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Act of conscience

This article is an excerpted version of Gideon Spiro’s contribution to the book Vanunu and the Bomb, published recently in Israel (in Hebrew). Spiro is an Israeli journalist and peace activist.


It is impossible to speak of the prisoner of conscience Mordechai Vanunu without speaking of Israel’s recent history and the ideas that guided his action.

On Dec. 20, 1960, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion announced to the Knesset that Israel was building an atomic reactor in the Negev. He denied that nuclear bombs could be produced at this reactor and claimed that it was for research purposes only. Ben Gurion said: “This research reactor, which we are now building in the Negev, will not be finished for three or four years, and it would be redundant to emphasize that it is intended only for peaceful purposes. It is being built under the supervision of Israeli experts, and when it is finished, it will be open to researchers from other countries” (the Israeli paper Maariv, Dec. 21, 1960).

Even then, everyone knew that Ben Gurion was lying and that the reactor was designed for military purposes. In the same issue of Maariv in which the initial report appeared, Israeli atomic scientists were quoted as saying that “in three or four years Israel would be in a position to join the atomic club, whose members are limited at the moment to the four big powers.”

In 1960, even the United States had apprehensions about Israel’s intentions with regard to the reactor at Dimona. Today we know that the Americans did not try hard enough to stop the building of the reactor and failed in their attempt to prevent the development of an Israeli atomic bomb. Over the years, the United States reconciled itself, even if not formally, to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.

Israel’s entry into the age of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, but also biological and chemical) did not come to pass after a public and parliamentary debate, but was rather the result of a decision made by a tiny group of political and security leaders numbering no more than 10 to 20 persons. From this perspective, there was no difference between the decision-making process in Israel and that, for example, of Iraq under Saddam Hussein on the same subject. In the debate now taking place in Israel with regard to the “danger of Iranian and Iraqi” nuclear weapons, one “marginal and petty” point has been utterly ignored: It was neither Iran nor Iraq that introduced the nuclear arms race to our region.

The Israeli government has suggested that Dimona is necessary to defend Jews from another Holocaust. There is nothing like the Holocaust to mobilize the emotional support of Jews. And there is no better means than the Holocaust to neutralize the Christian countries, which indeed have reservations about Israel’s nuclear weapons but find it difficult to voice them forcefully.

The brainwashing around the slogan of “not allowing another Auschwitz here” has in fact silenced any real opposition to the Dimona reactor, and no one has asked in astonishment: “Wait a minute, how do you intend to prevent a second Auschwitz by enwrapping us in the danger of the outbreak of a nuclear Auschwitz?” And one must not forget that Israel also helped the apartheid regime in South Africa to develop atomic bombs.

Inside Israel, the policy of nuclear ambiguity was supported by a wall-to-wall national consensus. Left and right closed ranks in order to defend the atomic reactor at Dimona.

The policy of all governments was that the public had no right to know about this matter of life and death. The academic establishment also mobilized to defend Dimona and nuclear ambiguity. Writers and researchers praised this policy in glowing terms.

Israel’s whoops of joy over the bombing of the Baghdad reactor in 1981 were as primitive and depraved as the dancing of the brainwashed citizens of India and Pakistan who went out into the streets in an ecstatic daze after their countries conducted nuclear tests.

It is astonishing to what extent the blindness to the nuclear danger afflicts even the circles of the somewhat more radical left. In Israel the various peace movements not only completely neglected the nuclear issue, but many of its members were even counted among the supporters of nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that Israel presented a unique bird to the world peace movement: the nuclear dove.

A cog in the big machine

Here is where Vanunu enters the picture, a man who escaped from the nuclear trap in which the majority of Israel’s citizenry still finds itself. Mordechai Vanunu -- a student at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, a teaching assistant in the philosophy department, a history buff, a music fan, an activist in groups attempting to bring Jews and Arabs closer together and to foster mutual understanding between them -- earned his living as a technician at the atomic reactor in Dimona.

Vanunu was a cog in a big machine. His supervisors were satisfied with his work. He fulfilled his role with dedication and efficiency, without asking questions. In the course of time, to the disgust of the disciples of the nuclear Mafia, Mordechai Vanunu deviated from the consciousness expected of an isolated bolt.

This was the beginning of the crisis. He raised his head, and gradually a terrible picture emerged: He was part of an annihilation machine. He was participating in the preparation of a nuclear holocaust. He began to ask questions: Did the citizenry know what was going on behind the walls of the Dimona reactor? Did they know that Israel was producing atomic bombs in lunatic quantities? Did they know about the accumulating nuclear wastes that endangered the water sources and the land?

Would it not be proper for citizens in Israel and the world to be given reliable information about what was happening? What to do when the Israeli press has no legal possibility, because of the censor’s scalpel, to publish essential information?

Citizen Vanunu thought he had no choice. He had to outfox the government. He managed to sneak a camera inside the reactor, to photograph it and to go abroad with the rolls of film in his possession.

Vanunu traveled the world with information in his backpack that numerous intelligence agencies around the world would have paid a million to obtain. But he did not want to be a spy. He wanted to convey information to the citizens and thus mobilize them to struggle against nuclear weapons. Vanunu met with the editors at the London Sunday Times, a respected newspaper, and conveyed the information to them, without receiving payment. It was an act of principle.

