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Free Vanunu, Too

If we’ve learned anything from Joseph, the hero of this week’s parasha, we must demand justice for Israeli spy Mordechai Vanunu

Liel Leibovitz
November 24, 2010
A 2005 demonstration in support of Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.(Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images)
A 2005 demonstration in support of Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.(Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Gil Troy argued persuasively in Tablet Magazine that Jonathan Pollard, the American Jewish intelligence analyst convicted of espionage for Israel, should be set free. After 24 years in prison, Troy wrote, and with the harmful impact of his acts questionable, it is time for American Jews to overcome their trepidation of supporting Pollard’s release—a trepidation, Troy claimed, born of the community’s fundamental insecurity and overblown fear of appearing more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

Although I harbor no particular sympathies for Pollard and have little tolerance for his heinous crime, I found myself swayed by Troy’s reasoning. Several points in particular appealed, chief among them the opinion of several experts concerning the scope of the damage caused to national security by Pollard’s actions. While Pollard unquestionably jeopardized American interests by handing off classified documents to Israeli operatives, it is nearly impossible to chart the flow of information that pursued—while some in the intelligence community believe that the information Pollard set loose eventually landed in Soviet hands, others state that a number of the breaches attributed to Pollard were actually the work of Aldrich Ames, the CIA double-agent unmasked seven years later. This being the case, Troy wrote, it is strange to see Pollard paying a far steeper price for his actions than others have for comparable misdeeds; the punishment did not fit the crime.

Crime and punishment seem to be this week’s theme. In the weekly parasha we read of Joseph and his cycle of fateful twists: Betrayed by his envious brothers and sold into slavery, he rises to a position of prominence, is wrongfully accused of attempted rape by Potiphar’s scorned wife, wins Pharaoh’s butler his freedom, and watches with dismay as the butler forgets his promises and abandons Joseph to his shackled misery. The story, we all know, has a happy ending, but this week we’re left to ponder its rocky beginning—Joseph, a man with a vision, is harassed, imprisoned, and betrayed by those who are supposed to be his brothers and protectors.

To an extent, this is the story of Jonathan Pollard. But it also the story of another maligned Jewish spy, another man punished beyond necessity or reason, another man deserving, at the very least, of our attention: Mordechai Vanunu.

His story is a complicated one. Born in Morocco to a renowned Marrakech rabbi, he moved to Israel at the age of 9, in 1963, with his parents and several of his 11 siblings. He studied in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and then found a job as a technician at the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, which may or may not be the site of Israel’s nuclear-weapons production.

Nine years later, in 1985, having earned his bachelor’s degree from Be’er Sheva’s Ben Gurion University, Vanunu decided it was time to leave his demanding job. He was growing increasingly critical of Israel’s policies and felt he needed a change of scenery. He traveled to Nepal, where he briefly considered becoming a Buddhist, and then to Australia, where he was eventually drawn to the Anglican Church and converted to Christianity. In Sydney, he also met Peter Hounam, a journalist for the Sunday Times in London, and began telling him about life inside Israel’s top-secret facility. Viewing nuclear weapons as a concrete threat to world peace, and seeing Israel’s leadership as belligerent and untrustworthy, Vanunu wanted to publicize information about Israel’s nuclear capabilities, a direct challenge to the Jewish state’s long-standing policy of deliberate ambiguity on the matter. Eventually, Vanunu followed Hounam to London and provided him with intricate accounts of Israel’s bomb-making process, including some snapshots.

The Times vetted Vanunu’s stories with nuclear experts; they all checked out. But such a vetting process can be time-consuming, and Vanunu became restless. He wanted the information out there as soon as possible and approached other newspapers, including the tabloid Sunday Mirror, owned by media mogul and Parliament member Robert Maxwell. Several credible sources have since argued that Maxwell—who drowned in 1991 after mysteriously falling off his yacht and was subsequently given a stately funeral in Jerusalem—was an informer for the Mossad and that he alerted his superiors as soon as he learned of Vanunu’s existence. Whatever the case may be, the Israelis were soon on Vanunu’s track.

After toying with the possibility of assassinating Vanunu—in explaining why he had rejected that option, the former head of the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, said, “Jews don’t do that to other Jews”—the Mossad decided to kidnap Vanunu and take him back to Israel. To avoid upsetting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the organization engaged the services of Cheryl Bentov—codename Cindy—a blonde, American-born agent who lured Vanunu to Rome, where he was jumped, drugged, and thrown in a freighter headed for Israel. There, he faced a secret trial and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. His appeals for parole were all denied, often under ludicrous pretexts; in 2003, for example, lawyers for the state argued that if Vanunu was released, the Americans, then on the cusp of war with Iraq, would abandon their quest to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and target Israel’s instead. In April of 2004, having served his full sentence, Vanunu was released.

His ordeal, however, was far from over. The terms of his release are draconian: He is forbidden from using telephones or the Internet, forbidden from approaching foreign embassies, forbidden from leaving Israel. He has also repeatedly been arrested for various infractions—some real, some imagined—often on symbolic dates, including two arrests on two separate Christmas Eves. European governments and international human-rights organizations continue to lobby on his behalf.

Like Jonathan Pollard, Vanunu took a harmful and objectionable path to serve his ideological convictions. Like Pollard, he paid the price for his transgressions. Like Pollard—at least, if we support Gil Troy’s argument—he continues to be needlessly punished. For one thing, whatever secrets Vanunu might have known date to 1985, the last time he’d had any access to his former place of work. One hopes that if Israel is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons it had the wherewithal, sometime in the past quarter of a century, to refresh its technologies and update its methods. In addition, whatever information Vanunu does possess was already conveyed to the media in full, both before his arrest and in the occasional illicit interview after his release. At this point, he has nothing new to say.

Why, then, does Israel continue to insist on curbing the freedoms of a man who’s paid his debt to society in full? The most likely explanation is that Vanunu, now a cause célèbre, is capable of damaging not Israel’s security but its image, asking, for example, why the United States continues to provide Israel with more than $2 billion in military aid per year despite an American ban on funding countries that proliferate weapons of mass destruction. Like Pollard, Vanunu is more of an embarrassment than a threat.

If we insist on finding a silver lining in the sordid stories of these two men, Vanunu and Pollard, we might do well to think of Joseph, another principled man who enraged everyone he’d ever met and who inspired perfidy and hard-heartedness in strangers and siblings alike.

But Joseph prevailed, and if we believe Pollard should too, then we must consider the case of Vanunu. Just last month, the International League for Human Rights—a group headed by Robert Arsenault, a former director of congressional relations for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews—awarded Vanunu the Carl von Ossietzky Medal, named after a German pacifist imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935. A host of Nobel laureates, including Mairead Maguire and Günther Grass, called on Israel to allow Vanunu to fly to Berlin to attend the prize ceremony, scheduled for December 12. If we’ve learned anything from the stories of Joseph and Jonathan Pollard, we must join in their call.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.