Real lives -Our son, the rebel
As he approaches the end of his 18-year jail sentence for exposing Israel's
nuclear secrets, Mordechai Vanunu is still full of rage and refusing to be
silenced. Suzanne Goldenberg meets the American couple who adopted him so
they could meet him in prison
Wednesday June 5, 2002
He won't sit down to lunch on time. He won't shake the hand of an old legal
acquaintance. And he won't let his dad admonish him for that rudeness. It
is, at times, exasperating to be the adoptive parents of a 47-year-old
rebel, particularly when your son is Mordechai Vanunu, now in his 16th year
of imprisonment for exposing Israel's secret nuclear programme.
The years have seen a world of changes since Vanunu was convicted of treason
and sentenced to 18 years in Israel's highest-security prison. In 1986, the
former technician at the desert plant near the town of Dimona leaked
photographs of and information about Israel's nuclear facilities to the
Sunday Times, destroying Israel's policy of "nuclear ambiguity". Using his
pictures and testimony, nuclear experts estimated that Israel had the
world's sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons - about 200 warheads.
Israel's revenge was swift. Vanunu was lured from Britain to Italy by a
female Mossad agent, kidnapped, drugged, put on a ship to Israel, and tried
in a secret court. His first 11 years were spent in solitary confinement in
a tiny cell, with a canvas cover over the window to shut out the tiniest
glimpse of grass or trees.
Since then, the Soviet empire has withered and died. The cold war has ended,
and America and Russia agreed this month to scrap thousands of nuclear
warheads. Israel has seen one Palestinian uprising and seven years of peace,
and is now in the midst of a second intifada. The Dimona nuclear plant is
still not open to international inspection.
Vanunu remains locked inside the squat, dull yellow blocks of the Shikma
prison at Ashkelon, with two more years to go until his release in April
2004. Most Israelis had probably forgotten his existence until a photograph,
the first newly recorded image of Vanunu in three years, appeared in
newspapers last month. But while public anger towards Vanunu has been lost
in the passions of the intifada, his blood relatives cannot forgive him.
Vanunu's parents, who brought their family to Israel from Marrakech in 1961,
are orthodox Jews, as are most of his seven brothers and sisters, and the
family disowned him for converting to Christianity. He became an Anglican in
Australia in 1985. That is where Nick and Mary Eoloff stepped in.
At 12.30pm on a hot summer day, the couple appear at the entrance of Shikma,
peering through the bars of the electronic gate before a guard arrives with
the key to set them free. The Eoloffs, a tall, angular couple in their 70s
from the American midwest, are on a small list of people who are allowed to
visit Vanunu, which consists of his lawyer and members of his immediate
family. Improbable as it may seem, the Eoloffs count as family members as
they legally adopted Vanunu in 1997. Radical Catholics from St Paul,
Minnesota, they had read about Vanunu and joined the international campaign
to win his release, writing to their congressmen and senators. When that did
not work, the Eoloffs - who already had six grown-up children - seized on
the idea of adoption, imagining that it would allow Vanunu to be transferred
to a prison in the US. It did not, and so, twice a year, the elderly couple
make the long journey to Israel for their prison visits.
On their May 14 visit, they found Vanunu in good form. He was tanned, had
put some weight on his rangy form, and had shed his usual guardedness,
producing two bags of candy for the Eoloffs' grandchildren.
The couple were warned that the visit would be cancelled if they raised any
taboo topics: the kidnapping, nuclear weapons, the Dimona plant. A prison
social worker took notes of the entire conversation, but Vanunu remained
calm. Two hours later, he walked the Eoloffs down the corridor, stopping at
the red line on the floor that prisoners are not allowed to cross. "He was
very upbeat," says Mary. "He felt very positive." For the first time in
their four years of acquaintance, he made a point of thanking the Eoloffs
for visiting, and asked about the rest of the family.
Otherwise, Vanunu's whole being as he enters the home stretch of his
confinement is devoted to small acts of defiance, fuelled by a powerful
rage. I put some questions to the Eoloffs for Vanunu, and the answers come
back, full of conviction and anger. He tells them that he still believes it
was worth 18 years of his life to expose Israel's nuclear secrets, and that
he will resist Israel's efforts to muzzle him.
That bitterness informs even the smallest of decisions inside Shikma,
confining Vanunu in another prison of his own making. He refuses to initiate
conversations with guards, insists on reading newspapers in English - not
Hebrew - and will only listen to the BBC. He refuses to work or have a
social worker, and won't eat lunch when it is served, the Eoloffs say,
because he wants to maintain at least a tiny portion of his life that is not
under Israeli control.
Vanunu was denied parole because he refused to promise that he would never
speak about his kidnapping and jail ordeal, or the desert reactor. "He is
the most stubborn, principled and tough person I have ever met," says his
lawyer, Avigdor Feldman.
Vanunu watches his diet carefully, refusing eggs because he is worried about
cholesterol. He walks the corridors of the jail for up to four hours a day,
retiring to his cell in the afternoon to write letters, listen to opera, or
watch movies on video, most recently the film Entrapment. He does not have a
computer because he refused to agree to turn over the hard drive to the
authorities on his release.
"He is bored out of his tree," says Mary. He used to read and read and read,
and that was how he maintained his sanity. Now he just walks and walks and
listens to the radio. The days are very long. He is very very angry with the
Israeli government and says he is not going to be a part of this system in
Then there are the running legal battles, and Vanunu's plans for the future.
Last month he attended a closed hearing at the supreme court in Jerusalem to
stop two Israeli journalists including him in their book about Israeli
espionage. He has been denied permission to view the entire transcript of
his trial on security grounds, although sections have been published in the
Israeli press. And he has been denied permission to meet two British lawyers
who have been trying for five years to visit him - to pursue a case against
the British government for its failure to protect him from the Mossad agent
who lured him to Italy.
But most pressing of all, as far as Vanunu is concerned, are the
preparations for his release. He is finally due to walk out of Shikma in
April 2004, and Feldman has started applying for a passport so that he can
travel, perhaps to settle in the US or to begin a new life lecturing on the
dangers of nuclear weapons.
Although his release cannot be legally prevented, there are fears that he
will never be permitted to leave Israel, a country he now despises. "When I
asked him what he thought he had accomplished," says Mary, "he said the
major thing was the need for freedom of speech, and he insisted he would not
promise not to speak about anything once he got out."