Amen corner in the West – a closed tribal organization. Its members were subject to the rule of Omerta – silence or death. Any of its members who dared to go outside the tribe and cooperate with the rest of the world were condemned to death. And the State of Israel has been using the same tactics – assassination is government policy. (When it rebounded on our heads with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin people were shocked, but they should not have been surprised. Rabin’s assassin only applied to the hated PM, who was planning to cede some of the Occupied Territories to the Palestinians, the policy the Israeli government had legitimized for years.)

So Mordechai Vanunu needs to be protected from the bloodthirsty, brainwashed goons who will seize any opportunity to “eliminate” him, with the same lack of scruple and righteous conviction that animates Israelis when they murder Palestinian “militants.”

You who read this, give some thought to the subject, and if you have a way of protesting, do so, and make sure you are heard. Do it for Mordechai, do it for a safer Middle East, and do it also for the memory of Sam Day, who did not live to see this day.

The above piece was written for News from Within.