At the beginning of October 1986, the Sunday Times published a report that astonished the world: Israel was a nuclear power on the magnitude of France, Britain and China. A photograph of the internal structure of the reactor, which proved Israel’s ability to produce atom bombs, accompanied the report. Vanunu supplied the proof that Israel possessed in its small territory hundreds of atomic weapons. Israel’s nuclear madness was greater than anyone had guessed.

The Likud-Labor rotation government under the leadership of Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir decided to send a group of “Mossad” agents to Europe to kidnap Vanunu. They succeeded in capturing him in Rome; they bound him in shackles, gave him a shot that put him to sleep and packed him into a naval vessel waiting off the coast of Italy.

We learned about the kidnapping from what was written on Vanunu’s palm, which he displayed from the window of the police van that brought him to court for his trial. Since then he has been transported in completely closed vehicles.

At first the Israeli government denied that Vanunu was in its hands, but when international pressure increased, Israel admitted that Vanunu was in an Israeli prison. Subsequently, the Israeli press began a well-orchestrated campaign -- clearly supported by the Israeli secret service (Shin Bet) -- to discredit and besmirch Vanunu. The newspapers published distorted items of information leaked to them by the Shin Bet without checking or attempting to confirm them. Vanunu’s image was distorted in a way recalling the manner the 1930s Soviet press dealt with defendants in the show trials.

Jail at home

Vanunu’s 1986 trial, held in secret, was a kangaroo court. If the judges had fulfilled their task according to the values of democratic law and human rights, the prosecution’s case should have been dismissed and Vanunu should have been returned to Italy, from where he was kidnapped in violation of international law. The three district court judges, however, and later the three supreme court justices who heard the appeal acted as agents of the Shin Bet.

There is nothing more absurd than to convict a person of espionage for conveying information to the free press. Such a conviction follows legal precedents set by dictatorships like Stalin’s.

It should be noted that two of the judges in Vanunu’s trial, Tzvi Tal in the district court and Dov Levin in the supreme court, were also part of the panel of judges in the case of Ivan Demanjuk, who was accused of genocide. While they convicted Vanunu for obeying the dictates of his conscience in order to save humanity from a nuclear holocaust, Demanjuk was convicted for not acting in accord with the dictates of conscience and not saving human beings from extermination. The judges did not even sense the contradiction.

Perhaps in their trying of Vanunu, they became subject to the syndrome that Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.

Mordechai Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for an act that almost every Israeli journalist participates in during the course of his work. True, Vanunu signed a promise not to reveal information obtained at work. Every state employee signs the same promise, but there is hardly a state employee, high or low, who has not broken this promise in his contact with journalists.

In the situation in which Vanunu found himself, he was forced to violate the law to reveal the government’s negligence and crimes. His transgression is equivalent to driving through a red light while bringing an injured person to the hospital. No reasonable judge would be severe with a driver who did that.

Time does not stand still

Israel’s rulers did not find the draconian punishment of 18 years imprisonment sufficient. The Shin Bet and the prison authorities imposed an additional punishment on Vanunu, absolute solitary confinement. The formal reason, that he needed to be isolated because he possesses secret information, was baseless. Everything Vanunu knew he told to the Sunday Times. Even the story of his kidnapping had been published in detail all over the world.

The solitary confinement was an act of revenge on the Shin Bet’s part, which was unwilling to forgive him for his having succeeded in making a mockery of all the security precautions at the most sensitive location in Israel.

The isolation is, I believe, a cold, calculated move intended to bring about the loss of Vanunu’s sanity. This was a punishment in the style of the intimidation practiced by the Soviet regime, which customarily locked up its political opponents in mental hospitals. The irony of fate is that among the heads of the Israeli government who approved this barbaric punishment were immigrants from the former Soviet Union, such as Natan Sharansky, who himself was a victim of this style of punishment. They, too, have not drawn the proper conclusions with regard to human rights.

As much as he is hated by the citizens of Israel drowning in a sea of nuclear pollution, Vanunu has won admiration and thanks abroad. Since his imprisonment, he has been a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize each year. Vanunu’s ongoing solitary confinement led to an international campaign.

Nobel prize winners, artists, scientists and parliamentarians from New Zealand and Australia, from Japan and Europe, and from the American continent protested his cruel imprisonment. Amnesty International issued a statement that found that the conditions of isolation under which Vanunu was imprisoned for years were “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

In March 1998, 36 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to President Clinton asking him to urge Israel to release Vanunu. A similar effort is gathering signatures in the Senate.

Even if public opinion moves slowly, some changes in the Israeli attitude toward Vanunu have recently become discernible. An increasing number of students are writing academic theses on Vanunu and on the atomic issue. In a number of these, the reader discovers understanding or even support for Vanunu’s act. The play “Mister V,” about Vanunu, also led to a different, more balanced way of looking at the man and his deed.

