Mordechai Vanunu: Israeli Villain or Hero?
(credit: Radio Canada)
This post was occasioned by a remarkable interview I heard this afternoon on KBCS’ Democracy Now news program (Exclusive: Israeli Nuclear Whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu Risks Jail To Speak to Democracy Now! in First Nat’l U.S. Interview). Yesterday night at around midnight, Amy Goodman conducted a long exclusive interview with Vanunu in which he discussed the entire history of his work within Israel’s nuclear weapons program, his betrayal of Israel through nuclear espionage, his ambush and kidnapping by Israeli agents in Europe, and his subsequent trial and 18-year incarceration in Israeli prisons. What makes this interview even more remarkable is that in granting the interview Vanunu was expressly breaking a key condition of his release–that he not speak to the world media.
Vanunu reveals to the world his kidnapping through a semi-secret gesture (credit: NuclearWeaponArchive.org)
The story of Mordechai Vanunu has everything: political drama, spy skulduggery, moral resistance to authority, moral and possibly sexual betrayal, and treason. Furthermore, Vanunu is either a traitor or a hero depending on your political perspective on nuclear proliferation and the Israeli-Arab conflict. To perhaps 90% of the Israeli populace, he is a hated traitor who was entrusted with one of the most exclusive and respected jobs in Israel: working in Israel’s nuclear reactor complex in Dimona. Instead of honoring his positition, he attempted to steal Israel’s nuclear secrets and possibly betray them to the world or worse, Israel’s enemies.
Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor (credit: NuclearWeaponArchive.org)
To others like myself who take a more measured view, Vanunu is a genuine patriot who saw his responsibility to a higher moral authority than the Israeli government or nation. He understood the havoc that would be wrought upon the Mideast if Israel used these weapons and he also understood how easy it might be to unleash them if Israel’s existence was threatened (as it indeed was during the 1973 War when Israel’s leaders did seriously contemplate nuclear retailiation in the event of an approaching Arab victory). Vanunu saw himself as a citizen of the world, rather than of Israel.
Front page Sunday Times 1986 headline of Vanunu story (credit: Radio Canada)
This is what enrages Israelis. For Israeli society is so insular politically and political debate is so strident and extreme that those who dissent from the national norm are often viewed with extreme hatred. Witness the murderous hostility unleashed upon Yitzchak Rabin (Rabin Rotzeach–“Rabin Murderer” was one of the more elegant, refined slogans unleashed on him) in the months before a misguided right wing zealot took the slogans and turned them into bloody reality.
(credit: Electronic Intifada)
I read with great interest of Vanunu’s recent release from an 18-year Israeli jail sentence. But I was chagrined to hear of the oppressive conditions set for him: no contact with media, no leaving the country, and virtual house arrest. He is still a virtual prisoner even after supposedly paying his debt to society. Such an outcome would never happen in American justice.
I’ve been trying to think of an apt comparison for Vanunu. I thought of Julius Rosenberg, who saw his espionage for the Soviets as act on behalf of a higher moral power. Then I thought of Jonathan Pollard as perhaps a Vanunu in reverse who spied for Israel because he felt special allegiance for the country. I also thought of the Cambridge spies, who rebelled against and rejected the smug insularity and oppressiveness of British society and turned to Russia as the imagined antidote to everything they detested about their mother country. Perhaps there is a bit of all of them in Vanunu.
He is many things and many of them are contradictory. He is an irascible, hot-tempered activist convinced of his own righteousness and contemptuous of the Israeli nation for what it did to him. He makes no attempt to curry favor or persuade his enemies. He makes clear that he detests Israel and Israelis. That’s why he converted to Christianity in what he must’ve imagined would be a terrible insult to Israeli Jews (as indeed it would be). On the other hand, a factor which caused me to admire Vanunu is his Moroccan ancestry. North African Jews tend to be quite hawkish within Israeli politics. So it comes as especially unusual to see such a one turn his back on his people to obey a higher power.
Vanunu is a man of deep convictions. There is a bit of Don Quixote tilting at illusory windmills about him. He is also certainly a thoroughly difficult and probably unlikable human being. But it your country did to you what Israel did to him, you’d hardly blame him.
And lest anyone dismiss Vanunu as a thankless whiner, keep in mind that Vanunu estimates that when he left the Israeli nuclear weapons industry in 1986 the country already had 200 nuclear weapons and was in the process of developing neutron and hydrogen bombs (a project on which he worked).