The ongoing struggle bore fruit when, at the beginning of 1998, after 11 years in solitary confinement, Israel partially relaxed the isolation conditions under which Vanunu was being held. He still is not allowed visits from friends and supporters, but he is allowed contact with other prisoners. We note with satisfaction that despite the barbaric conditions of his imprisonment, Vanunu has not been broken and remains firmly committed to the struggle against atomic weapons.

In 1998, Mordechai Vanunu completed 12 years of his sentence, two-thirds of the term of imprisonment imposed on him. He is entitled to early release. Nonetheless, the Prison Services’ Parole Board rejected his application for release because of the Shin Bet’s opposition.

The nuclear volcano

The international struggle for Mordechai Vanunu’s release continues. So, too, the struggle against nuclear weapons in Israel must continue. As long as Israel possesses a frightening quantity of nuclear bombs, those few people not addicted to the nuclear opium are obligated to enlighten and arouse their fellow citizens and explain to them the risks of the annihilation they can expect if the nuclear volcano erupts on their doorstep. We have to confront the official positions constantly expressed by the entire media -- that the Israeli atomic bomb is Israel’s guarantee of safety against doomsday -- with an arsenal of arguments, both on the level of ethical principles and on the practical level.

On the level of principle, we must emphasize that weapons of mass destruction are inherently immoral. The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 1997 that atomic weapons are illegal. Recent years have been witness to increased international activity on behalf of nuclear disarmament.

Humanity is recognizing that after the use of nuclear weapons, no victors will remain, only losers. But that is not being recognized in Israel. The state whose people were the principal victims of the Nazi Holocaust is today a paradise for the manufacturers of a potential nuclear holocaust. Accordingly, there is no choice left but to prove that, speaking pragmatically, nuclear weapons contribute more to national suicide than they do to national defense.

The existence of the nuclear reactor in Dimona has turned it into a military target. Even if we make the ridiculous assumption that Israel will maintain its atomic monopoly, one cannot dismiss the possibility that in the future a hostile state will manage to acquire new, sophisticated missiles capable of penetrating the defensive walls of the reactor, thus polluting Israel with a radioactive cloud.

Moreover, Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons inevitably means a regional nuclear arms race, which will end with most of the region’s countries in possession of nuclear arms. The more nuclear weaponry proliferates, the greater the danger of its use -- owing to human error or to misinterpretation of the intentions of the other side.

During the Yom Kippur War, Israel declared a nuclear alert, planes armed with nuclear weapons were ready for take-off, and a fearful, macabre atmosphere of the “Third Temple’s destruction” set in, almost bringing Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan to a miscalculation leading to the use of atomic weapons. If that had happened, the Soviet Union would have launched a nuclear counterattack to defend its allies in the Arab world. Israel would have been destroyed.

Vanunu deserves the Isreal Prize

A wise nuclear policy in Israel would require a 180 degree change, including: admitting the existence of nuclear weapons and revealing the number of bombs; ending the production of nuclear weapons; opening the reactor at Dimona to international inspection; calling for a regional conference to discuss a treaty for the gradual elimination of weapons of mass destruction; announcing as a good will gesture the unilateral disarming of 50 atomic bombs. Such a policy change would drastically change the entire atmosphere in the Middle East and would arouse hope for a different future.

The elimination of Israel’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons would be in the category of national salvation. A lifesaver. In the wake of India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests, the Indian author Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) wrote an inspiring article for the Guardian, and I cannot conclude this essay without quoting one or two things Roy said that are extremely relevant to the Israeli case: “If protest against planting nuclear bombs in my brain is anti-national, then I quit. I hereby declare myself a wandering independent republic. I am a citizen of the world. I have no territory. I have no flag. My policy is simple. I am willing to sign any nuclear nonproliferation treaty or any prohibition of nuclear testing. Immigrants are welcome.”

And she also wrote: “Who the hell is the prime minister that he can decide that somebody should put his finger on the nuclear button, which could turn everything we love -- our earth, our skies, our mountains, our plains, our rivers, our cities and villages -- to dust in a moment? Who the hell is the person who promises us no accidents will occur? How does he know? Why should we trust him? What has he ever done that we should trust him? The atomic bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human thing there is that humanity has ever devised -- pure evil. If you are religious, you should remember that this bomb is humanity’s challenge to God, laid down and formulated in the simplest terms: We posses the power to destroy everything God created. If you are not religious, then look at it this way: Our world is 4,600 million years old. It could be brought to an end in one afternoon.”

The name Mordechai Vanunu, as much as it has been pushed aside by the state of Israel, will be engraved in gold letters in human history as one of the most important fighters against nuclear weapons. If we succeed in preventing a nuclear holocaust, then after Israel’s atomic bomb addicts disappear into the black hole of the universe, Vanunu’s story will be told from generation to generation, as an example of sacrifice and determination for the sake of a sane and healthy world, free of weapons of mass destruction.

I believe that if Israel survives the nuclear hallucinations of its rulers and succeeds in entering an era of freedom and humanism, it will award, even if belatedly, Mordechai Vanunu the Israel Prize.

Gideon Spiro is one of the founders of The Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu and for a Middle East Free of Atomic, Biological, and Chemical Weapons. He can be reached at P.O. Box 7323, Jerusalem, Israel.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999